Prosecutors have identified the two as 18-year-old Gabriel Christian Natale Hjorth and 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder, both born in San Francisco and vacationing in Italy without family, the Associated Press reported. Elder is accused of stabbing the officer Friday, and Natale Hjorth is alleged to have struck the officer’s partner, who was not seriously injured, with his hands. Italian authorities say the teens have confessed.
The Washington Post could not immediately reach Natale Hjorth and Elder. Elder’s lawyer Francesco Codini told The Post Sunday that he will be checking on his client’s health Monday but said he could not comment further, citing ongoing investigations. The Post was not able to reach Natale Hjorth’s lawyer, and prosecutors and the Carabinieri did not immediately respond to inquiries.
Police have said formal charges are pending.
As authorities investigate, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, remembered Cerciello Rega on Twitter as “a hero, a boy with all his life ahead” and promised the culprits would face justice. Salvini is also Italy’s interior minister.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called the officer’s killing a “deep wound for the State,” while the Italian army, state police and a host of other agencies, politicians and Italian citizens shared their condolences online.
Authorities say the tragedy started when the Americans attempted to buy drugs.
After realizing they had received fake product, they looked for the seller, police told the New York Times. Unable to locate him, the teens pursued the man who had pointed them toward the alleged drug-peddler earlier and stole his bag with his cellphone inside.
When the man called his phone, the teens demanded 100 euros and a gram of cocaine for the bag’s return, according to the Carabinieri. Police say the Italian agreed over the phone to meet for the exchange but then alerted the authorities of the theft.
The Carabinieri responded, and Cerciello Rega was attacked, police said. One of the officer’s eight stab wounds was in his heart, Italian state media outlet ANSA reported.
Cerciello Rega and his partner were wearing plainclothes, according to the AP. Police say the Americans “didn’t hesitate to engage in a struggle” even though the officers identified themselves as members of the Carabinieri.
But the American suspects are divided on whether police made their identity clear, NBC reported. A detention order indicates that Natale-Hjorth, who knows Italian, agreed that Rega said he was a Carabiniere officer, while Elder — who does not speak Italian — denied this.
The attackers fled as Cerciello Rega was taken to a hospital, according to ANSA. But authorities used video surveillance and witness testimonies to identify the two Americans, who police say were captured in their hotel preparing to leave Italy.
Authorities found the large knife allegedly used to kill Cerciello Rega “cleverly hidden” behind a ceiling panel, as well as clothes worn during the attack, Italian authorities said. Interrogated by the Carabinieri under the oversight of Rome’s public prosecutor, the accused confessed.
Codini said his client Elder chose not to answer questions during a Saturday hearing in the Rome jail where he and Natale Hjorth are in custody, according to the AP, which added that Natale Hjorth’s lawyer did not speak to reporters after the hearing. Codini told the AP that Elder was “worn out” but declined to speak further on the case.
Initial reports, including from Italian state news, got some details about the suspects wrong, saying that the alleged perpetrators of the attack were thought to be North African and that both were 19 years old.
A statement attributed in media reports to Elder’s family gives condolences to the “grieving family and community that loved Brigadier Cerciello Rega.”
“We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but have very little independent information about these events,” the statement reads. “We have not been able to have any communication with our son. We ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
Elder and Natale Hjorth were classmates at a high school in Mill Valley north of San Francisco, AP reported.
A judge has ruled the young men will stay in jail as the investigation proceeds, according to Italian state media.
A picture reportedly depicting Natale Hjorth in a gray blindfold while in custody has drawn scrutiny in the media. The officer who blindfolded the suspect “will be moved to a non-operational department,” an Italian-language news site stated, citing the Carabiniere. A police commander called Natale Hjorth’s treatment “unacceptable,” and police spokesman Roberto Riccardi told Repubblica that the photo circulating was “twice intolerable” — “intolerable in itself” and intolerable for the fact it was taken and shared.
The U.S. State Department in a statement said it was aware of the arrests and provides help to American citizens detained abroad but could not comment further because of privacy considerations.
The two Americans’ arrests come a month after U.S. citizen Amanda Knox returned to Italy for the first time since she was exonerated in an infamous murder case in the country. In a legal drama that drew significant media attention, Knox and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted, freed and convicted again for the 2007 killing of Knox’s roommate. They were released in 2015 after Italy’s highest court stepped in. Knox was 20 and studying abroad in Perugia when she was charged with her roommate’s stabbing.
As more details of Cerciello Rega’s killing emerge, about 100 friends and family from Campania — from where the dead officer hailed — came to Rome to remember him, ANSA reported. Those who knew the officer praised him as a kindhearted man who volunteered.
"Mario was a lovely lad,” Sandro Ottaviani, the commander of Rome's Piazza Farnese Carabinieri station, told the state news outlet. “He never held back at work and he was figurehead for the whole district.”
The Carabinieri’s Facebook page highlights the condolences coming to the police force from all over Italy, sharing a picture of a flower bouquet and letter left by a girl and her mother.
Carabinieri police said its 110,000 members share a “painful loss.”
The numbers behind the tragedy — Cerciello Rega’s young age, his cut-short marriage — “are a tally of a life devoted to others and to duty, of unconditional dedication and courage, full of hope and promise,” the police force said.