I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: Bay Area mother of Gabriel Natale, 2nd suspect in Italian officer death, breaks silence

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Saturday, February 22, 2020
Rome Officer Killing: Bay Area mother of 2nd suspect breaks silence
A Marin County mother is breaking her silence about her son, 19-year-old Gabriel Natale Hjorth, one of two young men from the Bay Area facing charges in the death of an Italian police officer last summer.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A Marin County mother is breaking her silence about her son, 19-year-old Gabriel Natale Hjorth, one of two young men from the Bay Area facing charges in the death of an Italian police officer, Italian Carabinieri Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, last summer.

Their trial starts next week, and that mother has given her first interview to the I-Team's Dan Noyes.

It's part of an ABC7 Originals documentary called "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome" that debuted Thursday night.

Marin County realtor Heidi Hjorth has had a difficult seven months.

An ABC7 Originals Documentary: For more exclusive material watch "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome" here

Last summer, she sent her Gabriel to Italy to visit his grandfather at this seaside villa an hour outside Rome. That's what Gabe, his father and brother do each summer. But, Gabe hasn't returned. She got the news in a phone call from her ex-husband.

"He said, 'Last night, we saw on the news that Gabriel and the guy that he visited in Rome were arrested in connection with the killing of a police officer,'" said Heidi Hjorth.

Dan Noyes: "What's going through your mind at that point? I can't even imagine."

Heidi Hjorth: "I honestly couldn't, I really, I couldn't process it."

Gabe had gone from the coast to Rome, to meet a friend he knew from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Finnegan Elder.

Around midnight, Gabe tried to buy cocaine in a popular nightlife area. Police records show, after the drug deal went bad, Finn grabbed the backpack of someone involved in the deal. The Americans demanded money to return it, but the backpack owner called police. Carabinieri Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega and his partner responded without uniforms or their service weapons. They confronted the young men, but Finn stabbed Cerciello Rega to death, saying the officer had him pinned to the ground and was choking him.

"They thought they were meeting the drug pusher. And so when they saw two, they probably thought it was two friends of the drug pusher, the drug dealer. So to me that all makes sense," said Hjorth.

Dan Noyes: "The boys didn't know that those were police officers."

Heidi Hjorth: "No."

Within days of the killing, a photo leaked out of the headquarters for the paramilitary police force, the Carabinieri. Heidi's son, handcuffed and blindfolded.

"I stared at it for a long time, trying to gauge what his feelings were. but I could tell he was listening. He was alert, and that's you know, that's him," said Hjorth.

Five months later, the officer who placed the blindfold on Gabe and the one who took the picture was charged with abuse of office.

Then, last week, a video of Gabe in the blindfold leaked. An investigator asks, "Hey boy, what's your name, hey, what's your name? What's your name?" Gabe seems confused and answers, "What changed?" The officer also asks about the location of a pink or red sweatshirt -- what Finn wore during the killing. But, the most shocking aspect of all -- who shot the video. I-Team's Dan Noyes confirmed it's Officer Andrea Varriale -- who Gabe had fought just hours before, seen here with scratches on his neck after the altercation. The biggest witness in the case had access to the suspect, a fact for the defense team to raise at trial.

Dan Noyes: "Just as a mom seeing that--"

Heidi Hjorth: "It was terrible, but I was also grateful that I didn't see other images that were, you know, that could have been worse."

Dan Noyes: "In terms of him being harmed."

Heidi Hjorth: "hmm-mmm."

For the upcoming trial, Finn admits stabbing Officer Cerciello Rega, but what was Gabe's role? A judge ruled he should also face the aggravated murder and attempted extortion charges. With his Italian language skills, Gabe set up the meeting that turned deadly, and he fought with Officer Varriale, preventing him from saving his partner.

Dan Noyes: "Do you think that Gabriel shares some responsibility in terms of being in that place, putting himself in that location, doing the things that he did that led up to the events."

Heidi Hjorth: "I believe that he was bold enough to set up a meeting to go and get his money back after being cheated. And I believe that he did not know that Finn had the knife that evening with him."

That's what Gabe told investigators, but the judge in the preliminary investigation found that the argument was not credible. Given the knife's dimensions, he wrote, "It was certainly not possible to take it and hide it in your pocket or otherwise hide it without the knowledge of Natale who was nearby in the room with Elder."

It also appears Gabe had his own knife in Rome, found on a table next to his hotel bed. Investigators say it's very similar to one he mentioned in a text to his girlfriend in May; he sent her a link to an Amazon listing.

A source also gave ABC7 News a Snapchat video from Gabe's account. His friends told ABC7 News he sent it from Italy in the days before the killing. Holding a knife, Gabe wrote, "Unfortunately no straps abroad."

Straps, street slang for guns. Natale had a video of himself on his cell phone, that was was leaked by the police.

His Snapchat continues, "But this baby saved my full pockets today." Implying he used the knife to keep someone from taking his money.

His parents say the picture doesn't look like Gabe's body, and that we should focus on the core issue, their belief that the Carabinieri did not identify themselves before the fatal fight.

"Outside of surrendering, the only thing he would have thought of if he had known for sure that they were military police or police at all, would be to run, that would be the only thing outside of that. He would never attack a policeman," said Hjorth.

Dan Noyes found out much more in the seven months since the officer died, and you can see it all right now in our ABC7 Originals documentary.

It's called "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome". You can watch it on Amazon Fire TV, ABC7News.com, and the ABC7 News Bay Area YouTube Channel. We'll also air the program this Sunday on ABC7 at 7 p.m.

Take a look at more stories by Dan Noyes and the ABC7 News I-Team.