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Italy: Teen held in officer’s death ‘illegally blindfolded’

Updated July 29, 2019 - 1:36 pm

ROME — An American teenager was “illegally blindfolded” before his interrogation as a suspect in a newlywed police officer’s slaying in Rome, a Carabinieri commander said Sunday after a photo circulated of the young tourist with his head bowed and handcuffed behind his back.

Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, was blindfolded “for a very few minutes, four or five” on Friday just before he was questioned about the fatal stabbing of Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega, Provincial Cmdr. Francesco Gargaro told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Natale-Hjorth and another suspect from California, 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder, remained jailed while Italians lined up outside a church to pay respects to Cerciello Rega, 35, who had returned to duty from his wedding and honeymoon just says before he was killed.

Cerciello Rega was stabbed eight times on a street close to the teens’ upscale hotel in Rome. Investigators allege Elder knifed the policeman while Cerciello Rega and a partner were in plainclothes while looking into an alleged drug deal gone wrong that allegedly involved the teens.

Natale-Hjorth is accused of punching the other officer, who wasn’t seriously hurt. Police said Saturday that both Americans confessed to the respective roles in Cerciello Rega’s death. Under Italian law, anyone who participated in a slaying can face murder charges.

Italian newspapers published a photo of Natale-Hjorth with what appears to be a scarf covering his eyes and with his arms handcuffed behind his back in a room at a police station. The paramilitary Carabinieri police force and prosecutors are investigating.

Blindfolding of a suspect “is illegal. It’s not allowed,” Gargaro said. The officer who put the blindfold on committed a “mistake” but did so to prevent Natale-Hjorth from seeing documents related to the investigation, the commander said.

Natale-Hjorth had been brought in handcuffs to the stationhouse from his hotel, Gargaro said. He was interrogated by police and prosecutors without a lawyer there since he hadn’t been formally detained as a suspect and Italian law doesn’t allow an attorney’s presence at that stage, the commander said.

The officer was transferred to a different unit, Gargaro said. The Carabinieri were also investigating who took the photo and how it was leaked. Lawyers for the two Americans were not immediately available for comment.

With the slain officer being widely mourned in Italy as a hero, some prominent Italians worried that the publication of the photo might ultimately aid the defense and thwart justice.

Center-right lawmaker Mariastella Gelmini warned against “exploiting” the incident to the detriment of the prosecution.

For others, the photo evoked the beating death of a young Roman who was jailed in a drug investigation. Stefano Cucchi was severely beaten after his arrest and died several days later. After his family fought to find out the truth, several Carabinieri were investigated for the beating and cover-up of responsibility.

His sister, Ilaria Cucchi, called the photo of the blindfolded Natale-Hjorth “terrible.”

“Certain things must not happen whatever the accusation is,” she said.

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