As an investigative reporter based in San Francisco, I rarely travel overseas on assignment. But this was different. Two California college students and their parents at the center of an international incident. And the people of Italy mourning a 35-year-old police officer.
Rega, who’d just returned to work after his honeymoon, was stabbed to death trying to arrest suspects after what police called a “drug deal gone bad.”
His funeral was held in the same church in which he married and was broadcast live across the country. The officer’s wife, Rosa Maria, wept at his casket while thousands came to pay their respects, including Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte who told reporters, “This is a very sad loss that’s touching all of us very deeply.”
I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: Bay Area mother of Gabriel Natale, 2nd suspect in Italian officer death, breaks silence
Just hours after Rega died, police released photos of the suspects being questioned in their room at the Meridian Hotel. Elder and Natale were in Italy on vacation. They’re now held in a prison in the heart of Rome.
I went straight to the crime scene that turned into a memorial to the fallen carabinieri and met Marco, a local who had stopped by the memorial for the fallen officer.
Dan: “What’s it like seeing this?”
Marco: “If they were drunk or I don’t know, but it was just something wrong and I hope there will be justice.”
Dan: “I wonder what justice looks like to you. What should happen to those two young men?”
Marco: “That they will stay here in Italy in jail until they die.”
RELATED: Slain Italian police officer put to rest as Bay Area men face possible murder charges
In the days and weeks to come, I found that the Italian legal system is different than the American one in one big way: constant leaks to the media. I obtained complete investigative reports that include photos, interviews and the suspects’ text messages from that night, and can now reveal exactly what happened. Could the killing have been a massive misunderstanding? Could it have been self-defense? With their parents’ first on-camera interviews, I can also shed new light on both Elder and Natale’s upbringing.
Happy families faced with tragedy
Elder’s mother Leah told me, “We took family walks, we have Sunday family dinners. We were very involved in sports, you know PTA at his middle school. Ethan coached soccer, helped to coach baseball. So, we have been and are still very close.”
Natale’s mother Heidi Hjorth said, “We’ve always been parents that have talked about stuff before they happen. You see the billboards that say you know, talk to your kids about this or that and we’ve always done that ahead of time, sex, drugs, life, love.”
In many ways, they were just average kids from the neighborhood, but I can trace their long path. Including how they wound up on that street in Rome after 3 a.m., in a life or death struggle with police.
“I can’t picture him doing something like that,” Elder’s neighbor Gloria Kealey told ABC7 after his arrest.
The 19-year-old grew up in San Francisco, just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. The home has been in the family for generations. His father, Ethan, works for a company that builds auto service centers while his mother, Leah, works in supply chain logistics. The day after the killing, after Elder said he stabbed the officer in self-defense, they posted a sign on their door, asking for privacy.
“I’ve known Finn since he was born and I’m in shock,’ Kealey said. “He’s the nicest guy, one of the nicest neighbors I have.”
As soon as word reached California about what happened in Italy, I checked Elder’s social media. He described himself on Instagram as “King of Nothing” and wrote, “Death is guaranteed, life is not.” He attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep.
Elder and his friends hung out in a wooded park in San Francisco called Stern Grove. Something happened in that park that changed his life’s trajectory and eventually brought him to Rome and to that street corner.
He played on the school football team, number 87, but was forced to leave Sacred Heart after a violent confrontation with a teammate. His family would later describe it as a mutually-agreed upon fight, kind of a contest.
“That was known about and discussed in advance and Finn always contended that the other boy was his friend,” said his mother Leah. “And the other players and kids that were there that night were egging everybody on.”
A fight in Stern Grove
The father of Elder’s victim describes it differently, saying, “My son almost lost his life.”
The father tells me the boys argued over a girl during a party at Stern Grove, the Saturday night before Halloween 2016.
Police records show it was just after 10 p.m. The victim’s father tells me the boys squared off, but that Elder put up both hands and appeared to drop the matter. He says when his son turned away, Elder tapped him on the shoulder and sucker punched him twice, knocking him to the ground. The victim hit his head and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
The 16-year-old was in a coma for a week, had bleeding on the brain, memory loss, and took months to recover. He will always have a metal plate in his head, where the surgeon operated.
The victim’s father told me, “Our family went through much pain and suffering not knowing how this may change him, watching him laying unresponsive in the ICU early on and fearing the worst.”
Police arrested Elder, but as a juvenile, his assault charge was dismissed after a year of probation. The other boy’s father wrote a victim impact statement, read aloud in court to Finn Elder.
The victim’s father told us, “We want you to know that we forgive you.”
He agreed to share the statement, if I didn’t name him or his son: “We hope that you make your recovery as my son has, finish out your high school in a positive way and go on to a good future yourself, without fights or finding your way into the criminal system again.”
