Former SBCC Student on Trial for Killing Italian Police Officer
Finnegan Elder and Gabriel Natale Hjorth (Photo: Italian Carabinieri)
By edhat staff
Two U.S. students, one formerly enrolled at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), are standing trial for killing an Italian Police Officer during a botched drug deal last summer.
The trial began Wednesday with families of the students and lawyers present in court.
Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, age 19 who enrolled at SBCC in 2018, and his alleged accomplice Finnegan Lee Elder, 20, both attended Tamalpais High School in Marin County. They are charged with stabbing and killing 35-year-old Police Officer Mario Rega on July 26 in Rome.
Italian prosecutors allege the U.S. students were attempting to buy cocaine from a drug dealer but were given crushed-up aspirin instead. They then allegedly stole the backpack of the man who had directed them to the drug dealer. That man called the Italian police to report the robbery.
Rega and his partner responded to the call, allegedly in plain clothes and unarmed, and were confronted by the Americans when a fight took place. Elder is accused of stabbing the officer 11 times with a 7-inch combat knife, while Natale-Hjorth reportedly attacked the officer's partner. Rega bled to death near the hotel where the Americans were staying.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth were arrested in their hotel room after being caught on CCTV fleeing the scene. Investigators stated they found the knife in the ceiling of their hotel room. After several hours of interrogation and "faced with overwhelming evidence, they confessed," according to the Provincial Command of Rome.
Italian prosecutors received criticism for a possibly coerced confession after a photo leaked showing one of the suspects blindfolded and handcuffed. Prosecutors stated the interrogation was conducted lawfully.
The Americans are officially charged with murder, attempting extortion related to a drug deal, and resisting public officials. Under Italian law, accomplices to an alleged murderer can also be charged with the murder.
As of Wednesday, Elder has claimed he allegedly stabbed the police officer in self-defense and told police he "feared for his life," according to court documents obtained by ABC News. Their lawyers contend they thought they were being attacked by criminals and acted in self-defense.
A murder conviction in Italy can result in a life sentence, but the country does not have a death penalty.