A plainclothes police officer had forgotten his gun the night he was fatally stabbed during a confrontation with two San Francisco Bay Area teenagers in Rome, an Italian police commander said Tuesday.
Gen. Francesco Gargaro of Italy’s paramilitary Carabinieri police force said that even if the officer had been armed, he would not have had time to draw his weapon before he was mortally wounded with a military-style knife.
During a news conference, the commander provided some of the first details about the encounter early Friday in which Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, was knifed 11 times.
Cerciello Riga and a partner, Andrea Varriale, were assigned to respond to an extortion attempt involving a failed drug deal, Gargaro said. Thieves had demanded money and cocaine in exchange for returning a stolen backpack, he said.
The officers were in plainclothes and identified themselves as Carabinieri as they approached two suspects, but were immediately attacked, Gargaro said. Asked why Cerciello Rega didn’t pull his gun, Gargaro said the officer had "forgotten" his weapon after being called into work on a scheduled day off.
"In any case, there was no time to use it," Gargaro said.
The police said other officers didn’t know Cerciello Rega didn’t have his gun with him when he set out on what would be a fatal assignment.
"He is the only one who knows why he didn’t have it with him," Gargaro said.
Two suspects from the Bay Area, Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, were detained in the officer’s slaying. Police have said Elder is suspected of stabbing Cerciello Rega and Natale-Hjorth is suspected of assaulting the other officer.
Varriale did have his gun, but after Natale-Hjorth stopped punching and scratching and ran off, the officer turned his attention to his wounded partner, Gargaro said.
The general also stressed that under Italian law it is illegal to fire at a fleeing suspect. If he had done so, Varriale “would have been under investigation for a grave crime.”
The teens were classmates at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley before graduating. Elder was transferred in from Sacred Heart Cathedral Prepatory in San Francisco after a 2016 fight in Stern Grove with another member of the football team, law enforcement sources tell NBC Bay Area.
A judge who approved the jailing of the two suspects Saturday said there were "grave" indications the Americans were responsible for the officer’s death.
Natale-Hjorth, whose father is Italian, also has Italian citizenship, the Italian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
According to the judge’s written ruling, Elder and Natale-Hjorth allegedly paid for cocaine from a drug dealer in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood but the deal wasn’t completed because police officers had approached.
Investigators said the two then snatched and ran off with the knapsack of the Italian man who had put them in contact with the dealer.
Police said when the intermediary called his own cellphone, which was in the stolen backpack, the teens told Sergio Brugiatelli they’d return the bag in exchange for 100 euros ($112) and a gram of cocaine.
After Brugiatelli reported the demand to police, an appointment with the teens was set up and Cerciello Rega and Varriale were sent to the rendezvous point.
Varriale recounted later that they identified themselves as Carabinieri and showed their badges, but were immediately attacked, the judge wrote in her ruling upholding the detention. The teen suspects told investigators they did not know the two men who showed up to meet them were police officers, Judge Chiara Gallo wrote.
During his interrogation, Elder told authorities he stabbed Cerciello Rega because he feared he was being strangled, the judge wrote, noting the teen didn’t have any marks on his neck.
After Cerciello Rega’s death at a hospital, officers tracked the Americans to their hotel room and reported finding the alleged weapon, an 18-centimeter (7-inch) military-style attack knife, hidden in the room’s drop ceiling.
Elder told police he had brought the knife with him from the United States a few days earlier, investigators said on Tuesday.
Judge Gallo cited contradictions in the teens’ statements to investigators: Elder told investigators that Natale-Hjorth hid the knife, while Natale-Hjorth said he didn’t even know about a stabbing until his friend woke him hours later and reported he had "used a knife" and then washed it.
Prosecutor Nunzia D’Elia, who interrogated the pair Friday, said both exhibited apparent difficulty in grasping the gravity of the situation.
"One of them said, 'Is he really dead? Dead, dead?" D’Elia told journalists, going on to identify the speaker as Natale-Hjorth.
Amanda Knox, an American who was convicted but ultimately acquitted in Italy of the 2007 slaying of her British housemate in Italy, tweeted that she was getting a lot of questions about the current case.
"All I can say is: I’m withholding judgment," said Knox, whose closely watched case received sensational and exhaustive news coverage. "It should be tried in the court of law, not the court of public opinion."
Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.