An accident changes Finn
More trouble was ahead for Finnegan Elder as he faced another life changing experience when he went on to play rugby for the Golden Gate Club.
His coach, Tony Wells, said, “Finn, you know, he was a popular guy with his peers, worked hard, had great parents. Ethan and Leah were hands on, and they were always volunteering.”
Elder was working at an auto dealer’s service center, perched on a ladder installing reels near the ceiling. The ladder tipped and he fell 15 feet, leaving half his finger behind. Two surgeries at Stanford Center failed to re-attach it.
“He just said that it was difficult and needed to heal,” Wells said. “So, I think it was pretty much the beginning of the season when it happened.”
His coach said Finn was unable to play rugby after the accident.
“He was in a staggering amount of pain for a long time,” said Leah.
“It was almost a year exactly since Stern Grove. Did he think this was somehow payback?” I asked.
“No, no, it was just coincidental,” said his father.
“But I don’t discount the idea that Finn’s kind of immature brain thought that this was some sort of black cloud that had now decided to park itself over his head,” said Leah.
I asked if their son felt like it was “karma.”
“I don’t agree with the word karma, but I think that Finn’s psyche took it really hard,” said Leah.
As part of his probation in the Stern Grove assault case, Elder had to stay away from Sacred Heart or any of its off-campus functions, so he transferred to Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. His mother tells me the finger injury distracted from his studies and Elder didn’t graduate with his class. Instead, he passed a high school equivalency test.
Finnegan Elder Meets Gabe Natale
At Tamalpais High, Elder met Gabriel Natale. His father, Fabrizio Natale, was born in Italy and is an investment officer for a state worker pension fund. His mother, Heidi Hjorth, is a Marin County realtor. I spoke to her about her son.
“He is stubborn, and unfortunately that might come from me,” she said. “And he has a teenager’s quick temper and can be loud when he’s mad. I blame that on the Italian side.”
I also live in the area, and my own sons know some of Elder and and Natale’s circle of friends. I spoke with several of those teens, and a troubling profile of both suspects emerged of drugs and violence.
One of his former classmates said, “When Gabe’s on drugs, I’ve been around Gabe on drugs. He’s insane. He has a lot of anger, I feel like, and it’s very obvious in his personality. He’s very confident in himself. Like cocky, thinks he’s better than everyone.”
A video of Natale on social media showed him driving in his car with what appears to be a gun while singing, “No passengers, man, and I ride with my glock; chew on a rock, told that b****, hold my glock; sippin’ lean and I roll with my glock,” from the song by AzSwaye, “Ride With My Glock.”
His former classmate said, “He was really out of control and I think he was above the law. A lot of kids here in Marin think they can get away with anything with money.”
Police reveal cellphone videos and photos
Italian authorities confiscated Natale and Elder’s cellphones after their arrest and leaked the contents to reporters, including videos, photographs and social media posts.
Videos of Natale wearing a face mask and Elder holding a knife to his girlfriend’s face with a caption, “I kill you.”
Both young men displayed a fascination with weapons, knives, brass knuckles and guns. In one photo, Elder can be seem holding a gun to his head, writing, “There’s no bullets in this b****,” Another video shows him vaping in bed with a gun.
Natale recorded himself driving down a San Francisco street with a gun on the steering wheel. In another video, he is seen shooting a gun on a Marin County hilltop.
His mother, Heidi, told us, “We’re not a gun family, we never have been a gun family, we’ve never owned a gun, and we’ve never shot a gun. We were some of the later parents to even allow play Nerf guns in the house.”
“And to see that gun was a surprise, you didn’t know he had it?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
Investigators wrote that they also saw “copious” amounts of drugs in pictures on both teens’ phones including marijuana, cocaine, prescription medication and “large sums of money that could be derived from the sale of narcotics” based on text messages found. Elder had a large bag of marijuana, a picture with lines of cocaine and a wad of $100 bills.
Elder’s mother Leah told me, “Finn saw those images as well in jail. He saw those pictures. He said, like teen boys would, ‘I never thought those pictures would get out.’ I was very ashamed and they were very hurtful.”
“Were you aware, though, that he was doing drugs and perhaps selling and he was interested in knives and a gun?” I asked.
His father Ethan said, “Well, there was always some, some threat or level of drugs with teenage boys in this town in particular. Selling drugs, and guns and knives. No.”
Heidi told me, “The rest of the stuff that was there looked to me to be a lot of mimicking of rap star artists, music, you know, copying photos that he’s seen.”
