2 American Tourists Sentenced to Life in Prison for Murdering Italian Newlywed Police Officer

Finnegan Lee Elder stabbed an officer while friend Gabriel Natale Hjorth helped hide the knife in 2019

Finnegan Lee Elder/Gabriel Natale Hjorth
Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AP/Shutterstock

Two Americans from California were sentenced to life in prison by a jury in Rome on Wednesday for the stabbing of an Italian police officer.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were found guilty of charges of homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause in connection to the death of Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, according to the Associated Press.

The jury deliberated for over 12 hours, the outlet reported.

Mario Rega
Mario Rega. Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

In 2019, the then teens were visiting Rome when Elder stabbed the officer 11 times in a drug bust gone wrong and Natale-Hjorth helped hide the murder weapon in their hotel room, the AP reports.

In Italy, an accomplice to an alleged murder can be charged with murder even if they didn't physically participate in the death.

Cerciello Rega had just gotten back into Rome from his honeymoon when he was put on a case to investigate Elder and Natale-Hjorth in a drug bust, AP reported.

His widow Rosa Maria Esilio was in court as the verdict was read and she cried while holding onto a photo of the slain officer.

According to AP, she told reporters outside of the courtroom, "His integrity was defended. He was everyone's son, everyone's Carabinieri. He was a marvelous husband; he was a marvelous man, a servant of the state who merited respect and honor."

Attorney Franco Coppi – who represented Officer Cerciello Rega's family – told AP the jury's decision reflected the "gravity of the deed, an atrocious crime," but he was not exactly satisfied "because I can't help but think that such a harsh sentence falls upon two young men in their 20s."

Finnegan Lee Elder/Gabriel Natale Hjorth
Remo Casilli/AP/Shutterstock

Elder's father Ethan Elder, told his son, "Finnegan, I love you" as he was escorted from the courtroom, per AP.

Elder's attorney, Renato Borzone, told reporters the verdict is "a disgrace for Italy" and Natale-Hjorth's lawyer, Fabio Alonzi, remarked that he was speechless, AP reported.

Borzone and Alonzi did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request to comment.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were 19 and 18, respectfully, when the crime took place on July 26, 2019.

The incident occurred after the two schoolmates made a failed attempt to buy cocaine for $100, but were sold a fake substance. In retaliation, they stole the backpack and cellphone of the middle man in order to exchange it for the drugs they paid for, a Carabinieri press statement obtained by ABC News reported.

The backpack owner then contacted police who pretended to be the backpack's owners in order to make contact with Elder and Natale-Hjorth, according to the outlet.

Officer Cerciello Rega and Officer Andrea Varriale met the two Americans in plainclothes, before identifying themselves as police, Carabinieri said in the press statement obtained by ABC News.

However, during the trial which began in Feb. 2020, Elder and Natale-Hjorth claimed Cerciello Rega and Varriale didn't show their police badges and they thought they were mobsters leading up to the stabbing, AP reported.

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That's when both teens "did not hesitate to engage in a scuffle which culminated in the tragic deadly wounding of Mario Rega Cerciello," a police statement read, according to CNN.

Elder claimed in court that he feared being strangled by Officer Cerciello Rega who fell on top of him during the scuffle, AP reported. The California native claimed that he stabbed the officer so he would get off of him, but when that didn't work, he stabbed again.

The two Americans then retreated to their hotel room and Elder cleaned the knife and Natale-Hjorth helped hide the weapon, CNN reported at the time.

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"They were already ready to leave the country," police said in a statement obtained by the outlet. "During the search of the hotel room, which was occupied by the two detainees, the murder weapon was found and seized, a knife of considerable size, cleverly hidden behind a ceiling panel, as well as the clothes worn during the crime."

The statement added, "In the face of overwhelming evidence, they confessed to the charge."

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