‘A terrible affair which cannot go unpunished’: Italy mourns murdered police officer

Hundreds of people gathered on Monday for the funeral of an Italian police officer stabbed to death in an alleged confrontation with two American teenagers that has sent shockwaves through the country.

'A terrible affair which cannot go unpunished': Italy mourns murdered police officer
Mourners hold a picture of Mario Rega Cerciello, who was stabbed to death last week. Photo: Eliano Imperato/AFP

Grieving family, colleagues and friends filled a church in Somma Vesuviana, the hometown of officer Mario Rega Cerciello, 35, who suffered multiple knife wounds on Friday in an attack that the suspects claim was in response to a drug deal gone wrong.

Two Americans, Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 18, and Finnegan Elder, 19, have been charged with aggravated homicide and attempted extortion following the killing in Rome's upmarket Prati neighbourhood.

READ ALSO: Two US teenagers arrested over killing of Italian police officer

Crowds applauded as the hearse bearing Cerciello's coffin arrived at the funeral near Naples, to the solemn tolling of church bells. The casket, draped in the Italian flag, was carried by police pallbearers into the church as a military trumpet rang out.

Deputy Prime Ministers Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio were among the government officials attending the emotional funeral.

A photograph of Cerciello and his wife were placed on the coffin, along with an AC Napoli football shirt. The slain officer had recently returned from honeymoon.

Carabinieri carry their colleague's coffin. Photo: Eliano Imperato/AFP

He was stabbed 11 times with a bayonet knife with an 18-centimetre blade, Italian media reported.

According to police, the suspects say they did not realise that Cerciello and his colleague were officers. They thought they were friends of an alleged drug dealer from whom the pair had stolen a bag which was supposed to contain cocaine but turned out to be crushed aspirin, according to media reports citing investigators.

The victim of the theft tipped off the police, but when two officers in plain clothes went to arrest the two American tourists, one of them allegedly pulled out a knife.

Wreaths left for Mario Rega Cerciello outside the church where his funeral took place. Photo: Eliano Imperato/AFP 

“We have remembered Mario in tears: all the lovely things, the moments spent together. But also the tragedy, a terrible affair which cannot go unpunished,” the mayor of Somma Vesuviana, Salvatore Di Sarno, told journalists.

The US embassy to Italy tweeted its condolences and said it shared “the grief of [Cerciello's] family and the police”.

The funeral comes amid controversy over a picture of the suspects blindfolded and handcuffed while under questioning. 

Giandomenico Caiazza, head of a lawyer's union, said the treatment of the suspects might compromise the interrogation, which police say included a confession.

“There is no doubt that the victim of this tragedy is Mario,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Facebook.

However, he said blindfolding suspects “does not comply with our principles and judicial values”.

The chief of the Carabinieri called the blindfolding of a suspect 'unacceptable'. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Neither of the suspects “have shown they have understood the seriousness of the consequences of their behaviour,” Rome judge Chiara Gallo said in her order for the pair to be remanded in custody, according to media reports.

She said the teenagers from California showed “an immaturity excessive even for their young age”.

The pair are being held at Rome's Regina Coeli prison.

Police said surveillance cameras helped them track down the suspects to their four-star hotel where they arrested them. Their bags were packed and they had been planning to fly home the same evening. Officers allegedly found a large knife hidden in the false ceiling of their hotel room.

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Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.