I asked her if she was referring to images of her son with money fanned out. She responded, “Right, fanned money, the drugs that, you know, the guns, pointing at the head and, you know, seem to be stuff that if you look at any of the rap music, social media, you know, there’s a lot of that out there and that looked to be a copycat thing to me. It’s the only explanation and guess I have because, again, I wasn’t aware of any of that.”
RELATED: Guns, Knives, Drugs: Italian investigators leak WhatsApp messages from accused killer of Rome police officer
Natale had this picture of jars of marijuana and a scale, and social media posts in which he appears to be selling drugs. One image from Snapchat appears to show Oxycontin pills.
In one video, he raps with cash, singing, “You might think I’m dumb, I’m just 17 with a whole lotta money.”
Less than a month before his arrest in Rome, Natale’s mother texted about her suspicion that he was dealing drugs.
Heidi Hjorth wrote on WhatsApp: “If you need to make me the bad guy so you can move out and do your drugs and sell your drugs and party all night and not have a life that’s productive then you go ahead and do that.”
Gabe answered: “Lol. You sound so ridiculous, ‘go and sell your drugs’ just because I tried some mushrooms for the 2nd time in my life and decided to be honest and tell you.”
Heidi responded: “It is bull**** that you are not still selling drugs since you do not have a job and you continue to buy stuff. Expensive stuff.”
When Italian police leaked that exchange to reporters, Gabe’s mother gave me a note her son left on July 16, just three days before he left for Italy.
I want to apologize again for the fight I started last time I was here.
I really regret what I said and the way I behaved toward you.
I love you with all my heart and someday I will be able to fully show it.”
Natale had just wrapped up his first year at Santa Barbara City College. Elder went to San Diego Mesa College and he had been struggling with what his family described as a bad group of friends. They thought a solo trip to Europe could be a fresh start.
Leah Elder told me, “He was a little ambivalent about junior college in San Diego at that point. My hope was that it would allow him to sort of clear his mind, allow him to just get out of kind of a little bit of the state of mind he was in and some of the friends he was with, and just experience something different.”
Finn meets Gabe in Rome
Elder was in Berlin, Germany about to visit Spain and then fly home, when he connected through social media with his friend and asked his parents if he could take a detour.
Leah Elder said, “Gabe invited me, I have this friend who is half Italian, you know, he says he’s in Rome and so.”
Each summer, Fabrizio Natale would take Gabe and his little brother to visit their grandfather for two to three weeks at his seaside villa in Fregene about an hour outside Rome.
I stopped there, two days after Officer Cerciello Rega died, but no one answered the door.
Gabe’s father, Fabrizio Natale, told me he had never heard of Finn Elder before, that he wasn’t one of his son’s close friends. But he gave permission for Gabe to go to Rome. He left the beach house on Wednesday, July 24, at about 6 p.m., hitching a ride with his Uncle Claudio.
When Elder arrived in Rome, he wasn’t able to connect with Natale at first.
Leah Elder said, “And so he asked if I could get him a hotel room, so that he would have at least a place to stay and he was only supposed to stay that night and then leave.”
“Only one night?” I asked.
“Mmm-hmm,” she said,
Leah Elder used frequent traveler points to book a room at the Meridian Hotel, Room 109.
“Later Wednesday, which would have been when we woke up or something, he said that they did meet up, so then that’s when we extended it one more day,” she said.
“Oh, I’m sure you wish you hadn’t extended another day,” I said.
She answered, “I do. I do.”
That first night went by without incident. Natale’s Snapchat shows the two out in Rome. Over one picture at ten o’clock, he wrote: “Whenever I meet up with hometown friends, I tell em to meet me a la Piazza di Spagna.”
They post photos on social media of Elder with his shirt off and from the Ice Club, a popular nightspot in the Monti area of Rome.
They returned to their hotel room safely.
A drug deal gone bad
What happened the following night is spelled out in the Carabinieri’s official investigative report, 218 pages that I obtained, translated, and analyzed.
I also shared notes with a renowned investigative journalist at one of Italy’s largest newspapers, La Repubblica. Federica Angeli’s reporting on the Mafia sent 32 of its members to prison.
“I been living for the last six years with a protection by the police for denouncing the mafia,” said Angeli.
She is also investigating what happened that deadly night in July.
Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega and Carabinieri Andrea Varriale were just starting their midnight to 6 a.m. shift. They left the Piazza Farnese Police Station barracks in plain clothes.
Just across the Tiber River, Elder and Natale arrive at the popular nightlife area called Trastevere. Security cameras capture them walking near the fountain in Piazza Trilussa, an area known for drugs. The young men catch the attention of four off-duty officers; one snaps a cellphone picture and sends it to Officer Varriale with a message:
“They want to buy! They are asking everyone, believe me! I really know two chickens.” The officer identifies “the bald with the muscles” as a drug dealer’s mediator; his name is 47-year-old Sergio Brugiatelli.
