The two face aggravated murder and attempted extortion charges, in a trial set to begin Feb. 26.
An ABC7 Originals Documentary: For more exclusive material watch "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome" here
With his trial set to start next week, Finn Elder's parents are breaking their silence in an exclusive interview with the I-Team's Dan Noyes.
After taking so many hits in the Italian media, the Elders say it's time to get their side of the story out, as their son goes on trial.
The nightmare began for Leah and Ethan Elder on July 26 of last year with a FaceTime video call from two Italian police investigators; their 19-year-old son, Finnegan, visible in the background crying.
"He said, 'Mom, it's really, really bad.' He said, "They're saying that I killed a cop and then the phone just went dead," explained Lead Elder. "Yeah, it was, it was really awful. I don't think Ethan and I could stand for quite a long time. After that, we both just sat here on the floor in this room and just cried and cried and cried."
How did this happen, they wondered. The parents were involved in both their children's lives, as they grew up in this San Francisco neighborhood a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
"We took family walks, we have Sunday family dinners. We were very involved in sports, you know PTA at his middle school. Ethan coached soccer, helped to coach baseball. So, we have been and are still very close," said Leah.
Their son, Finn, went to Rome on summer vacation, after wrapping up his first year at San Diego Mesa College. He met up with an old friend from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Gabriel Natale.
The investigative report shows, early that Friday morning, Gabe tried to buy cocaine, but a pusher gave him Italian Tylenol instead, and off-duty cops broke up the transaction. The young Americans ran away, Finn grabbing the backpack of a man involved in the deal, and the boys later demanded money to return it. The backpack owner arranged to meet Gabe and called police. Carabinieri Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, arrived at the location; the officers were not in uniform, had no service weapons or badges, and there are questions whether they properly identified themselves as police.
The Elders defend Finn's actions as self-defense.
Ethan Elder: "At 3 a.m., he was jumped from behind."
Leah Elder: "Tackled."
Ethan Elder: "Thrown to the ground."
Leah Elder: "Thrown to the ground."
Ethan Elder: "By a man 100 pounds heavier than him."
Leah Elder: "He was being strangled."
Ethan Elder: "He was choking him and pinning him down. Finnegan thought he was in mortal danger."
Dan Noyes: "He feared for his life."
Leah Elder: "He was fighting somebody who's trying to kill him."
Ethan Elder: "And he was not letting up."
Finn pulled out a knife, a U.S. Marine-style combat weapon called a "ka-bar"; he told police he slashed at the officer until he let go. Cerciello Rega died 45 minutes later at the hospital, leaving behind a widow; they had married just the month before. The Carabinieri leaked this photo that Finn had on his cell phone of him in San Francisco before the trip, with what appears to be the same knife.
Dan Noyes: "Had you ever seen that knife before?"
Leah Elder: "No."
Ethan Elder: "No."
Dan Noyes: "No."
Leah Elder: "You can go to Big Five and there's rows and rows of camping knives."
Dan Noyes: "Did it surprise you that he traveled with that?"
Leah Elder: "Yes."
Ethan Elder: "Yes, it did."
Police held a news conference saying the Americans were the aggressors.
But a source has given me quotes from Finn Elder's interrogation that day. He says, "We didn't know that they were policemen." When the investigator asks, "What do you mean they attacked you?", Finn answers, "Like walked up close and just grabbed me and threw me to the ground. The bigger guy was on top of me. He started hitting me and he started strangling me. I thought I was going to die."
The Elders tell me they waited for Officer Cerciello Rega to be buried, before coming to Rome and visiting Finn in prison, the international media swarmed. They refused all interview requests, until now.
Dan Noyes: "Describe for me that moment, Ethan, when you saw Finn for the first time in prison."
Ethan Elder: "My heart was broken over the loss of Officer Rega. I walked back in, and it broke again."
Dan Noyes: "Seeing your boy."
Ethan Elder: "Seeing my boy. We hugged, we kissed, we told each other we loved each other. He was shaking."
Leah Elder: "I could feel how much physical contact he needed, so I just touched him the whole time and held his hand.">
The Elders tell ABC7 News Finn hasn't had problems with other inmates; some call him "California Boy." Leah and Ethan Elder are draining their life savings to pay attorneys here and in Rome. Finn's trial on aggravated murder and attempted extortion charges starts Feb. 26, seven months to the day, since the officer died.
Dan Noyes: "This is not an easy question to answer, but what words do you have for Officer Rega's wife?"
Leah Elder: "I'm just so heartbroken. I'm so heartbroken that her husband was here and now he's no longer on this earth. And I feel just an immense amount of pain when I think of her."
Ethan Elder: "Not a day goes by that we don't, we don't reflect on him and their lives, everyone who loved him, just as we love our son. And it's just a tragedy."
Take a look at more stories by Dan Noyes and the ABC7 News I-Team.
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