I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: Bay Area man says son suspected in Rome officer killing roughed up during questioning

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The father of a San Francisco man held for stabbing an Italian police officer says police roughed up his son in the hours after his arrest. Finnegan Elder, 19, and Mill Valley resident Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19, are accused of killing Carabinieri Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome in July 2019.

In an essay provided exclusively to the ABC7 News I-Team, Ethan Elder says, "The 'confession' Finn gave to the police came after eight hours of him being slapped, kicked, spit on and stood on; different interrogators, none of them proficient in English, came in to interview him and extract the words they wanted to hear."

Scroll to the bottom this post to read Ethan Elder's full essay sent to the ABC7 News I-Team.

The Elder family has declined requests for interviews, since their attorney, Craig Peters, read a statement on their behalf on August 3, 2019. "We look forward to the truth coming out and to our son coming home," Peters said, adding, "It's understandable but unfortunate that people jumped to conclusions in this matter."

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The new accusations of abuse by police are not the first. Two Italian police officers already face charges for exceeding their authority while questioning Natale-Hjorth. A photograph leaked from the Carabinieri shows Natale-Hjorth handcuffed and blindfolded before police questioned him.

Ethan Elder, describing the morning of July 26, wrote that he and his wife, Leah, had been working from home when they got the news of Finn's arrest.

Elder writes he "heard her yelling from the back of the house: 'What happened, Finnegan?'" adding, "I ran to our bedroom to find her talking to two Italian policemen on FaceTime. One of them said, 'I don't have an hour to decide if you have an Italian lawyer!' Right before they hung up we heard our son's voice: 'Mom, they're saying I killed a cop!'"

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Investigators say the teens had arranged to return a backpack they had stolen after a drug deal went bad, in exchange for 80 Euros and a gram of cocaine.

Ethan Elder tells the I-Team, in his son's statement to Italian police, Finnegan says the teens never demanded cocaine, only asked for their money back.

"Instead, the boys were assailed by two men in plain clothes who turned out to be officers of the Carabinieri. In the ensuing struggle, Finn stabbed Officer Mario Cerciello Rega," said Elder.

Within hours, police arrested the suspects at their hotel, and found a knife with blood on it hidden in the room's ceiling panel.


Ethan Elder flew to Rome and into an international controversy, and rushed to speak with his son in jail.

"I saw his initial police interview and within five minutes Finn said, 'We didn't know that they were policemen.' ... The boys believed they were fighting criminals working with the drug dealer," said Ethan Elder.

Over the following weeks, authorities leaked the contents of their cell phones. Ethan Elder said, "Finn and Gabe posing like gangsters, holding knives, guns, bags of weed and bottles of booze, many captioned with violent rap lyrics. It was overwhelming and we struggled to make sense of it all."

Ethan Elder admits, "Our boy's no saint. He has been in trouble before, for a fight off campus when he was in high school, and he's had problems with marijuana. The Instagram images of him have shamed us, and him too. But the idea that he went out that night intending to kill a cop, as the prosecution states, is absurd."

"Why were the cops in plain clothes, dressed in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts, when they assaulted the teens at 3 am? Why did neither officer have a gun, a badge or even handcuffs with which to apprehend their targets? Why were they responding to a call from a guy who had helped the tourists in an illegal activity?" writes Ethan Elder.

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He adds, "How did a 150-lb boy overpower the 253-lb Rega, as his partner claimed? Gabe, who speaks Italian, did not say that the Carabinieri had identified themselves, as the police reported. Varriale (Officer Rega's partner) had reported the 'assailants' were North African; Finn and Gabe are distinctly Caucasian. The official story was full of holes, and Italians were beginning to mutter, 'Qualcosa non va,' something isn't right."

Italian police declined to comment on Ethan Elder's accusations. A spokesman tells us, "We cannot make any comments during this phase." The two teens are expected to stand trial on February 26. With the court sessions scheduled for only one day a week, the trial could last 6 months or more.

Ethan Elder says, "The Italian justice system is different than ours, as are their definitions of murder, manslaughter and self-defense. We have seen enough not to make any predictions. But as a family we know that until the truth is known and our son is judged fairly, none of us will be free."

Get the latest updates on the killing of Mario Cerciello Rega here.

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

Here is the full text of Ethan Elder's essay to the ABC7 News I-Team:

Something Isn't Right, By Ethan Elder

July 26, 2019, a Friday morning. My wife Leah and I were working at our home in San Francisco when I heard her yelling from the back of the house: "What happened, Finnegan?" Our 19-year-old son was in Europe traveling after his freshman year in college, and his mother had just helped him get a hotel room in Rome where he was supposed to meet a friend of his. A friend we'd never met.