“This is the way the drug dealers act, they operate with the help of a mediator, they don’t approach directly the client, the mediator finds the wealthy client, and he calls the drug dealer and organizes the meeting,” says Angeli.
Brugiatelli, the mediator, would later tell police that Natale asked in Italian if he had any cocaine to sell. He later told police, “I told him that I didn’t have the drug with me, but that I was able to recover it.”
He said Natale wanted 80 euros worth and that he went to a nearby ATM and returned.The mediator took Elder and Natale on a 10 minute walk again, with security cameras catching them along the way to Piazza Mastai.
Brugiatelli, the mediator, said he was looking for “a friend of mine who sells the drug, Italo.”
Not seeing him in the square, the mediator calls 26-year-old Italo Pompei, who has a criminal record for drug dealing. Pompei confirms he has cocaine, and asks them to wait.
A witness, Tamer Salem, told police he saw Elder, Natale and the mediator sitting on this bench, and that they all appeared under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Then the pusher calls the mediator back, saying to meet him a couple blocks away near the Alcazar Theater.
Elder stays behind in Piazza Mastai with the mediator’s bike and backpack. Remember, the off-duty police are following them. Security cameras catch two officers on a motorcycle headed for the rendezvous at the Alcazar.
There, Pompei the pusher later tells police that the mediator introduced Natale by saying, “He is my little brother.” He hands over the 80 euro, the pusher gives him a foil packet, and suddenly the police pounce.
“The reality is, that the pusher is an informer of the police forces,” said Angeli. “And in fact, in the report by the prosecutor, you will read that when the police forces arrive, he starts screaming, ‘Stop. I’m a friend of the police.'”
Police spot Natale bent over, using his cellphone light to find the foil packet he had dropped. He hands it to an officer and bolts, running back to Piazza Mastai.
Elder grabs the mediator’s backpack and they take off. Tamer Salem said, “I saw them run away. I couldn’t tell who was who except one of them had a bicycle … Sergio.”
Sergio Brugiatelli, the mediator, chases after Elder and Natale and jumps on his bike. A camera shows him along Via della Luce before he gave up and turned back.
Officers Cerciello Rega and Varriale take over the case
It’s now 1:19 a.m. The off-duty officers call Mario Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, to meet in Piazza Mastai and give them the foil packet. They quickly realize it contains one Tachipirina pill, basically Italian Tylenol.
“Neither the mediator or the drug dealer have been arrested because that night when the police officer arrived and intervene on the scene, they didn’t have any drug with them,” Angeli said. “They had only aspirin.”
The mediator asks Varriale and Cerciello Rega for help recovering his backpack, he says it contains his old Nokia phone, 30 euros and some documents. But the officers tell him to call the office in the morning.
Mediator wants his phone back
Natale and Elder were in a taxi heading back to the hotel. Gabe later said he opened the backpack in the taxi, noticed the mediator’s cellphone, and “at a certain point, the phone rang.” It was Brugiatelli, the mediator, calling from a friend’s phone “and Finn and I agreed to ask for the money. That is 80 euros, which they had stolen from us.” They agree to exchange the backpack for the money and a gram of cocaine at the Unicredit Bank one block from their hotel.
Security cameras catch the Americans arriving back at the Meridian at about 1:30 a.m. with Natale now carrying the backpack, on the phone again. He spoke with the mediator by cell eight times that night, according to the investigative report.
At the hotel room, Elder texts his girlfriend back in California:
Finn: “Gabe just got robbed. Lmao.”
Girlfriend: “Omfg. How?”
Finn: “We were trying to buy coke from these sketchy guys, and they wanted Gabe alone so I could watch this guy’s backpack. … I hear footsteps running back, so I’m like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’ Gabe turns the corner like, ‘Bro, I think I just got robbed.'”
Girlfriend: “Oh, Gabe. Boy needs to learn how to fight.”
Finn: “So, I’m like, imma grab his bag. So ran back n stole the bums bag lol. And everyone started chasing us thru Rome.”
Girlfriend: “Definitely sounds like an adventure.”
Finn: “Yeah, well, Gabe is hella pissed … He’s like, ‘Bro, we gotta go out now.’ … I’m like, ‘Bro, I’m tired.’ Gabe is so mad, lol. ****-ing idiot.”
At 2:04 a.m., the mediator calls the police. He tells the carabinieri that the teens are demanding money for the return of his backpack.
Italian police call that “cavallo di ritorni” or a “return horse” scheme — stealing something and then demanding money for its return, a form of extortion.
