An American teenager was “illegally blindfolded” before he was questioned about his alleged involvement in an Italian police officer’s death, a Carabinieri commander said Sunday.
Provincial Cmdr. Francesco Gargaro said Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, was blindfolded for a few minutes before his questioning as a suspect in the slaying of Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega, 35. The blindfolding came to light after a photo was leaked showing the teen handcuffed with his head down.
Natale-Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder, 19 – both from San Francisco and visiting Italy as tourists – were arrested Saturday at an upscale hotel in Rome in Friday’s stabbing death of Cerciello Rega, who had just returned from his honeymoon days earlier.
Blindfolding a suspect is “illegal. It’s not allowed,” Gargaro said. The officer who put the blindfold on Natale-Hjorth did so to prevent him from seeing documents related to the investigation, the commander said.
The officer was transferred to another unit and the Carabinieri is looking into how the photo of the blindfolding was leaked, Gargaro said.
Some Italians worried about the photo’s potential to shift the case in favor of the defense, The Associated Press reported. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini tweeted that anyone complaining about the arrest of the teenager should remember the real victim was Cerciello Rega.
Before the officer’s death, the two Americans stole a backpack from an Italian citizen and threatened to keep it until the Italian gave them 100 euros and one gram of cocaine. Carabinieri said. The man whose backpack was stolen is a drug dealer and had sold the teens a substance that was not cocaine, according to investigators.
The individual called the police, which prompted Cerciello Rega and another officer to arrive in plainclothes. The Carabinieri said the officers identified themselves as police but were still attacked. Elder is accused of stabbing Cerciello Rega eight times and Natale-Hjorth is accused of beating up the other officer with his hands.
The two blamed each other for the murder when interrogated separately, NBC reported. Elder, however, was the one who recognized the murder weapon – a large knife seized from their hotel room, NBC reported.
The Carabinieri police force, in a statement, said the two confessed after being interrogated and facing “overwhelming evidence.”
Cerciello Rega died in the hospital. Italians lined the streets outside the church where he was buried to pay their respects on Sunday.
In a statement Sunday, the Elder family offered their condolences to Cerciello Rega’s loved ones and said they have not been able to communicate with their son.
“We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but have very little independent information about these events,” they said. “We have not been able to have any communication with our son. We ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
Contributing: Associated Press
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