ROME, Italy—When 19-year-old Finnegan Elder and 18-year-old Gabe Natale Hjorth were first met by two undercover police officers with Italy’s military Carabinieri police force on a dark street near the Vatican in Rome, they thought they were about to get jumped.
According to a 14-page document from the investigating judge, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, the two Americans had earlier approached Sergio Brugiatelli, a layabout who can always be found on Piazza Mastei in Rome's Trastevere district, for cocaine. Brugiatelli pointed them to a pusher.
The Americans allegedly thought they were buying cocaine, but when their €100 purchase ended up being crushed aspirin, they returned and stole Brugiatelli's backpack in revenge. Brugiatelli called his phone, which rang from inside the stolen backpack, and they set up a plan to meet and exchange the bag for €100 and a gram of cocaine.
The document states that Elder’s and Natale Hjorth’s stories sync about the drug deal, the stolen backpack, and the plan to meet Brugiatelli. Then, things diverge.
Natale Hjorth, who is a dual American-Italian citizen, though he has never lived in Italy, says he had no idea Elder was carrying a knife when they went to meet who they thought would be Brugiatelli. But Elder says they had both agreed to take it with them "just in case."
Police say that given the size of the weapon they doubt that Natale Hjorth could have missed the fact his friend had it on him. Elder also accuses his friend of finding the drug connection based on friends he knows from Natale Hjorth’s summers visiting his grandfather in Italy. Natale Hjorth instead claims the drug buy was all his friend’s idea.
After the Americans stole the backpack and arrived at the meeting place, just half a block from the hotel near the Vatican where they were staying, they were met by Mario Cerciello Rega and Andrea Varriale, two undercover police officers with Italy's elite military Carabinieri who were both unarmed and without backup.
The Americans tell police they thought Brugiatelli sent someone to beat them up, so a scuffle broke out and Rega ended up dead from 11 stab wounds, allegedly from Elder’s military grade trench knife that he brought with him from the U.S. Police have confirmed to The Daily Beast that when Elder was shown the murder weapon, he allegedly said it was his.
Rega was fatally stabbed, allegedly by Elder, and Varriale suffered minor wounds, allegedly inflicted by Natale Hjorth. The two were arrested in their hotel room on Friday, after police say they found the hidden weapon and their bloody clothes behind a ceiling tile.
According to the investigating judge's report, Varriale says that he and his partner identified themselves as "carabinieri," a term for military police in civil law enforcement, or gendarmes, that it is unlikely either American understood. Elder told police that the plainclothes men did not show a badge, and that he had no idea they were cops. The police were also unarmed and did not have back-up, which has raised eyebrows in Rome and questions about whether the cops were on official duty or not.
Elder says Rega put his hands on his neck, and he acted in self defense, fearful he was about to be attacked.
Varriale says the last words his partner said were, “Help! They are killing me.” He died a short time later in the emergency room.
Photos leaked to Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera show Natale Hjorth blindfolded in police custody, which is against Italian law. The local police have opened an internal investigation not only into why the young American was blindfolded, but who leaked the photo. Preliminary reports from that internal investigation are that nothing improper happened and that the officer who placed the blindfold on Natale Hjorth has been reassigned. It is yet unclear who took the photo.
But new information reported late Monday in Rome suggests that while the heinous crime is inexcusable, there are extenuating factors. Brugiatelli, it is now known, called the police about his stolen bag an hour after he had already met Varriale in Piazza Mastei. In audio of the emergency call, heard by The Daily Beast, Brugiatelli does not identify the alleged thieves at all, neither to call them foreigners, nor to say they were not Italian speakers, nor to describe what they were wearing. The police instead are thought to have sent high-level officers to the scene, which is curious indeed, since the standard practice for stolen personal items is to go to the nearest police office to file a report in person.
Nonetheless, the two undercover officers arrived at the meeting point with the Americans to get Brugiatelli's bag back. Carabinieri officials did not answer a Daily Beast question about proof that they were dispatched officially. A number of sources have suggested to The Daily Beast that Brugiatelli was perhaps a police informant and the officers may have said they would rough up the Americans to get the bag back as a favor.
Elder’s mother, Leah Elder, has spoken to The Daily Beast by phone. Most of what she has shared to date is off the record, but she did say she is concerned that her son is not getting the medical attention he needs. He was on prescription Xanax, and police say the medication was found in his room.
Elder also says her son was denied access to U.S. consulate officials for the first 48 hours and given a court-appointed lawyer who did not speak English, possibly hindering his defense. One might not be surprised at such treatment of suspects thought to be cop killers, though such treatment is illegal.
Late Monday, the Elder family confirmed to The Daily Beast that their son had finally been able to talk to American officials who are now working to change their son's lawyer to one selected by his family. They also say he is finally getting medical care.
Meanwhile Emiliano Sisinni, the lawyer for Natale Hjorth, issued his own statement, accusing the police of maltreatment for the blindfolding of his client. “I can only express strong regret and concern, both as a lawyer and as a citizen, about what occurred in the Carabinieri barracks to the detriment of my client,” he said, setting up an obvious defense for a coerced confession. “That a suspect is subjected to such treatment in the phase preceding the interrogation must seriously reflect on the implications that this could have on the free self-determination of a suspect in making statements.”
He also goes on to say that his client cannot be blamed for the actions of his friend. “As noted during his interrogation Mr. Natale has clarified his position, which is completely extraneous to the unpredictable conduct of others which led to the death of a servant of the state.”
On Monday, Rega was laid to rest in the town of Somma Vesuviana on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius near Naples. His funeral was held in the same church where he was married just 40 days earlier. The same people who came to the church to celebrate his wedding were there on Monday to bid their final farewell.
Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister and head of the country's security forces, has called for life sentences and hard labor for the Americans. He said that the photo of the blindfolded suspect should not be a distraction and that the only victim is Rega. When Salvini left the church behind Rega's flower-laden coffin, townspeople chanted “Justice for Mario” in support.
Elder’s mother says her son had been on a European holiday in Germany and Spain before flying to Rome to catch up with his high-school friend Natale Hjorth, who was visiting his paternal grandfather in the city of Fiumicino near Rome. The two came to Rome for a few days of fun. But they may end up staying the rest of their lives.