The carabinieri dispatcher calls Varriale and Cerciello Rega again. The officers pick up the mediator in their unmarked police car, ask him to call Natale and place it on speaker. Officer Cerciello Rega records part of the conversation.
Gabe: “You are still with your friend, I told you that you have to come back alone.”
Brugiatelli: “Eh, I come alone, I come alone…”
Gabe: “I hear a lot of voices … I told you to come alone.”
Brugiatelli : “But look, I come alone, I come alone, you don’t worry, but you have to tell me the bank, at least the bank.”
Craig Peters is the Elder family attorney from San Francisco. He said, “And the boys were suspicious and thought that this was a setup and were very worried and were looking to see if Sergio Brugiatelli and Pompei’s colleagues were in the area. They thought they were dealing with gangster, mobster, and mafia types.”
After that call, Natale changes his clothes and puts on a sweatshirt, even though Rome is suffering a heat alert with the temperature nearing 80 degrees at 3 a.m. He leaves the hotel alone and appears to scout the area.
At 2:39 a.m., he walks by the Unicredit Bank, caught by its ATM cameras. He returns to the room and leaves again with Elder, also now in a sweatshirt, but he is hiding a deadly weapon.
Elder would later tell police, “When my friend told me he would go out to meet this person, I worried about him and I decided to accompany him and at that moment I took the knife.”
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A U.S. Marine-style combat knife called a “Ka-bar” with a seven-inch blade. Finn had a photo on his cellphone, apparently holding the same knife in San Francisco before the trip.
I asked his parents if they had ever seen the knife before. They both said no.
Leah Elder pointed out that a sporting goods store nearby sells knives, “You can go to Big Five and there’s rows and rows of camping knives.”
“Did it surprise you that he traveled with that?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Leah Elder.
“Yes, it did,” Ethan Elder said.
The fatal confrontation
The officers headed to the meeting location in their unmarked patrol car, and parked down the street from the hotel. The told the mediator to wait by the car. The investigative report says surveillance video shows Elder and Natale appear to see them arrive and duck between cars at 3:06 a.m. Then the young men walk down the left side of via Federico Cesi, caught by cameras at a jewelry store. Almost three minutes later, the report says you can see the shadows of the officers across the street, heading for the teens.
Officer Varriale told investigators, “We immediately noticed the presence of two subjects … positioned at a pharmacy” across the street from the Unicredit Bank, with “a clearly cautious and suspicious attitude.”
Remember, the two Americans are expecting one person they’d seen before, Sergio Brugiatelli, the drug pusher’s mediator. But there’s Officer Varriale in a t-shirt and jeans and Officer Cerciello Rega in a t-shirt and Bermuda shorts.
“And I believe that Finn and Gabriel both were fearful when they saw two extra people that they believe were a part of the drug dealer’s associates,” said Gabe’s mother Heidi Hjorth.
The report says the bank ATM camera catches the officers’ shadows crossing to the pharmacy to confront the teens. Varriale claims the officers “suddenly approached” Elder and Natale, identified themselves as Carabinieri, and showed their ID cards, “but the two … attacked us physically with extreme rapidity and violence.”
But Finn Elder’s attorney tells me the Americans tried to avoid the two men when they first saw them, “The boys decided to abort and decided, ‘We’re getting out of here and going back to the hotel, this is over,’ and made a left at the pharmacy away from the bank, away from where they were supposed to meet Brugiatelli.”
A source has given me quotes from Finn Elder’s interrogation that same day. He said the officers attacked the Americans without warning.
A female investigator asked, “What do you mean, they attacked you?”
Elder said, “Like walked up close and just grabbed me and threw me to the ground. … The bigger guy was on top of me. He started hitting me and he started strangling me. … I thought he was trying to kill me. I thought that was self-defense. If I knew it was a police officer– I don’t know, I thought I was going to die. I would’ve stopped but they were so aggressive and quick. … Because in America, normally like, policemen, the first thing they do is tell you they are a cop. You know, they show you a badge or something.”
Leah Elder told me, “Finn has always been a complete truth teller. Finn tells the truth no matter what the circumstances is. You ask him what happened and he says it exactly.”
His father Ethan added, “Even when you don’t like it.”
“Even when you don’t like it,” Leah Elder said. “So in the worst of circumstances, what we understand is Finn told the truth over and over and over.”
There’s no dispute that Varriale tried to subdue Natale, but the officer said he was “squirming strongly with kicks, scratches and fists, and could free himself from my grip.” Varriale showed scratches on his neck later that day.
He also told investigators he couldn’t see what happened to his partner, but remembered hearing Cerciello Rega yell at Finn in Italian, “Stop, we are carabinieri, that’s enough.” Even if that’s true, Elder didn’t understand Italian, and records show the officer outweighed Finn by a hundred pounds.
