An appeals court in Rome has reduced the sentences of two young men from the Bay Area who were convicted last year in the July 2019 killing of a Roman Carabinieri (policeman), but both will still serve over 20 years in prison.
It was both surprising and not last May when a criminal court in Rome handed down convictions with life sentences for both Gabriel Natale-Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder, after the pair were charged in the stabbing death of 35-year-old Carabinieri Mario Cerciello Rega. The story was complicated, but they nonetheless came across to the court as American ne'er-do-wells out partying in Rome, seeking out drugs, and then killing a police officer who had come to arrest them.
Last month, their appeal began, and it was happening amid a bit of PR scandal for the Carabinieri, after it had come to light that officers had shared a slew of messages between themselves after Rega's death with fantasies of violent, torturous deaths for the American culprits.
As ABC 7 reporter Dan Noyes reports, Elder, now 22, and Natale-Hjorth, now 21, won less harsh sentences on Thursday from an Italian appeals court, but they will still seek a second appeal, as allowed in the Italian system. Elder, who carried the knife and did the actual stabbing — as he admits — received a new sentence of 24 years in prison. Natale-Hjorth received a new sentence of 22 years. Still, this would mean their misadventure in Rome, in which they killed a man who they say they thought was a drug dealer's heavy and not a policeman, would keep them in an Italian prison until they are 43 and 40 years old, respectively.
Per ABC 7, Elder addressed the court in Italian before deliberations began in the appeal, saying, "At 22 years of age and with three years in prison, I had much time to reflect,'' and he added that he felt "remorse for the pain I caused" and for the "endless mourning" suffered by Rega's widow and family.
As Noyes previously reported in an extensive February 2020 report on the case, Elder was visiting his high school friend Natale-Hjorth that July when this tragedy took place — Natale-Hjorth spoke fluent Italian and spent his summers growing up with his father's family on coast of Italy, and he had traveled to Rome to party with his friend who flew in.
Elder attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco before transferring to Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, following a violent incident with classmate in Stern Grove that left the other boy with a traumatic brain injury. That was where he met and befriended Natale-Hjorth. Both had graduated (Elder left early and took the GRE) and had just finished a year in college — Natale-Hjorth in Santa Barbara and Elder at a junior college in San Diego — when Elder decided to take a solo trip to meet up with his friend in Rome after traveling in Germany.
The pair had only been in Rome one day when, after going out drinking and deciding to find cocaine, they set out on a fateful series of actions at one in the morning that will change their lives forever. Essentially, there's a drug deal that gets interrupted by police, because the dealer has turned into a police informant, and the boys end up running off with the backpack belonging to the dealer's mediator, believing they've been robbed of 80 euros. The mediator then cooperates with the police and asks for help getting his backpack returned, and they arrange to assist after he calls his own cellphone and summons the American boys back out — they had gone to their hotel room at this point.
They arrive back in the nightlife district only to be confronted by two plainclothed cops who they say never identified themselves as cops — Rega's partner disputes this part. A 30-second scuffle ensues, and Elder ends up stabbing Rega multiple times with a large hunting knife he's brought along for protection.
In part due to delays getting him to the hospital, Rega dies from his wounds. The two Americans were arrested the next day, and the rest is history. They have been in Italian jail cells ever since, and were put on trial last spring, following pandemic-related delays.
During the appeal, a defense attorney for Natale-Hjorth reportedly argued that his client did not even see the stabbing occur, had not participated in planning it, and could not have known it would occur.
Natale-Hjorth had originally testified that he had participated in the scuffle with Rega and his partner, and that he had helped Elder in the attempt to hide the murder weapon in their hotel room that night.
Top image: Snapchat images from Natale-Hjorth's phone that were part of a Carabinieri report on the incident