Two California teenagers are accused of stabbing a police officer to death in Rome while he was trying to recover a stolen backpack, according to Italian police.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 18, allegedly stabbed officer Mario Cerciello Rega eight times on July 26 in the aftermath of a failed drug transaction in the Italian capital. They are also accused of attempted extortion. Cerciello Rega and another plainclothes officer had allegedly approached the San Francisco teens in an attempt to recover a backpack they suspected the teens of stealing. Rega was recently married, and beloved in the community for his charity work, according to the Associated Press.
Natale-Hjorth and Elder had robbed an Italian citizen of their backpack, according to a police statement obtained by PEOPLE.com. A short time later, they answered a mobile phone inside the backpack, and reportedly demanded a ransom of "100 Euros and 1 gram of cocaine" for its return.
When the owner of the backpack alerted police, Cerciello Rega and another policeman posed as interested buyers and approached Elder and Natale-Hjorth.
“[They] did not hesitate to engage in a scuffle which culminated in the tragic deadly wounding...,” the police statement added, according to CNN.
The pair, who were vacationing in Italy, were arrested on Friday. They were scheduled to depart the country later that day.
“They were already ready to leave the country,” according to a statement issued by Italian police. “During the search of the hotel room, which was occupied by the two detainees, the murder weapon was found and seized, a knife of considerable size, cleverly hidden behind a ceiling panel, as well as the clothes worn during the crime.“
Officials said Elder and Natale-Hjorth have confessed to the stabbing. They also added that witnesses and CCTV footage tied the Californian teens to Rega’s murder. They called it a “heinous crime.” Authorities added the stabbing took place in Rome’s Prati neighborhood, a short walk from the posh hotel where Lee and Natale-Hjorth were staying.
Rega, a member of Italy’s paramilitary unit, the Carabinieri, was 35.
“Mario, a police officer, a hero, a boy with all his life ahead of him, who had been married for just 40 days,” Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, Tweeted shortly after Rega’s death. “How much sadness, how much anger. A prayer, a hug to his loved ones.”
Hundreds turned out Rega’s wake in Rome on Sunday, according to CNN.
Lee’s attorney, Francesco Codini, said his client "has maintained his right to remain silent," adding that, "it doesn't seem right to do interviews also because an officer is dead and for respect of the family, I would stop here."
“We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but we have very little independent information about these events,” Elder’s family also said in a prepared statement.
They added that they haven’t been in touch with their son.
“We were stunned to learn that two members of our community were arrested in connection to the killing of a policeman in Rome,” said J.C. Farr, principal of the Mill Valley high school. “[We] can add no additional information, other than offering sincere condolences to the family and friends who lost a loved one in this tragic situation.”
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