A 19-year-old California man charged in the murder of an Italian police officer after a botched drug deal told a court that the victim and his partner never showed their badges.
“They approached without saying a word,” San Francisco Bay Area resident Gabriel Natale-Hjorth told a court on Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse.
Natale-Hjorth and his fellow Californian pal Finnegan Lee Elder, 20, face possible sentences of life behind bars for the July 2019 death of Carabinieri Vice Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome while they were on holiday.
Elder has admitted to stabbing Cerciello with a combat knife during a fight on a dark street while Natale-Hjorth wrestled with the cop’s partner.
Natale-Hjorth faces the same charges as Elder because under Italian law, anyone who participates indirectly in a murder can face homicide charges.
The two men have said they were jumped from behind by who they believed to be thugs sent by a drug dealer who had swindled them when they earlier tried to buy cocaine.
Before Cerciello’s partner, Andrea Varriale, fell to the ground during the altercation, he said “Carabinieri”, Natale-Hjorth said, referring to Italy’s paramilitary police.
“But I didn’t think it was possible that they were Carabinieri — they were dressed normally,” he testified. “They didn’t pull out a badge…”
The newlywed Cerciello’s killing sparked an outcry in Italy, as well as outrage over leaked photos of Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and his hands cuffed behind his back inside a police station.
Natale-Hjorth said he ran away after the scuffle and did not see Elder attack Cerciello when he turned around to look.
In their hotel room later, Elder took out the knife and “I didn’t know what to think,” Natale-Hjorth said, before explaining that he opened up a panel in the ceiling where his friend hid the weapon.
Varriale has testified that he and his partner identified themselves as cops with their badges, although Cerciello’s was never found.
Defense lawyers have been trying to show that police errors and lies told by Varriale after the stabbing — such as whether or not the officers were armed — undermine the prosecution witness’ accounts of the incident.
Elder has claimed he was roughed up in custody, saying in a secretly recorded conversation on Aug. 2, 2019: “They beat me pretty bad … they threw me to the ground, kicked me, punched me, stood on me, spit on me.”
In September, he apologized in court, saying he was “filled with remorse” and hoped the cop’s family will forgive him one day.
“I took a man’s life, I took a husband away from his wife, I broke a bond between brothers and I took a son away from his mother,” Elder said.