ROME (AP) - A plainclothes police officer had forgotten his gun the night he was fatally stabbed during a confrontation with two American teenagers in Rome, an Italian police commander said Tuesday.
Gen. Francesco Gargaro of Italy’s paramilitary Carabinieri police force said that even if the officer had been armed, he would not have had time to draw his weapon before he was mortally wounded with a military-style knife.
During a news conference, the commander provided some of the first details about the encounter early Friday in which Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, was knifed 11 times.
Cerciello Riga and a partner, Andrea Varriale, were assigned to respond to an extortion attempt involving a failed drug deal, Gargaro said. Thieves had demanded money and cocaine in exchange for returning a stolen backpack, he said.
The officers were in plainclothes and identified themselves as Carabinieri as they approached two suspects, but were immediately attacked, Gargaro said.
Asked why Cerciello Rega didn’t pull his gun, Gargaro said the officer had “forgotten” his weapon after being asked to work on a scheduled day off.
“In any case, there was no time to use it,” Gargaro said.
Other officers were unaware Cerciello Rega didn’t have his gun with him when he set out on what would be a fatal assignment, police said.
“He is the only one who knows why he didn’t have it with him,” Gargaro said.
The two suspects from California, Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, were detained in the officer’s slaying hours later. Police have said Elder is suspected of being the one who stabbed Cerciello Rega while Natale-Hjorth is suspected of assaulting the other officer.
Varriale did have his gun, but after Natale-Hjorth stopped punching and scratching and ran off, the officer turned his attention to his wounded partner, Gargaro said.
The general also stressed that under Italian law it is illegal to fire at a fleeing suspect. If he had done so, Varriale “would have been under investigation for a grave crime.”
A judge who approved the jailing of the two suspects Saturday said there were “grave” indications the Americans were responsible for the Carabinieri officer’s death.
According to the judge’s written ruling, Elder and Natale-Hjorth allegedly paid a dealer for cocaine but didn’t get the drug before the approach of police officers interrupted the deal.
Investigators said the two then snatched and ran off with the knapsack of the Italian man who put them in contact with the dealer.
Police said when the intermediary, Sergio Brugiatelli, called the cellphone in the stolen backpack, the teens told him they would return the bag in exchange for 100 euros ($112) and a gram of cocaine.
Brugiatelli reported the demand to police and set up a meeting with the teens. It was Cerciello Rega and Varriale who went to the rendezvous point.
Varriale recounted later that they identified themselves as Carabinieri and showed their badges but were attacked right away, Judge Chiara Gallo wrote in her ruling upholding the detention. The teen suspects told investigators they did not know the two men who showed up to meet them were police officers, the judge said.
During his interrogation, Elder told authorities he stabbed Cerciello Rega because he feared he was being strangled, the judge said while noting in her ruling the teen didn’t have any marks on his neck.
The two graduated from the same high school north of San Francisco in 2018. Both had just finished a first year at different community colleges in Southern California.
Elder has no criminal record but his uncle, Sean Elder, acknowledged his nephew was arrested as a juvenile.
Sean Elder told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his nephew took part in organized “fight nights” at a popular San Francisco park where high school boys brawled. Elder said the events were well-known and “apparently resulted in many injuries.”
According to San Francisco police, at about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 30, 2016, they were called to a hospital where a 16-year-old boy was reported in surgery following an aggravated assault. Sean Elder acknowledged his nephew was arrested following a “fight between two boys in a public place.”
“The young men squared off with one another in a mutual challenge,” he said. “Unfortunately, the other boy tripped and fell backwards during the fight, injuring his head accidentally. The incident was tragic and unfortunate, but did not involve drugs, or weapons.”
Since he was a juvenile, no public information is available about Elder’s criminal case.
Elder’s family has said he was on his first solo trip to Europe and went to meet his friend in Rome because Natale-Hjorth had relatives there. The Italian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Natale-Hjorth, whose father is Italian, has Italian citizenship as well as American.
After Cerciello Rega’s died at a hospital, officers tracked the Americans to their hotel room and reported finding the alleged weapon, an 18-centimeter-long (7 inches) military-style attack knife, hidden in the room’s drop ceiling.
Elder told police he brought the knife with him from the United States a few days earlier, investigators said on Tuesday. But he and Natale-Hjorth gave investigators conflicting statements about the weapon, according to Judge Gallo.
Elder reported that Natale-Hjorth hid the knife in the hotel room, while Natale-Hjorth said he didn’t even know about a stabbing until his friend woke him hours later and told him he had “used a knife” and then washed it.
Prosecutor Nunzia D’Elia, who interrogated the pair Friday, said both exhibited apparent difficulty in grasping the gravity of the situation.
“One of them said, ‘Is he really dead? Dead, dead?” D’Elia told journalists, going on to identify the speaker as Natale-Hjorth.
But the two were “lucid and able to recount” their versions of events during hours of questioning, despite telling authorities they drank beer and shots of liquor that night, D’Elia said.
Prosecutors said the teens were informed of their rights, and defense lawyers and English-speaking interpreters were present during the recorded interrogations.
The young Americans’ treatment by authorities in Rome became an issue Sunday after Italian newspapers published a photograph of Natale-Hjorth sitting in a police department room with his eyes blindfolded and his hands cuffed behind his back.
Prosecutor Michele Prestipino said the blindfolding - a violation of Italian law - was being investigated to determine which Carabinieri officer was responsible for it and how the photo was leaked to the newspapers.
Authorities allowed Natale-Hjorth to confer privately with a lawyer before prosecutors interrogated him, Prestipino added.
Elder was never blindfolded after he was taken into custody, Gargaro said.
In Italy, authorities are supposed to respect the dignity of criminal suspects. For example, when suspects are taken in handcuffs to a police station, it is standard practice to cover their bound wrists so they aren’t visible to news photographers.
Amanda Knox, an American who was convicted but ultimately acquitted of the 2007 slaying of her British housemate in Italy, tweeted that she was getting a lot of questions about the current.
“All I can say is: I’m withholding judgment,” said Knox, whose closely watched case received sensational and exhaustive news coverage. “It should be tried in the court of law, not the court of public opinion.”
AP reporters Janie Har and Samantha Maldonado in San Francisco and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report
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