Craig Peters, Elder’s attorney said, “He was literally on top of Finn, and Finn was swinging the knife around trying to get him to get off of him and as soon as Cerciello Rega did, Finn popped up, yelled to Gabe, ‘Let’s get out of here, run,’ or something to that effect. He couldn’t remember his exact words. And the two of them took off and ran back to the hotel.”
“The public has a hard time accepting that using a knife of that size is self defense,” I asked.
“So, it was the knife that Finn had. He didn’t have a whole selection of weapons. It was, it was one knife he had. He brought it with him that night because they were scared and worried about what might happen,” said Peters.
As Natale and Elder ran away, Officer Varriale says he saw his partner, Mario Cerciello Rega “staggering … for two seconds with his arms raised a little, and far from his body, so that I noticed a lot of blood coming out of his left side, almost at the armpit.” Cerciello Rega said, “They stabbed me,” and fell backwards to the ground.
Varriale called the police operational center for help, according to a transcript included in the investigative report: “It’s fast, he loses so much blood. Mario, oh look at me. Mario, Mario look at me.”
As police car approaches, the investigative report says:
Varriale to Cerciello Rega: “They are coming here. You see them?”
Cerciello Rega can be heard saying: “I feel sick, I feel sick.”
Varriale answers: “Hey, hey, the police car, the police car … didn’t see me.”
The dispatcher asks: “But tell me, tell me where you see them?”
Varriale says: “I saw them pass in the square here.”
The report indicates the emergency response may have been delayed because Officer Varriale failed to update his location earlier in the evening. The Operations Center thought he was still in the Trastevere area, not the Prati District, three miles away.
Ambulance delay likely contributed to officer’s death.
Records show it took more than 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, as Varriale cradled his partner in his arms, using his shirt to try to stop the bleeding. Officer Cerciello Rega died at Holy Spirit Hospital at 4 a.m.
“If the ambulance had gotten there sooner and gotten him to the hospital, it’s possible that he could have been saved,” said Dr. Judy Melinek,” a forensic pathologist from the San Francisco Bay Area.
She went on to say, “Fifteen minutes is a pretty significant amount of time. Average ambulance response times, at least in the states in most urban areas are much lower than that.”
I asked Dr. Melinek to look at the autopsy report that was leaked by law enforcement. It shows Officer Cerciello Rega suffered 11 wounds of varying depth. Some plunged so deep that the guard at the base of the 7-inch blade left an impression on his skin.
“And some of the wounds went into major organs such as the lung, the diaphragm, the kidney, the intestines, causing bleeding into the chest cavity, and he died from blood loss as a result,” said Dr. Melinek.
Attorney Craig Peters says the wound pattern does not support Officer Varriale’s claim that the Americans immediately attacked the officers.
“If it’s an immediate attack, this is what you do with a knife,” he said. “There’s, there’s no stab wounds on the front of Cerciello’s body. They’re on the side, there’s one under the armpit, there’s a couple in the back. Cerciello was on top of Finn and close to him which would again, if you’ve got somebody close to you, you’re not going like this, you’re trying to get them off of you. You’re stabbing like this which would be consistent with the stab wounds that we see in Cerciello.”
Italian investigators conclude, “The attack lasted about 32 seconds,” from the time the police shadows were in that crosswalk until the teens ran back to the hotel.
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Four patrol cars were in the area, but did not respond quickly enough to catch the suspects, or provide timely medical help for the dying officer.
A man walking his dog noticed the boys running and later told police, as did the hotel’s porter. Officers found drops of blood at the Meridian’s entrance and the backpack in a planter. But there is some confusion in the investigation early on. Officer Varriale identifies the attackers as olive-skinned North Africans, perhaps Moroccans.
As police scramble to find the killers and begin collecting surveillance video, back in their room, records show Natale had a WhatsApp video chat with his girlfriend in California. It lasted more than 31 minutes.
And Finn, once again, texts his girlfriend:
Finn: “I love you. No matter what happens, I love you.”
Girlfriend: “What do you mean no matter what happens? I love you too, but what?”
Finn: “Talk more when I’m back.”
Girlfriend: “Back from where?”
Finn: “I don’t know if I’ll make it back.”
Girlfriend: “Don’t leave your apartment. Or hotel.”
Finn: “I’m not. I love you.”
Girlfriend: “Finn, you’re scaring me.”
Finn: “Talk tmo. I love you.”
Girlfriend: “I love you. Can you not do anything else stupid, please?”
At 10:55 that morning, Natale has one more call with his Uncle Claudio, before police knock at the door. Officers arrest the two Americans, recover the clothing they wore during the incident just a few hours before, and find the knife hidden in a ceiling panel.
