ROME – A young American on trial in Rome for the slaying of an Italian police officer has told the court that he stabbed the victim because he feared he was being strangled by a thug.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and a friend from California, Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, are charged in the murder of a Carabinieri paramilitary officer on a street near their hotel while vacationing in Rome in 2019.
Elder told the court that Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega had his hands pressing on Elder’s neck. So, the defendant contended, he reached for his knife and stabbed Cerciello, whom he said he mistook for a thug, in self-defense.
In the wee hours of July 26, 2019, Elder and Natale-Hjorth were confronted by a pair of plainclothes Carabinieri officers who showed up at what the Americans thought was going to be a rendezvous with the go-between in a cocaine deal gone bad a few hours earlier in a different Rome neighborhood.
Cerciello Rega, 35, and his partner were assigned to respond to what prosecutors allege was a small-scale extortion attempt by the Americans after the defendants had paid for cocaine they didn't receive and snatched the go-between's knapsack with his phone inside.
The American have said they expected to see the go-between, an Italian man, come to retrieve the backpack in exchange for refunding the 80 euros ($96) they paid for the drug but didn't receive.
Instead, two men they had never seen before showed up instead.
“In a blink of the eye, they came around and rushed us without saying a word,” Elder told the court. Likening the stocky figure of Cerciello Rega to a “mountain of a man,” Elder added: “He tackled me to the ground and put all his weight on me.”
Elder recounted that he remembered little of the next few moments except the “shock and terror. I do remember, however, that I could feel his hands first on my chest and then on my neck, with pressure, as if he was trying to strangle or choke me.”
“As soon as I felt his hands squeezing my neck, I instinctively took my knife and hit him a few times in an effort to get him off me,” Elder continued in his spontaneous statement to the court, which is permitted under Italian trial proceedings. Neither prosecutors nor the defense followed up with questioning.
Elder said that, at the last minute before leaving the hotel room with Natale-Hjorth, he took his knife as a “foolish caution.” Prosecutors described it as an 18-centimeter (8-inch) long attack knife.
Referring to stabbing the officer, Elder said that “after several hits, he grabbed my hand, the one I was holding the knife with, and tried to turn it against me.” Elder testified that he managed to switch hands and “hit him again on the side.”
Cerciello Rega's partner, Andrea Varriale, had told the court earlier in the trial that he tried to stop blood pouring out like a “fountain” from his partner. The slain officer, who was unarmed, was stabbed 11 times.
Varriale has also testified that he heard his partner cry out and “Carabinieri” as Elder and the slain officer struggled in the street.
But Elder told the court he heard no such cry of identification.
Varriale and Natale-Hjorth have each testified that the two of them scuffled with each other.
Prosecutors alleged that after the stabbing Natale-Hjorth hid the murder weapon in their hotel room. Natale-Hjorth has said he didn't realize the police officer had been stabbed while the scuffles were happening. Under Italian law, defendants having a role in a murder case can also be charged with homicide.