Two Americans charged with aggravated murder and extortion in the stabbing death of an Italian police officer last July went on trial Wednesday in Rome, claiming self-defense.
Finnegan Elder, now 20, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, now 19, say Italian paramilitary officer Mario Cerciello Rega and his partner threw the first punches in a 32-second scuffle that ended in Rega’s death July 26. Both officers were working in plainclothes.
The presiding judge, Maria Sabina Calabretta, heard from scores of legal representatives in the hourslong trial to determine what evidence would be introduced. In Italy, criminal trials allow civil parties to participate, meaning they can offer evidence and cross-examine suspects and other witnesses.
Among those Calabretta allowed as civil plaintiffs for the upcoming trial is the widow of the officer, Rosa Maria Rega, who will be allowed to defend her dead husband’s honor, which has been called into question over the handling of the attempted arrest of the Americans.
Calabretta also allowed Italy’s defense and interior ministries to participate because Rega, 35, was part of the paramilitary police force.
Elder has confessed to stabbing Rega in what he now says was self-defense after a drug deal set up by interloper Sergio Brugiatelli went wrong. He and Natale Hjorth say they were sold crushed aspirin for $80 instead of a gram of cocaine in the Trastevere district of Rome, and when they found out they had been duped, they went back to steal Brugiatelli’s bag.
Brugiatelli called police to report his stolen bag. They first told him to go to a police station, but then he called his phone still inside the bag, and the Americans allegedly demanded money and real cocaine for its return. After Brugiatelli called the police again, Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, intervened on his behalf and met the Americans.
Brugiatelli was also admitted as a civil plaintiff in the trial.
The Americans say that when they arrived at the rendezvous point to exchange the bag for cash and cocaine, Rega and Varriale did not identify themselves and instead jumped them “mob-like,” according to attorney Craig Peters.
Varriale, the only material witness, says they did, but that the Americans attacked first.
Rega, who weighed about 100 pounds more than Elder, bled to death from 11 wounds on his sides and back made by Elder’s 7-inch military-grade knife. Elder’s defense team argues that there would be wounds on the Rega’s chest had Elder attacked first.
Natale Hjorth claims he did not know his friend was carrying the knife. It was later found in the ceiling tile of the hotel room they shared the night before the murder.
After the attack, Varriale called for help but the ambulance took 15 minutes to arrive. Rega later died in hospital. His official cause of death is blood loss. The Americans’ defense teams argue that had the ambulance been timelier, he would have survived.
Varriale, who was also in court Wednesday, is under administrative leave from the force for lying to his superiors about having his weapon. He originally told supervisors that while Rega forgot his weapon that day, he had his. He also initially told investigators that the two attackers were North Africans.
Varriale’s superior, Cmdr. Sandro Ottaviani, is on administrative leave for lying to his own supervisors when he told them that Varriale gave him his service weapon at the hospital after the stabbing.
Police later confirmed that neither Rega nor Varriale had weapons or handcuffs and that Rega did not have his badge on him when they met the Americans. The officers also did not update their location with their central command, and did not have a car or backup even though it was a drug-related call, according to police documents related to the case and obtained by CNN.
Two other police officers, Fabio Manganaro and Silvio Pellegrini, are on administrative leave for blindfolding Natale Hjorth during his initial interrogation, taking a photo of the act and leaking it to the media.
Elder’s attorneys asked for a technical expert to examine and retranslate surveillance tapes taken on three dates in August and September as Elder, his lawyer and parents met in a private visitors room in the prison in Rome. The tapes were translated into Italian and leaked to the media, and indicated Elder told his lawyer and family that he knew Rega was a police officer. Elder’s defense team argues the translation was inaccurate and that he said he did not know Rega was an officer.
Natale Hjorth’s defense asked for the video of him blindfolded while in custody and other material surrounding that event.
Peters, Elder’s American lawyer, issued a statement on behalf of his parents, Leah and Ethan Elder, after the hearing. “We are grateful that this process is finally moving forward and we hope that this trial can stay focused on the facts of what happened that night. We look forward to the truth coming out, and to Finn coming home.”
The next hearing is scheduled for March 9.