19-year-old Finnegan Elder and 18-year-old Gabriel Natale Hjorth, two graduates from Tamalpais High School’s class of 2018, were accused of slaying 35-year-old Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega earlier this weekend. Now, those close to the vacationing duo are speaking out.
"I'm going to faint. I've known 'Fin' since he was born,” said one of Elder’s visibly shocked neighbors, Gloria Keeley, speaking to ABC 7. “He was one of the nicest guys and neighbors I have ever met," said Keeley.
Per the Associated Press, the two traveling Americans stole a bag from an unnamed third party who was said to be a drug dealer, because the man reportedly sold them a different substance than the two thought they were purchasing. Later the man, now without his backpack, reported Elder and Hjorth to Rome police—and that’s when things took an unfortunate turn for the worse.
The AP noted that during their confrontation — which came to a head when Rega and his partner began using force to retrieve the man's stolen bag, containing just a cell phone and nominal amount of money — Rega, a member of the Carabinieri paramilitary corps, was stabbed eight times by one of the teens. Italian police also stated that the boys were “[not shy] about engaging in a physical altercation.”
"We write as a family to express our deepest condolences to the grieving family and community that loved Brigadier Cerciello Rega, we are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but have very little independent information about these events,” say the Elder Family in an attributed media statement. “We have not been able to have any communication with our son. We ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time. Our thoughts are with all of those who have been impacted by this tragedy."
Italian law enforcement found the Americans in their hotel room at Le Méridien Visconti, keen on leaving Italy ASAP, shortly after Rega was taken to the hospital for his wounds. Police have gone on record to say they secured the precieved murder weapon, a large knife, within the confines of Elder and Hjorth’s hotel room, placed behind a ceiling panel.
Hjorth, however, is described in written statements from participating investigators as having repeatedly punched Cerciello Rega's partner, but not stabbing Rega, himself.
Per Italian law, individuals participating in a killing, even if they don’t actually carry out the slaying itself, are still at risk being charged with murder; Fin and Hjorth, too, are also being investigated for “attempted extortion.”
"It's crazy to hear it happened to people from my high school, didn't expect that," said graduate Charlie Lupenow to ABC 7, as well. He and his friends, like Matt Kearney, knew Hjorth from their time in high school.
”I always saw him as a bit sketchy, but nothing this bad," added Kearney.
As of Sunday, the Fin and Hjorth remain in custody, with a formal hearing likely scheduled this coming week; a lawyer representing one of the teenagers was spotted arriving at the Rome jail where both boys are currently held.