This case is probably going to be the case of the summer for the crime press. The murder of a newly married policeman, Carabiniere Mario Cerciello Rega, a great guy and a spotless public servant, for futile reasons by two wealthy American teens who were looking for drugs while on a summer vacation in Rome.
But what really happened?
The news published so far has been very confusing. In some cases it wasn’t even clear what the suspects’ names were, with their first names being confused with their last names.
Inconsistencies and reconstruction of facts
The information released so far about the investigation has brought to light some inconsistencies. Despite the fact that it seems clear the perpetrator of the murder was the allegedly self-confessed Finnegan Lee Elder, 19 years old, from San Francisco, many doubts still remain about the circumstances surrounding the murder. Clarifying these doubts is important for getting a precise understanding of the liabilities and consequences the teen suspects may face.
An accurate reconstruction of what happened is also essential for understanding if the other teen suspect—the Italian-American Gabriele Natale, 18 y.o., whose father is from the Rome suburb of Fiumicino, where his grandparents still live—could be accused of being involved in murder, or in other, less-serious crimes.
What we know so far
First, let’s look at the facts that have emerged thus far and the inconsistencies therein.
The two young men were staying at a fancy hotel in Rome’s Prati neighborhood, in an area near the Italian Supreme Court. This is an important fact, because there are numerous security cameras in the area that captured footage of much of what actually happened.
The two young men decided to go looking for drugs in the Trastevere district, a popular area for nightlife in the center of the city, about two miles from Prati. It is quite easy to find drug dealers on the road in this area. When they reached Trastevere, they encountered a man named Sergio Brugiatelli, who directed them to a drug dealer who sold them a gram of cocaine for 100 euros.
After taking the dose, the boys discovered that it was not cocaine, but ground-up aspirin.
They got very angry and went back to Brugiatelli, who was still nearby, and they stole his bag with his cellphone inside. Then they went back to the Prati neighborhood.
From there, they made contact by phone with Brugiatelli, who probably just called his phone, which was in the bag the teens had stolen. The boys answered and agreed to return the bag with the phone, in exchange for 100 euros. They arranged to meet him on a street near their hotel.
At this point, the teens had already committed two felonies which under Italian law may cause them a 4 -5 year conviction: theft and extortion!!!
Brugiatelli knew that, so he called the Carabinieri police twice before being told that two officers would be sent to the meeting place to arrest the teens for attempted extortion.
This is one of the biggest anomalies in the case:
why would Brugiatelli call the police to report the extortion and ask for law enforcement to intervene? Why would a drug dealer ask for police intervention to get a bag back that most likely had illegal material inside?
According to reports circulating in some Italian newspapers, Brugiatelli was a police informant, which would explain why he may have had close contacts within the police. This would also explain why the Carabinieri police took action so quickly on the matter, which is quite rare in Rome for petty crimes such as the one he was reporting.
The meeting, autopsy, and murder weapon
The teens went to the meeting place and instead of Brugiatelli, they were met by two plainclothes policemen. The cop who survived said that he and his partner immediately told the teens that they were police officers, and this seems to be confirmed by Natale’s deposition.
However, since Elder doesn’t speak Italian, he probably couldn’t understand that they were police officers. This detail is very important, because it could be a mitigating factor for Elder’s conduct.
According to the cop who survived, the teens immediately attacked them. Forensic evidence will be critical to understanding what actually happened. According to the autopsy, the police officer who was killed, Cerciello, had 11 stab wounds inflicted in vital points from behind. Some newspapers reported the wounds appeared to have evidence of paramilitary technique.
The investigation has revealed that Elder brought the knife he used to commit the murder with him from the US and he also posted on twitter a pic of himself with what seems to be the same knife just before leaving to Italy.
This presents another disturbing question:
why would an 18-year-old boy on vacation in Rome be traveling with an assault knife such as this?
This point will certainly be a challenge to his defense, because it is clear evidence of a very aggressive and dangerous attitude.
Also few pics of Lee appeared on the internet indeed reveal his as dark personality.
His Instagram profile show his shoulder with an upside down cross, usually a Satanic symbol, and the phrase : King of Nothing: death is guaranteed, life is not.
Another pic shows him with disturbing dark polished nails
After the crime
After stabbing Cerciello to death, the teens fled the scene of the crime, as shown by surveillance footage. They returned to the hotel where they were staying, perhaps hoping that investigators wouldn’t manage to find them before they left on their return flight to the US the following day.
This brings up the most serious circumstance affecting the teens’ defense: the boys hid the murder weapon in a false ceiling in their hotel room. This element is very important because it may reveal that both of them were aware of the seriousness of what had taken place, as well as their desire to conceal what happened.
The next morning, Carabinieri police woke the boys while they were still on their hotel beds, as shown in this picture, which reveals interesting details including prescription pills and alcohol in the room.
The teens were taken to the Carabinieri police station on Via in Selci, which is where Natale was then blindfolded, as shown in a now-infamous photo. Press reports have said the reason he was blindfolded was so that he wouldn’t be able to see the investigation documents located in that room.
And to be fair, we need to consider that the Carabinieri who were taking Natale in custody in that moment, were probably very shocked for the bloody murder of their colleague and afraid that the suspect murderer may be very dangerous, this is the reason while they probably handcuffed Natale (which is very rare in Italy) and also decided to blindfold him.
However, according to some press reports, the blindfolding—which although is not necessarily a crime under Italian law, is still not a legal procedure, and most likely will just cause a disciplinary sanction (notwithstanding prosecutor office just started a investigation on this to check whether or not a crime was committed) may be used by teens defense as evidence of abuse suffered in order to obtain a confession.
This is why the chief prosecutor immediately noted that teens gave his deposition without being pressured into it.
During questioning, he admitted that he stabbed the Carabiniere officer, but he also argued that he thought the officer was one of the drug dealers and said Cerciello was strangling him.
The preliminary investigative judge (GIP) who confirmed the arrest order said this defense was not supported by any evidence, because there was no sign on anyone neck of any strangulation attempt.
Possible defense strategy
At this point it is already possible to imagine what the defense’s strategy will be. Elder will probably say that he stabbed Cerciello in self-defense. Objectively this is not very credible, because there were far too many stab wounds, which were inflicted with far too much force and violence. The knife blade was reportedly pushed inside all the way down to the handle. Furthermore, there is currently no evidence that Elder was attacked.
Gabriele Natale will presumably defend himself by saying that he was not involved in the murder but only helped Elder escape afterwards. If the evidence proves this to be the case, this strategy may save him from many years in prison.
Here are some of the key questions in this case at this point:
What risks do these teens face under Italian law?
Can the fact that Natale was blindfolded affect the validity of the trial?
Are the teens entitled to a jury trial?
Can a conviction be served in the United States?
When will the trial take place and how long will it last?
I will discuss the answers to these questions in my next article.
***The information reported on this article are a summary of allegations reported by Italian and US press and some opinion of the author***