Bay Area moms testify in Rome trial, sons charged with killing police officer

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A dramatic day of testimony in the trial of two Bay Area college students, charged with the murder of an Italian police officer. Their mothers took the stand, and faced the victim's widow in court.

It was a very long day in court, a full nine hours. ABC7 I-Team reporter Dan Noyes reached both mothers by text; they say it was an exhausting day, but they are glad their sons' sides are finally getting heard.

RELATED: Trial underway for Bay Area college students in killing of Italian officer after COVID-19 delays

The judge allowed no video to be released from court today, but photos in the video above capture the widow holding her husband's picture, Marin's Heidi Hjorth spotting her son Gabriel Natale Hjorth in a live feed from prison and wiping away tears, San Francisco's Leah Elder testifying about her son, Finnegan.

She described the moment she found out what happened, in a phone call from Rome, as she first told me in this interview from February.

Leah Elder from February: "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."

VIDEO: '32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome'
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ABC7 I-Team's Dan Noyes reveals what led up to that night in July 2019 when an Italian police officer was killed. Find out in the ABC7 Original, "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome."

Elder and Natale were on vacation in Rome after their first year of community college. They tried to buy cocaine, but when police interrupted, Elder stole a backpack of someone involved in the deal. The backpack owner called police and set a meeting with the defendants. They say the plainclothes officers did not identify themselves. Elder killed Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega with a U.S. Marine-style combat knife with a 7-inch blade.

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."
Ethan Elder: "And he was not letting up."

Leah Elder also recounted her son's suicide attempt the year before the trip to Rome. She said Elder was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Today, she described the impact her son's murder charge has had on the family: "Our family's life is tragically changed forever and every aspect of our life has been affected. And I can imagine it's the same for the family of Mr. Rega."

RELATED: Bay Area suspects come face-to-face with widow, brother during trial

Heidi Hjorth started her testimony with a message to Cerciello Rega's family, saying she was "very sad" and that she understood the deep pain they are feeling. She also testified photos and videos found on her son's phone of drugs, knives and guns "really shocked her".

She testified they don't have guns in their family. In our interview earlier this year, Hjorth insisted her son didn't know the men were police officers; Gabriel fought with Officer Andrea Varriale, preventing him from helping his partner.

Heidi Hjorth: "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."

This trial is going very slowly; it started ten months ago, had a break for the pandemic. It's expected to last into February.

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