I ran to our bedroom to find her talking to two Italian policemen on FaceTime. One of them said, "I don't have an hour to decide if you have an Italian lawyer!" Right before they hung up we heard our son's voice: "Mom, they're saying I killed a cop!"

Over the next 24 hours we learned more about the allegations: According to the Carabinieri, Italy's national paramilitary police force, Finn and his friend Gabe Natale-Hjorth were ripped off trying to buy cocaine from a street dealer in Rome. In response, they stole the backpack of the man who connected them with the drug dealer, and then arranged to return the bag in exchange for 80 euros. Instead, the boys were assailed by two men in plain clothes who turned out to be officers of the Carabinieri. In the ensuing struggle, Finn stabbed Officer Mario Cerciello Rega.

The Italian papers went crazy; one headline proclaimed Rega a "defender of Rome." It was reported that the boys had confessed to the killing, and Italian politicians were calling for the death penalty. Rega had been married 46 days earlier, and when he was buried in the same church where he was wed, two deputy prime ministers attended. We grieved for him and his family as we tried to fathom their loss. Paparazzi began to hound us here at home: reporters asked our neighbors for their impressions of Finn while news cameras trained on our front door, waiting for us to make an appearance. We offered our condolences but were mostly too devastated to talk to the press or almost anyone outside of our family. Meanwhile the media ran pictures of the boys, taken from social media and their cell phones: Finn and Gabe posing like gangsters, holding knives, guns, bags of weed and bottles of booze, many captioned with violent rap lyrics. It was overwhelming and we struggled to make sense of it all.

We love Rome. It was where we honeymooned. We had brought the kids there when they were young, and took a historical tour of the Eternal City, given by a local guide.

Now we began to hear that people in Rome were asking questions. Why were the cops in plain clothes, dressed in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts, when they assaulted the teens at 3 am? Why did neither officer have a gun, a badge or even handcuffs with which to apprehend their targets? Why were they responding to a call from a guy who had helped the tourists in an illegal activity? How did a 150-lb boy overpower the 253-lb Rega, as his partner claimed? Gabe, who speaks Italian, did not say that the Carabinieri had identified themselves, as the police reported. Varriale had reported the "assailants" were North African; Finn and Gabe are distinctly Caucasian. The official story was full of holes, and Italians were beginning to mutter, "Qualcosa non va"-something isn't right.

In August, I flew to Rome with our good family friend and attorney, Craig Peters, to meet with Finn's Italian lawyers, Renato Borzone and Roberto Capra. While I was there I learned more about the case. I saw his initial police interview and within five minutes Finn said, "We didn't know that they were policemen." Rega and Varriale jumped them as they walked down the street, and the boys believed they were fighting criminals working with the drug dealer.

Our boy's no saint. He has been in trouble before, for a fight off campus when he was in high school, and he's had problems with marijuana. The Instagram images of him have shamed us, and him too. But the idea that he went out that night intending to kill a cop, as the prosecution states, is absurd.

We are a close knit family. When Finn and his big sister, Ali, were growing up, they went everywhere with us, to dinner parties and on dog walks, even to my volunteer stints at an SF soup kitchen. As they went through their not atypical teen issues, we knew we were blessed to be so tight with our kids.

Immediately we realized we are dealing with a very different legal system. The "confession" Finn gave to the police came after eight hours of him being slapped, kicked, spit on and stood on; different interrogators, none of them proficient in English, came in to interview him and extract the words they wanted to hear. (This technique, known as "leapfrogging," was employed in the Amanda Knox case as well.) We later learned that the Carabinieri had secretly filmed us when we separately visited Finn in prison. Seeing the images of him with his mother, I was struck by their intimacy as Leah touched his hands, his neck, his hair. She pulled up his shirt to check his body for injuries. Her baby.

Throughout the dark times, the US Embassy has been there for us, responding quickly and helping us get past many of the Italian barricades. We were once again reminded of how fortunate we were to be American citizens. A sentiment echoed by our Italian lawyers.

Now we have a trial date of February 26, 2020. It could last six months, we've been told, and meanwhile we continue to amass evidence and battle misinformation. Just before Thanksgiving an Italian paper reported that the prosecution had transcripts from our private conversations with Finn in jail, and that he admitted to knowing they were cops. But the reports were a lie. We have viewed the recordings and know what was actually said. We must fight each lie with the truth to learn what actually happened that night.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, who served as chief of staff for former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, wrote of the case, "Varriale's honesty as a witness is now compromised and unreliable" and that "'Murder' usually requires premeditation. That didn't happen in this case. I will not be surprised if Elder is freed or charged with manslaughter."

Were this trial to be held in the US, that might be the outcome. But the Italian justice system is different than ours, as are their definitions of murder, manslaughter and self-defense. We have seen enough not to make any predictions. But as a family we know that until the truth is known and our son is judged fairly, none of us will be free.
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