I went to the Meridian Hotel and saw the evidence tape sealing Room 109, but met two Americans arriving at Room 209, one floor above. It had the same carpet and flooring, and the same type of drop down-ceiling.
Families react to news reports
After police take them into custody, Elder’s mother is the first of the teens’ parents to hear the news in a FaceTime video call from two Italian police investigators. Her son, visible in the background, is crying.
“He said, ‘Mom, it’s really, really bad,'” Leah Elder recounted. “He said, ‘They’re saying that I killed a cop.’ And then the phone just went dead.”
She added, “Yeah, it was, it was really awful. I don’t think Ethan and I could stand for quite a long time. After that, we both just sat here on the floor in this room and just cried and cried and cried.”
Fabrizio Natale found out at the house in Fregene, as his son’s picture flashed on the 8 p.m. news.
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He told me during an interview in Rome, “I was frightened. You just feel emptiness. It feels like the whole world is crashing in on you.” He reached his son’s mom back in California.
Heidi Hjorth said, “He said, ‘Last night, we saw on the news that Gabriel and the guy that he visited in Rome were arrested in connection with the killing of a police officer.'”
“What’s going through your mind at that point? I can’t even imagine,” I asked.
“I honestly couldn’t, I really, I couldn’t process it,” she said.
The Natale and Elder families started making calls to find Italian lawyers, to the American Embassy in Rome to figure out visitation, but they tell me, out of respect, they tried to lay low while Rosa Maria buried her husband, Mario.
The anger was real in the officer’s hometown, as crowds paid their respects, his fellow carabinieri filed past the coffin.
Mayor Salvatore Di Sarno mayor said, “Who killed him is an animal. … I want to say to the judges to not be gentle, the uniform must be respected.”
The young suspects are kept in separate cells in a prison in the heart of Rome. Some inmates call Elder “California Boy.” Before any of the parents were able to visit, the police and prosecutors held a news conference depicting the Americans as the aggressors, but admitting a series of mistakes in the case.
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Including a photo released of Natale handcuffed and blindfolded before his interrogation caused an uproar.
Rory Cappelli is also a reporter for la Repubblica, but specializes in Rome’s crime and courts.
“Why do you keep a suspect in this manner?” said Cappelli. “Then, why you take a picture?”
Capelli says the Carabinieri took the picture and sent it to other officers “saying, ‘Look what we do to the suspect,’ something like that, you know, and then it started to goes around and around and around, and at the end finish in the desk of some journalists you know, everybody has it.”
Police said Natale was blindfolded for only four minutes so he wouldn’t see computer screens and papers on the desk. But sources tell me it was actually close to an hour.
I asked his mother what it was like to see those photos.
“It was terrible,” Heidi Hjorth said. “But I was also grateful that I didn’t see other images that were, you know, that could have been worse.”
“In terms of him being harmed?” I questioned.
“Hmm-mmm,” she responded.
Five months later, the officer who placed the blindfold on Natale and the one who took the picture were charged with abuse of office.
Then a video of Natale in the blindfold leaked. In it an investigator asks, “Hey boy, what’s your name, hey, what’s your name? What’s your name?” Natale seems confused and answers, “What changed?” The officer also asks about the location of a pink or red sweatshirt, what Elder wore during the killing.
RELATED: Rome Officer Killing: Leaked video shows defendant Gabe Natale blindfolded during questioning
But the most shocking aspect of all who shot the video I’ve confirmed its Officer Andrea Varriale, the same officer who Gabe had fought just hours before. The biggest witness in the case had access to the suspect, a fact for the defense team to raise at trial.
Questions about the officers
At that news conference, the provincial commander admitted Cerciello Rega left his service weapon at the barracks.
The commander said, “He had forgotten it, only he knows why he did not have it with him.” He claimed that Cerciello Rega’s partner had his gun, but could not shoot the suspects as they ran away because it’s against Italian law. Days later, Varriale admitted he lied about having his service weapon that night. He also wasn’t armed and now faces a possible dereliction of duty charge.
Elder’s attorney Craig Peters said, “We now know that the one person that was there that was a Carabinieri at the scene when this all happened has lied repeatedly about what actually took place.”
That’s likely to be play a key role in the defense of the case.
“Incredibly important,” Peters said. “This is a question of credibility. And there’s two different stories and the question is going to be which story is correct based on the objective facts.”
The defense is likely to also raise questions about statements the carabinieri’s former police commander Alessandro Ottaviani.
Ottaviani spoke highly of dead officer to the media, he has demoted and now faces a charge of lying to investigators. He claimed Officer Varriale handed him his service weapon at the hospital after the killing, when it was actually locked up at the barracks all night.
