(LONDON) — The fathers of two American teenagers detained in Rome have visited their sons for the first time since the teens were accused of killing an Italian police officer.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, remain jailed in the Italian capital on suspicion of attempted extortion and aggravated murder in connection to the fatal stabbing of Mario Cerciello Rega, a 35-year-old deputy brigadier in Italy’s Carabinieri paramilitary police force. The two teens are accused of attacking Cerciello Rega and his partner on a street corner in Rome in the early morning hours of July 26 after a botched drug deal.
Natale-Hjorth’s father said he visited his son at Rome’s Regina Coeli prison on Wednesday morning and described the meeting as “very emotional but also very hard for both of us,” according to a statement issued through a lawyer for the family.
“Gabriel is distraught by what happened and cannot come to terms with it,” Fabrizio Natale said in the statement. “We are deeply upset by his predicament, while at the same time fully convinced of his innocence.”
Investigators have alleged that Elder and Natale-Hjorth, who are both U.S. citizens and residents of Northern California, were trying to buy drugs in Rome before the slaying, but were sold a fake substance, an Italian police spokesman told ABC News.
They are accused of then robbing a man who had directed them to the drug dealer in the first place, stealing his backpack and demanding he pay them 100 euros and a gram of cocaine to get it back. The man agreed but, unbeknownst to Elder and Natale-Hjorth, he also contacted authorities, according to the police spokesman.
Cerciello Rega, who had just returned to duty from his honeymoon, responded to the call with his partner at around 3 a.m. local time. Both officers were in plainclothes when they confronted the suspects on a street near an upscale hotel in Rome where the teens were staying.
A scuffle ensued and Elder allegedly stabbed Cerciello Rega 11 times, while Natale-Hjorth allegedly punched Cerciello Rega’s partner repeatedly, according to police reports made public on Saturday. Elder allegedly used a 7-inch fix-blade combat knife during the four-minute encounter, according to a court document leaked to media outlets and obtained by ABC News.
Police say Elder and Natale-Hjorth were captured on surveillance video fleeing the scene with the stolen backpack. The duo were tracked down at their hotel, a block away from the scene and near Rome’s Tiber River, police said.
Investigators also claim that they discovered a knife believed to be the murder weapon and blood-soaked clothes hidden in the ceiling of the teens’ hotel room, police said.
A coroner concluded that Cerciello Rega bled to death, according to Italian news reports. A funeral for Ceriello Rega was held Monday in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana, in the same church where he and his wife were married six weeks ago.
“Gabriel never imagined there would be a confrontation and did not know his friend was armed,” Natale-Hjorth’s father said in his statement Wednesday. “He only became aware of what actually happened after his arrest. Over the last few days I have read many inaccuracies being reported about my son by the papers. Gabriel is just a teenager, who last year started college hoping to become an architect. He is devastated by the carabiniere’s death, and I for one, as a father, painfully feel his family’s grief.”
Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer, Fabio Alonzi, told ABC News that the teen was on a family vacation in Italy with his father and grandparents at the time of the incident.
“He got in touch with Elder through social media,” Alonzi said, “and they agreed to spend one day together in Rome, that ended the way we all know. But he had no idea that his friend had a knife with him.”
Alonzi said the teen is “stressed,” “cries constantly” and is “very shaken.”
Elder and Natale-Hjorth were questioned by police for hours and, when “faced with overwhelming evidence, they confessed,” according to the Provincial Command of Rome.
On Sunday, Italian newspapers published a leaked photo of what appears to be Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and handcuffed while in custody, prompting questions about the pair’s confessions. It is illegal to blindfold a suspect in Italy, and police and prosecutors are carrying out separate investigations into the blindfolding.
“I will refrain from commenting on the treatment to which Gabriel was subjected during his arrest,” Natale-Hjorth’s father said in his statement Wednesday. “I understand the Italian authorities have initiated an inquest and I trust they will ascertain any responsibilities.”
Gen. Francesco Gargaro, the commander of the Carabinieri in Italy’s capital, told reporters that Cerciello Rega had “forgotten his gun” that fateful night, but there was still “no time” for the policemen to react and the suspects then took off. Cerciello Rega’s partner could not have used his weapon on the suspects as they fled because it’s a serious crime and was trying to help the wounded officer, Gargaro said.
“There were no chance to use weapons,” Gargaro told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.
Elder claimed he allegedly stabbed Ceriello Rega in self-defense, telling police he “feared for his life,” according to the court document obtained by ABC News.
Investigators concluded that “it’s clear that the perpetrator of the stabbing” was Elder, according to the court document.
Elder’s father arrived in Rome on Thursday morning to visit him but walked past the line of reporters and cameras awaiting him.
The Elder family’s attorney, Craig Peters, told ABC San Francisco station KGO that the parents were still “grieving” for the loved ones of the slain policeman but were looking forward to seeing their son and hopefully getting some answers.
“This is actually where they spent their honeymoon,” Peters told KGO in an exclusive interview in Rome on Thursday morning. “They have a great love for Italy. They feel devastated that this happened here.”
“We need to get some answers to some questions that we don’t feel are getting asked in the media right now about this investigation,” the lawyer added. “I don’t know what happened. I am convinced at this point that there is a pretty good chance that the police don’t know what happened.”
The Italian public television channel RAI aired photos apparently posted to Elder’s Instagram account before the slaying that showed Elder holding a knife, and police are looking into the photos as part of the investigation.
The Elder family’s attorney said the photos were taken in San Francisco before the teen’s trip to Italy.
“The kid had a knife,” Peters told KGO. “At least in San Francisco certainly, in America, that is not a super surprising thing. People carry it for protection.”
“That doesn’t really help us get to the bottom of what happened,” he added.
Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.