One week has passed since the brutal stabbing death of 35-year-old Italian Carabinieri police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, allegedly at the hands of two San Francisco teens, and the investigation seems to have gone awry.
Reporting that closed camera television footage is missing from the area where 19-year-old Finnegan Elder allegedly stabbed Rega 11 times has raised eyebrows. The manager of the pharmacy directly across from where blood still stains the cobblestones says they only run their cameras when they are open. The stabbing took place around 2:30 a.m.
Police now also say the camera on the bank across the street was broken. What we don’t know with certainty is who decided where the fateful rendezvous would take place or if it was possible that anyone involved could have known that cameras would not be working.
The fatal stabbing took place during a humid Roman night when local residents without air conditioning, of which there are many in Rome, would have been sleeping with their windows open. Italian media reports have already hinted of secret witnesses who may have heard and seen the whole thing.
Police contend that they showed their badges and identified themselves as Carabinieri officers before the American teens allegedly launched the attack that would turn fatal. Officer Rega, we now know, forgot his gun that evening. His partner, Andrea Varriale, was unable to access his because Gabe Natale Hjorth, Elder’s 18-year-old alleged accomplice, was beating him up. And since it is illegal for police to shoot at suspects running away, Varriale did not use his weapon at all.
Natale Hjorth, who is half Italian and speaks the language, allegedly told investigators that he did not know the men who approached them to retrieve a bag they stole over a bad drug deal were cops. In fact, he says he was sure they were not. But without video surveillance tape, it may prove impossible to prove whether the police showed their badges or just how they approached the American teens.
Elder told investigators that Rega had grabbed him by the neck. Again, without proper surveillance video, the truth may never come out. Elder’s uncle who is acting as a family spokesman confirmed that Elder took part in informal “fight nights” back in San Francisco, so while it is certain he knew how to throw a punch, it remains unclear how he could have so easily overtaken a trained paramilitary police officer who, one would hope, would be equally trained in self defense.
Of course the brutal stabbing of anyone is indefensible, but the circumstances leading up to this particular crime will prove crucial as the court drama plays out. If the teens were acting in self defense against older men they did not know were police, as Elder told investigators, they could receive leniency. If footage clearly shows the police showing their badges before the attack, it could prove far worse for the suspects.
In a police reconstruction of events presented to the press, investigators say it took only a few minutes for the teens to run nearly two miles from where they allegedly stole a backpack back to their hotel room. That timeline, though, has an empty 24-minute window when the police, the teens and the alleged drug dealer and his interloper were all unaccounted for. Attorneys for both teens are demanding a clearer picture of the evidence.
Elder’s father Ethan, who is returning to California Saturday after visiting his son in prison Thursday and Friday, said he hoped the video would answer questions about the circumstances of the case.
Elder’s attorney has so far not tried to deny the confession given during the early hours of the investigation. Natale Hjorth’s attorneys now say their client didn’t know there was a stabbing at all until after his arrest despite the fact the two teens spent the hours after the attack in the same hotel room. A leaked photo of Natale Hjorth blindfolded before he was interrogated has only further muddied the waters. Police have confirmed they are investigating both why that happened and who leaked the photo.
The knife–a seven-inch military-style weapon–was found hidden under the ceiling tile in the Le Méridien Visconti hotel room Elder had rented for his Roman holiday. Natale Hjorth was not listed as a guest at the hotel but was arrested in Elder’s room.
If Natale Hjorth‘s claims are true, it would mean that Elder lifted the ceiling tile and hid the knife and both men’s bloody clothing without him knowing. Investigators are still collecting forensic evidence from the room which could validate or contradict Natale-Hjorth’s claims.
Lawyers for Natale-Hjorth have filed an appeal to the court order that will keep the teens incarcerated during the preliminary investigative stage. Under Italian law, police can do so for six months before formally indicting them for a crime and then another six months if they need it. While rarely successful so early in an investigation, the appeal will allow the defense to see certain discovery evidence that they have so far not been provided. Elder’s lawyers have not yet filed a similar brief, and given news that the two young Americans are turning agaisnt each other, it seems unlikely that the defense teams will share what they learn.
The case continues to draw comparisons to the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher. American student Amanda Knox was at first implicated and eventually convicted and acquitted of that murder, in part because of shoddy police work. In the first days of that investigation, police directed the narrative that Knox had confessed, that there was a bloody knife and that CCTV cameras did not work. That case took nearly a decade to play out. This one could take even longer.