American murder suspect says Italian police beat him in custody

An American student on trial in Italy for the murder of a Rome policeman says he was kicked, punched and spat on in custody, a leaked official transcript showed.

American murder suspect says Italian police beat him in custody
Mario Cerciello Rega, the Italian policeman who was killed during a drug bust last summer. Photo: Eliano Imperato/AFP

Finnegan Lee Elder and fellow US student Gabriel Natale-Hjorth stand accused of killing Mario Cerciello Rega, who was in plain clothes when he was slain in a night drug bust on July 26th last year in an attack that sparked national outrage.

READ ALSO: 'A terrible affair which cannot go unpunished': Italy mourns murdered police officer

“They beat me pretty bad … in the [police] station,” Elder was secretly recorded as saying during a private conversation in prison with his father and American lawyer.

“They threw me to the ground, kicked me, punched me, stood on me, spit on me,” he said according to a transcript of the conversation requested by the court and seen by AFP late on Wednesday.

The two Americans, who were teens at the time, face life sentences if found guilty of knowingly killing a police officer.

The claim of police brutality follows the leaking of photographs of Hjorth blindfolded and handcuffed at the Rome barracks where he and Elder had been taken for questioning.

“The awful truth of what Finnegan was subjected to and endured as a terrified 19-year-old is now being revealed to the world,” Elder's father Ethan told AFP. “Our hearts break every minute of every hour of every day.”

Ethan Elder, father of one of the two American suspects. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Asked during the conversation at the Regina Coeli prison on August 2nd last year where the police station was, Elder said: “I have no idea – they kept my head down a long time”.

Had he been blindfolded like Hjorth? “No, no, I – I don't really remember too well. … I was, they had me waiting so long, it's kind of a blur,” he said. He said he had got two bruises on his right arm and one on his leg “in the police station”.

“They said they would give me 40 years if I didn't give them my phone password,” he said.


Elder, 20, has admitted to stabbing Cerciello with an 8-inch combat knife. But he insists Cerciello and his partner Andrea Varriale attacked them and he thought he was fighting for his life against drug dealers.

Varriale says when he and Cerciello stopped the youngsters, they were set upon. Cerciello was left with multiple wounds.

Tributes to murdered officer Mario Rega Cerciello outside a police station in Rome last July. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Natale-Hjorth initially told investigators he had not been involved, but his fingerprints were found on a ceiling panel in the hotel room where the students had hidden the knife.

Under Italian law, anyone who participates even indirectly in a murder can face homicide charges.

The defence says lies told by Varriale in the immediate aftermath of the stabbing — such as whether or not the policemen were armed, as they should have been while on duty — seriously undermine his credibility as a witness.

Last month Elder's lawyers said they had discovered a statement taken during the police investigation, which revealed a key figure in the case was a police informant, had been illegally withheld by the prosecution.

Member comments

  1. “The awful truth of what Finnegan was subjected to and endured as a terrified 19-year-old is now being revealed to the world,” Elder’s father said! How about the awful truth is that this disgusting person devoid of any humanity killed an innocent man in cold blood!! He got a few bruises, so sorry. How much restraint did these cops have to demonstrate, knowing this pig killed one of theirs. He is lucky they did not hang him! No sympathy at all for this lying murderer.

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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.