Two teenage U.S. tourists visiting Italy were arrested Saturday at a hotel in Rome for the brutal stabbing death of an Italian police officer that has sparked outrage in the country.
The Carabinieri police force, in a statement, said the two American men confessed to the Friday killing of Mario Cerciello Rega, a Carabinieri paramilitary police officer, after being interrogated and facing “overwhelming evidence.” Formal charges are still pending.
The teenagers have been identified as Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth, 18, both of San Francisco, according to the Associated Press. Law enforcement has not released photos of the defendants.
Cerciello Rega was 35 years old. He had recently returned from his honeymoon after getting married 43 days ago. Italy’s Deputy Prime Minster Matteo Salvini tweeted that he was a “a hero, a boy with all his life ahead.” He added: “How much sadness,” vowing to make the two Americans “pay dearly.”
During a search of the suspects’ hotel room, police say they found a large knife hidden behind a ceiling panel, as well as clothing allegedly worn during the crime.
The murder happened after a drug deal went wrong, authorities say.
The Carabinieri said the two men had stolen a backpack from an Italian citizen and had threatened not to return it unless the man give them 100 euros and one gram of cocaine.
The AP quoted an Italian investigator who spoke on the condition of anonymity who said the man who had his bag snatched was a drug-dealer who had just sold the two Americans a different substance rather than the cocaine they desired.
The individual called the police after getting his knapsack stolen, leading to two plainclothes police officers, including Cerciello Rega, to confront the two Americans.
Volanti della @poliziadistato, a sirene spiegate, davanti al Comando Generale dei #Carabinieri, per solidarietà all’Arma che oggi perde uno dei suoi uomini. Un momento pieno di emozione che ci sembra giusto condividere, ringraziando i colleghi della Polizia per il gesto. pic.twitter.com/FvnuqKiq9O
— Arma dei Carabinieri (@_Carabinieri_) July 26, 2019
The two defendants immediately engaged with the police even though they identified themselves as Carabinieri, according to the Carabinieri. Elder is accused of stabbing Cerciello Rega, producing eight stab wounds that killed him, while the other American, Natale Hjorth, allegedly pummeled the other officer with his bare hands.
Cerciello Rega died in the hospital. The second officer was not seriously injured.
“The most heartfelt condolences to your loved ones, whom we hold in an immense, single embrace,” the Carabinieri wrote in a tribute to Cerciello Rega.
The AP reported that under Italian law, a person participating in a killing is at risk of being charged with murder even if he or she does not carry out he slaying itself.
Elder’s attorney, Francesco Codini, told reporters that his client had exercised his right not to respond to questions during a detention hearing Saturday in the Rome jail where the two teens were being held. Natale Hjorth’s lawyer did not speak to reporters.
USA TODAY was unable to reach the attorneys for comment.
Contributing: Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.
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