By Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) – An American teenager accused of stabbing an Italian policeman to death last week began to weep, and his alleged accomplice voiced disbelief, when told after their arrest that the officer had died of his wounds, a prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, is accused of killing the policeman in central Rome with an 18-cm (7-inch) blade in an incident that shocked Italians and raised questions over both the motive for the attack and police interrogation methods.
Elder and fellow student Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of murdering Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, after the policeman intervened in a dispute that began over a drug deal involving the pair, police say.
The court-appointed lawyers for the American pair could not be reached for comment. The Elder family said in a statement on Tuesday it had not spoken to him since his arrest on Saturday.
“The situation is fluid. Finn’s parents are coping,” the statement said.
Police say Cerciello Rega, unarmed and in plain clothes, was attacked by Elder in the early morning of Friday in an affluent Rome neighbourhood as he was trying to arrest him and Natale-Hjorth on suspicion of stealing a backpack.
The policeman and another officer, who was allegedly injured in the incident by Natale-Hjorth, had been called to the scene after the pair allegedly stole the backpack from a drug-dealer who they believed had cheated them, said Francesco Gargaro, head of the capital’s Carabinieri police force.
Prosecutor Nunzia D’Elia told a news conference on Tuesday that Natale-Hjorth, had reacted with disbelief when told of the policeman’s death, saying “Really dead? Dead dead?”
In an order for the pair to be held in jail pending investigation, a judge said the Americans had told investigators they had not been aware that Cerciello Rega was a policeman.
However, police chief Gargaro said on Tuesday that Cerciello Rega and his colleague had clearly identified themselves as police to the pair before the attack.
Police have also begun an investigation into the pair’s interrogation after a photo emerged of Natale-Hjorth in police custody, sitting blindfolded, hands cuffed behind his back.
Natale-Hjorth and Elder, both from San Francisco, were likely to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they were arrested on Saturday but were judged fit to be questioned, prosecutor D’Elia said.
She and Gargaro declined to comment on the inquiry into the interrogation.
Rome’s public attorney office said the investigation into the stabbing was still ongoing.
An Italian lawyer for Elder, Francesco Codini, told the New York Times that the two men had asserted their right to remain silent during a court hearing in Rome on Saturday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Domenico Lusi, Writing by Juliette Jabkhiro, Editing by Mark Bendeich)