While the Italian media tries to sort out just what happened that night, the families arrive. Ethan Elder, the first to be seen.
I was at the Rome airport when Ethan Elder arrived, but he made no public comments throughout his trip to Rome.
He visited his son in prison twice, met his Italian defense team and returned to San Francisco, where his American lawyer read a statement on behalf of the family.
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Craig Peters said on behalf of the parents “We look forward to the truth coming out and to our son coming home.”
When I sat down with Elder’s parents, we discuss seeing their son for the first time after his arrest.
“My heart was broken over the loss of Officer Rega,” said Ethan Elder. “I walked back in, and it broke again.”
“Seeing your boy,” I said.
“Seeing my boy,” he answered, “We hugged, we kissed, we told each other we loved each other. He was shaking.”
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His mother, Leah said, “I could feel how much physical contact he needed, so I just touched him the whole time and held his hand.”
Heidi Hjorth shared, and read for us, a recent letter Gabe sent from prison.
Please stay calm and strong.
I am so mad at everything and mostly myself right now.
I feel so powerless in here. It gets harder every day.
I love you so much and I want you to know that I don’t forget how hard this must be for you, too.”
Families demand answers
Both families are draining their life savings to pay for teams of attorneys and investigators. They’re demanding all the surveillance video from that night that’s been collected by the carabinieri.
There’s the video from that wine bar across from the hotel that caught the American students ducking between cars and the jewelry store camera that saw them walking to and running from the fatal fight. At the intersection where Cerciello Rega died, the pizza and kabob shop has no surveillance, and the pharmacy’s camera is covered at night by a solid metal gate.
When I was in Rome, I notice the camera with the best view of what happened is at this bank just across the street it has a clear angle of the crosswalk where the fight occurred.
La Repubblica reported that the bank had video of the critical moment.
Reporter Rory Cappelli told me, “We know for a fact that 26th of July, the bank gave to the carabinieri the video footage. That video cameras were working. So–”
In the final investigative report, the Carabinieri claims the bank’s video was “acquired and not useful.”
One of many remaining questions about the case, including this: Elder admits stabbing Officer Cerciello Rega but says it was self-defense. What was Natale’s role? A judge found that he should also face the aggravated murder and attempted extortion charges. With his Italian language skills, Natale set up the meeting that turned deadly and he fought with Varriale, preventing him from saving his partner.
I asked his mother, “Do you think that Gabriel shares some responsibility in terms of being in that place, putting himself in that location, doing the things that he did that led up to the events?”
Heidi Hjorth said, “I believe that he was bold enough to set up a meeting to go and get his money back after being cheated. And I believe that he did not know that Finn had the knife that evening with him.”
That’s what Natale told investigators, but the judge in the preliminary investigation found that argument not credible. Given the knife’s dimensions, he wrote, “It was certainly not possible to take it and hide it in your pocket or otherwise hide it without the knowledge of Natale who was nearby in the room with Elder.”
It also appears Natale had his own knife in Rome, found on a table next to his hotel bed. Police say it’s very similar to one he mentioned in a text to his girlfriend in May; he sent her a link to an Amazon listing that looks very similar.
There’s also a Snapchat I obtained from Natale’s account. His friends told me he sent it from Italy in the days before the killing. Holding a knife, he wrote, “Unfortunately no straps abroad.”
Straps is street slang for guns, “But this baby saved my full pockets today,” the post continued, implying he used the knife to keep someone from taking his money.
His parents say the picture doesn’t look like Natale’s body, and that we should focus on the core issue: they believe the carabinieri did not identify themselves before the attack.
Heidi Hjorth tells us, “I know my son well enough. Despite the fact that he may have photos I’m not aware of. He would never have done this. Outside of surrendering, the only thing he would have thought of if he had known for sure that they were military police or police at all, would be to run, that would be the only thing outside of that. He would never attack a policeman.”
At the end of this long investigation, I had only one question left to ask to ask, “What words do the suspect’s families have for Officer Rega’s widow?”
Leah Elder, whose son is accused of stabbing Rega to death, said, “I’m just so heartbroken. I’m so heartbroken that her husband was here and now he’s no longer on this earth. And I feel just an immense amount of pain when I think of her.”
Natale’s father Ethan said, “Not a day goes by that we don’t, we don’t reflect on him and their lives, and his wife and his family and his parents and his sister, all of his friends and everyone who loved him, just as we love our son. And it’s just a tragedy.”
In her only statement since her husband’s death, Officer Cerciello Rega’s wife, Rosa Maria, wrote, “I ask for justice and not revenge for my Mario.”
The trial start date? Seven months to the day since he died.
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