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US student in Italy cop murder says attacked by 'thugs'

A US student accused of murdering an Italian policeman said Monday he did not know his nighttime attacker was a cop but thought he was a drug dealer.

Finnegan Elder, 21, read an hour-long statement to the court, saying he wanted to tell his version of the July 2019 incident that led to the death of police officer Mario Cerciello Rega during a botched drug bust in Rome.

US student in Italy cop murder says attacked by 'thugs'
US Finnegan Lee Elder (R) and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth (L), the two men accused of the killing of an Italian Carabinieri police officer, attend a hearing during their trial in Rome, on March 1, 2021. Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth are on trial over the killing of Mario Cerciello Rega, who was in plain clothes when he was slain in a night drug bust on July 26, last year. The two face life sentences if found guilty of knowingly killing a police officer. AFP
Elder and his friend Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19, are both charged with homicide and face possible life sentences in the killing that shocked Italy and led to an outpouring of public sympathy for the newlywed officer. 

"After listening to all these hearings, I've realised it's difficult to believe a person in my position," Elder told the court, reading from notes. 

"But what I'm telling you today is the truth, just as I spoke the truth at the time." 

Attack by thug?

Prosecutors say Cerciello was killed in an unprovoked attack after he and his partner, both in plain clothes, approached the two vacationing friends, who had earlier tried to buy drugs.

Elder has admitted stabbing policeman Cerciello multiple times with an eight-inch combat knife, but has said he and Natale-Hjorth were jumped by men they thought were drug dealers.

"When those men approached they immediately attacked us like they wanted to rob or hurt us without saying a word and without showing any ID or any other object," Elder said on Monday.

"They didn't even say 'Police' which sounds like the English word police."

After fleeing the attack, "I was still under the impression that I'd been attacked by a thug."

Natale-Hjorth, who fought with Cerciello's partner and was present in court on Monday, faces the same charge of "voluntary homicide" as Elder. 

He has testified he did not know the men were officers, saying they never showed badges. 

'I panicked'

A confusing web of events led to the late-night altercation, beginning with the young Americans meeting a stranger who promised to introduce them to a drug dealer.

After the dealer robbed them of their money, Elder grabbed the knapsack of the intermediary, with Natale-Hjorth later arranging a rendezvous with him to swap the bag for the stolen money. 

The dealer was actually an informant, who reported the bag's theft to police, after which Cerciello and his partner Andrea Varriale showed up at the designated exchange point.

Elder said on Monday he believed the intermediary and his associates to be "potentially dangerous."

"As we were leaving the room, I foolishly put the knife I brought from America in my sweatshirt pocket," he said, adding he didn't know if Natale-Hjorth saw him.

Varriale has testified the two officers approached the young men on the street from the front and showed their badges, although Cerciello's was never found.

Elder described "shock and terror" when the men he first thought were passersby were suddenly on top of them.

"I could feel his hands first on my chest and then on my neck with pressure as if he were trying to strangle or choke me as I was struggling to free myself," he said. "I panicked and believed he wanted to kill me." 

Elder said he has suffered from "constant feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and grief" since the attack.

"I told my side of the story right away, as soon as I was arrested, even before speaking to a lawyer," he said. "This shows I've always said the truth." 

Topics: Finnegan Elder , murder , cop , Mario Cerciello Rega , Gabriel Natale-Hjorth

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