I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: Autopsy report in death of Italian police officer, Bay Area teens under arrest

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Friday, September 13, 2019
EXCLUSIVE: Autopsy report in death of Italian police officer, Bay Area teens under arrest
An Italian police officer would still be alive, if he and his partner had followed department protocol, according to an argument from an attorney representing a 19-year-old from San Francisco who says he stabbed the officer in self-defense.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- An Italian police officer would still be alive if he and his partner had followed department protocol, according to an argument from an attorney representing a 19-year-old from San Francisco who says he stabbed the officer in self-defense.

Craig Peters asked the I-Team's Dan Noyes, "How does a well-trained police officer, paramilitary officer, going out on a pretty pedestrian undercover sting operation, end up dead at the end of it all?"

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The autopsy report obtained by the I-Team shows Italian police officer, or "carabinieri," Mario Cerciello Rega suffered 11 stab wounds. Some plunged so deep that the guard at the base of the 7-inch blade left an impression on his skin. After the attack, his partner said Rega stood and staggered for two seconds, arms out, blood pouring from his right arm pit. Rega said, "He stabbed me," and collapsed.

Dr. Judy Malinek, forensic pathologist from the San Francisco Bay Area, outlined the injuries suffered by Officer Rega, pointing to a diagram, "Those are the ones that went into the lung."

Dr. Malinek contradicts early reports from Italian media that one stab wound hit Rega's heart, saying, "Some of the wounds went into major organs such as the lung, the diaphragm, the kidney, the intestines, causing bleeding into the chest cavity and he died from blood loss, as a result."

Rega was 35 years old; he had just returned to work from his honeymoon, his funeral held in the same church where he was married just the month before.

Craig Peters represents stabbing suspect 19-year-old Finn Elder of San Francisco.

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"We feel terrible for what Cerciello Rega's wife is going through and his parents, if his parents are still alive, and anybody else who cared about him, right?" said Peters. "It's horrible. It didn't have to happen."

The attorney admits Elder and his 18-year-old friend, Gabriel Natale, made a bad choice trying to buy a gram of cocaine that night. But when they got scammed out of 80 Euro for some Italian Tylenol, Finn took the backpack of a man police identify as a known pusher and ran, seen on surveillance video.

The backpack owner called police; Mario Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale responded. The three listened on speaker phone as Gabe Natale agreed to meet at a Unicredit bank to exchange the backpack for the money they lost and the cocaine.

Varriale later told investigators, "It seemed to me that the speaker (Natale), using a somewhat crippled Italian, had the typical maghrebini accent." That's a person from North Africa.

As the police and teens headed to the meeting, it appears they both had the wrong idea. The officers thought they were meeting one man from North Africa. Elder and Natale thought they were also meeting one person -- that backpack owner. They knew what he looked like; they saw him earlier that night.

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Elder and Natale left their hotel, walked one block, and approached the bank from across the street; they were worried about getting jumped by the pusher's friends.

Craig Peters told the I-Team, "They thought that the person they were gonna be meeting up with was part of a gang or mobs or a mafia guy whatever."

That's why Finn Elder carried the knife, according to Peters. The teens don't see the bald man in the tank top, but they do see two dark figures wearing only Bermuda shorts and t-shirts, captured on the ATM surveillance video.

Craig Peters said the teens tried to abort, and turned left away from the bank.

"Varriale and Cerciello Rega came up behind them and jumped them, never showed them their badges," said Peters. "We know that now, never identified themselves as carabinieri prior to jumping them, at least we know that now."

In his tussle with Gabe Natale, Officer Varriale got away with scratches to his neck. Officer Rega had Finn Elder pinned to the ground, says his lawyer. The autopsy estimates Rega at 5'9" tall and 253 pounds; that includes the body bag and sheets covering him. Peters tells us, the autopsy does not support the police contention that the teens attacked the officers first.

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"The autopsy stab wounds don't support an immediate attack," he argued. "If there's an immediate attack, this is what you do with a knife. There's no stab wounds on the front of Ciercello's body."

After the suspects ran away, Varriale took off his shirt and tried to stop the bleeding from Rega's chest. He told investigators it took more than fifteen minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Police dispatch later complained the officers did not report the location of the meeting; they last checked in from a spot 3 kilometers away. It could have been a fatal mistake.

Dr. Malinek told us, "If the ambulance had gotten there sooner and gotten him to the hospital, it's possible that he could have been saved. Fifteen minutes is a pretty significant amount of time."

Craig Peters questions how police handled this simple theft complaint from the start, and he points to this undercover carabinieri video from 2011 showing the arrest of a small-time extortionist. They deploy a lookout and several officers with guns, some wearing marked vests. This arrest goes off without a hitch.

"I do know this," said Peters. "If they had done it properly, Cerciello Rega would be alive today. Cerciello Rega would absolutely be alive today had they done this sting operation properly."

The officers had no backup, no one else watching, and neither of them was armed. That's a violation of department policy. Officer Varriale is now under investigation for initially telling supervisors he did have his gun during the incident.

An attorney for Officer Rega's widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, provided a statement for this report. Massimo Ferrandino told our producer in Rome:

"We will make our final evaluation when the investigation is over, we cannot rely on the press to acquire information that may not even correspond to the investigators' findings. I read these details only from the newspapers, we have no access to investigative acts like the defense lawyers."

Asked to comment about the American lawyer pointing to the absence of weapons, he exclaimed: "What should they have done? Shot them? Ours is a defensive waiting strategy because we are the injured party, it is not we who must defend ourselves but them. We await the results of the inquiry by investigators, prosecutors and especially RIS (the forensic investigative unit). We were present only at the RIS investigations, in early September, which analyzed all the material found on both Cerciello and the two Americans: dresses, knife, all the things found in the boys' room, they found a myriad of things. The results will only be given to us in 60 days. Until today it is a lot of colour but the substance of the trial will be that. Let's talk about sentences, not prodromal acts. I am fairly confident of a positive outcome for my clients: a speedy trial based on what was the great offense received from poor Cerciello, who is no longer with us. I only know that there is a person who was savagely killed with 11 stab wounds, we will see how this trial will end. We hope that it will start soon and, above all, will be speedy. The widow is devastated and in deep sorrow."

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