SAN FRANCISCO—On Wednesday, May 6 two Bay Area college students were sentenced to life in prison by a Roman court related to a 2019 altercation between the students and Italian military police that led to the death of one military officer. The  students have spent the last 21 months in a Roman prison awaiting their trial. 

Finnegan Elder, 21, of San Francisco and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 20, of Marin County were both found guilty of the murder of Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, after an 11-hour deliberation by the jury.

The altercation happened on July 26, 2019 when the two, teenagers at the time, were awaiting to meet with a drug contact to purchase cocaine. The teens stole the drug dealer’s backpack after the individual refused to give them cocaine after they exchanged money. At 3 a.m., Officer Rega and Officer Andrea Varriale, 27, approached the teens while wearing plain clothes. A fight ensued between the two groups that led to Elder stabbing Rega 11 times with a KA-Bar knife. Rega and Varriale were dispatched to retrieve the backpack after they received a tip from the police informant, who was disguised as a drug dealer, that the boys robbed him, the SFGATE reported.

In July 2020, Varriale testified they pulled out their badges and clearly announced themselves, which was the crux of the prosecution’s argument that the pair acted with “homicidal intent.” The defendants deny that the officers identified themselves and argued that they acted in self-defense as the officers appeared in plain clothes and believed them to be thugs sent by the drug dealer.

Elder & Hjorth were found guilty of murder, attempted extortion, carrying a weapon without just cause, resisting a public official, and for the assault of Officer Varriale. 

The defendant’s lawyers and families have stated they plan to appeal the decision.