Graphic courtroom testimony caused emotional outbursts in Rome, but the two NorCal youngsters accused of killing an Italian cop have an emerging defense of a police cover-up.
SFist has often used the term “teen” to describe the two 2018 Mount Tamalpais High graduates arrested in July 2019 for the alleged murder of Italian police officer Mario Cerciello, over a cocaine deal that went very, very badly. But we can’t really call them “teens” anymore, as the year-long saga has now gone on to the point where accused stabber Finnegan Lee Elder is 20 years old, while Gabriel Natale Hjorth (who allegedly hid the knife used to kill Cerciello, which under Italian law makes you guilty of homicide) is still 19. The two claim self-defense as they insist they didn’t know they were in an altercation with police, and their trial started in February, though was delayed as COVID-19 ravaged that country. And KPIX reports that police testimony and recordings submitted today were so dramatic that the judge ended proceedings when Cerciello’s father-in-law “collapsed in the courtroom” as Cerciello’s widow sobbed loudly.
They were, after all, hearing a recording of Cerciello grasping for life as he slowly died from 11 stab wounds. The altercation had its roots earlier in that July 2019 day when the NorCal duo got scammed by a cocaine dealer and were apparently sold fake powder, though managed to steal the dealer’s backpack, and a meetup where the parties were supposed to square up was infiltrated by the two plainclothes police, and resulted in Cerciello’s fatal stabbing.
The other officer, Andrea Varriale, testified earlier today the two Americans attacked them immediately. “I didn’t even get to say ‘What’s your name?” when [Natale Hjorth] grabbed me, we went down, we rolled, in a kind of funny way, on the ground,” Varriale said. He insists that Cerciello did yell “Stop! Carabinieri!” (the name of an Italian police force), and added that at one point, “I looked to the left, Mario was on his feet, swaying. ‘They stabbed me, they stabbed me,’” and that “I saw the blood coming out like a fountain to the ground.”
Yet the defense has found a few holes and suspicious circumstances around the officers’ stories — namely, that the dealer who sold the fake coke was a police informant, which is why the police were so keen on making sure he was protected. Italian news source The Local reports that the dealer “was a police source [who] could answer many questions surrounding the case, including why Cerciello and Varriale left their designated patrol area, without informing central command, to track down the two young Americans.” The fact that dealer was a police source was not disclosed until the trial. There’s also the highly inconvenient matter that Natale Hjorth was blindfolded and videotaped in custody, a pretty egregious violation of protocol for which Varriale is separately on trial.
The national and international media, as you’d expect, are going pretty sensationalist on this one. Fox News is highlighting Elder’s claim that he was “beaten, spat on by police,” while the Daily Beast’s thoughtful piece “Will American Cop-Killing Kids in Italy Go Free?” points out that an illegally leaked jailhouse visit recording contains Elder admitting he knew the pair were police. While that does incriminate him, it also incriminates the police force for illegally recording a witness.
If found guilty, both Elder and Natale Hjorth face life in prison.