California college students guilty in killing of Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega

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Thursday, May 6, 2021
Bay Area students found guilty in killing of Italian officer
A jury in Rome has convicted two Bay Area college students in the slaying of an Italian police officer in 2019. Finnegan Elder of San Francisco and Gabriel Natale Hjorth of Marin County have both been sentenced to life in prison.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The deadly altercation lasted just 32 seconds in July 2019, and Wednesday afternoon in a courtroom in Rome, two college students from the Bay Area received life in prison for the stabbing death of an Italian police officer.

UPDATE: Parents, attorney respond after CA college students sentenced to life in killing of Italian officer

The verdict came after 11 p.m. Rome time; it took the panel just a day to decide. A long ordeal is over for the victim's widow, but the defendants' lawyers and their parents pledge to appeal.

WATCH FULL DOCUMENTARY: '32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome'

ABC7 I-Team's Dan Noyes reveals what led up to that night in July 2019 when an Italian police officer was killed. Find out in the ABC7 Original, "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome."

Twenty-one-year-old Finnegan Elder of San Francisco learned to speak Italian during his 22 months in a Rome prison. And you could see it on his face as he realized the verdict - guilty of the murder of Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega - and his sentence, life in prison.

Officer Cerciello Rega's widow who had just married the officer the month before his death burst into tears, hugging her lawyers and her husband's partner who was there during the deadly altercation.

Twenty-year-old Gabriel Natale Hjorth of Marin County received the same sentence; he struggled with Rega's partner, Andrea Varriale, that night.

RELATED: Bay Area defendant in killing of Italian police officer apologizes

In newly released video, Varriale insisted he and Cerciello Rega identified themselves as police as they approached the Americans at three in the morning.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth thought they were meeting a drug dealer's contact, so they could return the backpack they stole after a drug deal went bad.

But Elder insisted neither officer identified themselves that night; they were in plain clothes with no weapons, badges or handcuffs.

RELATED: Step-by-step account of what happened in death of Italian officer allegedly by Bay Area college students

Elder testified on March 1, "In the blink of an eye, they turned around and rushed us without saying a single word."

Cerciello Rega pinned Elder to the ground, and the young man stabbed the officer eleven times with a combat-style knife.

Elder told the court on March 1, "I'm truly sorry and deeply saddened for the loss of Mr. Cerciello."

RELATED: Bay Area suspects come face-to-face with widow, brother during trial

The day started with symbolism before the deliberations. Father and son, fingers crossed. The widow, wearing her husband's ring on a chain around her neck. Elder flashed his crucifix to his co-defendant and motioned to Heaven.

Leah Elder, Finn's mother, texted the I-Team Wednesday afternoon that she is "stunned, heartbroken, angry." While the appeals move forward, Mrs. Elder told us, "I'm gonna focus on Finn's survival right now. It's my only concern."

Dan reported on the case in an hour-long documentary called "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome." You can stream it right now in the featured row of our ABC7 Bay Area connected TV app on Roku, Amazon Fire, Android TV and Apple TV. App download information here.