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‘They attacked us’: Italian police officer recounts stabbing to trial of US students

An Italian policeman whose partner was fatally stabbed during a failed drug bust last year described on Wednesday the moment the knife was pulled by one of two US students now standing trial for murder in Rome.

'They attacked us': Italian police officer recounts stabbing to trial of US students
Mario Cerciello Rega, the Italian policeman who was killed during a drug bust last summer. Photo: Eliano Imperato/AFP
Andrea Varriale claims his partner Mario Cerciello Rega was slain in an unprovoked nighttime attack on July 26, 2019 after the officers, who were in plain clothes, approached the two Americans, who had earlier tried to buy drugs.
 
Varriale described to the Rome court how he desperately tried to stem the bleeding from Cerciello's wounds until an ambulance arrived, but “the blood was spurting out”.
 
Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth allege they were attacked by the policemen from behind on a dark street in Rome, and defended themselves from what they believed to be dangerous drug dealers.
 
 
 
“We approached the pair from the front and we pulled out our badges, saying we were police,” Varriale told the court, according to Italian news agencies at the hearing, which was closed to most media due to coronavirus restrictions.
 
Elder, 20, has admitted to stabbing Cerciello several times with an eight-inch combat knife, but insists he did not know he was a police officer.
 
The San Francisco native, who was 19 at the time of the incident, says Cerciello attacked him from behind, while Varriale wrestled with Natale-Hjorth, then 18.
 
The two Americans face life sentences if found guilty of knowingly killing a police officer.
 
“They had nothing in their hands. We just wanted to identify them. They immediately attacked us,” Varriale said.
 
“I was grabbed by Natale and we wrestled on the floor. At the same time I could hear Cerciello shouting 'Stop! Police!' His voice was breaking,” he said.
 
“The whole thing lasted just a few seconds. I let my aggressor go because I was alarmed by Cerciello's shouts. I looked up and I saw him standing, and he said 'they stabbed me', before collapsing on the ground.”
 
The court then heard the audio recording of the emergency call Varriale made, but the father of Cerciello's widow was taken ill as the call was played, and the judge adjourned the hearing until Thursday.
 
 
A picture of the knife believed to have been used to kill policeman Mario Cerciello Rega. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/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.
 
The day after the Americans were arrested, a photograph was leaked to the press showing Natale-Hjorth illegally blindfolded and handcuffed at the Rome barracks where he had been taken for questioning.
 
Varriale admitted he had not only been present, he had taken the photograph and had filmed the scene as well.
Varriale stuck by his story that he had been carrying his gun until August 9th, when he confessed that not only did he not have his gun on him, but that he had conspired with a superior officer to lie about it.
 
The defence was expected to ask Varriale why he and Cerciello left their designated patrol area to track down the US students, without informing central command.
 
The Americans had earlier that night stolen the bag of a man who had introduced them to a drug dealer.
 
They say the theft was revenge for the dealer having tried to rip them off. What they did not know was that the dealer was a police informant.
 
When they set up a meeting to swap the bag in return for money, the police turned up
instead.
 
While Varriale says he and Cerciello showed the Americans their badges, Cerciello's badge was never found, and in the chaotic aftermath of the stabbing, Varriale was not asked to produce his badge or his handcuffs.
 

 

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ROME

Body of missing American tourist found in Rome’s River Tiber

The body of a missing 21-year-old tourist was found in the River Tiber on Thursday morning, according to media reports.

Body of missing American tourist found in Rome's River Tiber

Elijah Oliphant, from Dallas, Texas, was on holiday with his family in Rome when he went missing several days ago.

Oliphant’s parents reported his disappearance after he left his hotel room shortly after midnight on May 24th and did not return.

Hotel security footage showed him leaving the premises wearing a white undershirt and pyjama bottoms, which he was wearing when he was found.

Oliphant’s corpse was reportedly spotted by passersby near the Ponte Sisto bridge in Rome’s Trastevere district around 10am on Thursday morning. His body was positively identified by his parents.

Members of the fire brigade and river police who recovered the body say there were no obvious signs of violence, but an autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death. Trastevere police are reportedly investigating the matter.

The Oliphant family had arrived in Rome for a holiday on May 23rd. When Elijah went missing the following day, his parents launched an urgent appeal to help find their son.

His disappearance was featured on the missing persons television show, Chi l’ha visto (‘Who’s seen them?’) on May 25th.

Several foreigners have been found drowned in the Tiber in recent years, though there are no indication that any of the incidents are linked.

In 2016, the body of 19-year-old American student Beau Solomon was recovered from the river.

Rough sleeper Massimo Galioto was charged involuntary manslaughter in the case, but was ultimately acquitted in 2020.

Prosecutors said that Galioto pushed Solomon in the course of a violent argument. Galioto’s defense team acknowledged that the two had argued but said the student had accidentally slipped.

In May 2019, 37-year-old Imen Chatbouri, a former athletics champion from Tunisia, was found dead in the Tiber after a night out. CCTV footage later showed she had been pushed from the Ponte Sisto bridge.

A then-26-year-old man whose advances she had rejected earlier that evening was convicted of her murder in November 2021.

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