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Rome Police Say Bay Area Teen Held in Officer's Death Was 'Illegally Blindfolded'

ROME (CBS/AP) -- A Bay Area teenager was illegally blindfolded before he was interrogated as a suspect in the slaying of a newlywed police officer in Rome, an Italian police commander said Sunday after the emergence of a photo showing the young tourist restrained with handcuffs and with his head bowed.

RELATED: Neighbors, Classmates Describe Bay Area Teens Accused in Fatal Stabbing

Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, was blindfolded "for a very few minutes, four or five" on Friday just before he was taken to the interrogation in a police station about the fatal stabbing, Rome Provincial Cmdr. Francesco Gargaro told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

S.F. Teens Arrested for Murder in Italy
Finnegan Lee Elder (left); Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth at their hotel in Italy. (Photos: Polizia Di Stato)

Natale-Hjorth and another suspect from the Bay Area, 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder, remained jailed while Italians lined up outside a chapel to pay respects to Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega. The 35-year-old officer had recently returned to duty on the Carabinieri paramilitary police force after a honeymoon.

The officer was attacked with a knife on a street close to the teens' upscale hotel in Rome. An autopsy showed he had been stabbed 11 times.

"Whoever killed him is an animal," said the mayor of the officer's hometown, Somma Vesuviana. Mayor Salvatore Di Sarno spoke after leaving a wake for the officer in a chapel close to the police station in Rome where he had worked for years.

Italy Killed Policeman
Two Italian Carabinieri officers stand near a blood stain, at the site where their colleague, Carabiniere Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega was stabbed to death by a thief in Rome, July 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Paolo Santalucia)

The coroner concluded that the policeman bled to death, according to Italian news reports.

Hundreds of Romans lined up in silence to file past the officer's coffin. Among the mourners were his widowed bride, Rosa Maria Esilio, and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Cerciello was popular for warmly greeting residents of the neighborhood in historic Rome. He spent off-duty hours as a volunteer dishing out hot meals to the homeless in Rome's main station and accompanied ailing faithful to religious shrines, including in Lourdes, France.

Italy Killed Policeman
American teenager Finnegan Lee Elder in an Italian police car in Rome, July 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Investigators allege Elder knifed the policeman during a struggle after Cerciello Rega and his partner, both plainclothes officers, identified themselves as police. The officers were following up on a report of a drug deal that allegedly involved the teens.

Authorities contend Natale-Hjorth repeatedly punched the other officer, who was not seriously hurt.

Police said Saturday that both California residents confessed to their roles in Cerciello Rega's death. Under Italian law, anyone who participated in a slaying can face murder charges.

Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth - Rome Officer Slaying
Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth is seen blindfolded (left) and in an Italian hotel room shortly after he and his Bay Area classmate Fin Elder were arrested for the murder of a Rome police officer. (Courtesy La Stampa)

Italian newspapers on Sunday published a photo of Natale-Hjorth with what appears to be a scarf covering his eyes and with his arms handcuffed behind his back as he sat in a chair at a police station. Police and prosecutors are conducting separate investigations of the blindfolding.

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 had not been formally detained as a suspect and Italian law does not allow an attorney's presence at that stage, the commander said.

But Rome's prosecutor general, Giovanni Salvi, said in a statement that there was indeed a lawyer present during the actual interrogation. It was not immediately clear if Gargaro might have been referring to the time spent while waiting for the interrogation.

Salvi, as Gargaro did, also stressed that the two suspects "were brought to the interrogation physically free, without blindfolds or handcuffs." Salvi said the interrogation, by two magistrates, "was recorded and entirely transcribed. The defendants were advised of their rights."

Italy Policeman Slain
Carabinieri officers stand during a siren salute outside the church where Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega lay in state, in Rome, July 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The officer who placed the blindfold on was being transferred to a different unit, Gargaro said. The Carabinieri were also investigating who took the photo and how it was leaked.

Elder's lawyer, Francesco Codini, did not reply to request by the AP for comment. Natale-Hjorth's lawyer could not be reached.

Italian media reported that Natale-Hjorth had recently been visiting, with his father and a grandfather, a town near Rome where they have relatives, then met up with his school alumnus Elder in Rome, staying in the hotel.

The teen had just completed his first year at Santa Barbara City College, according to the institution in Southern California.

Italy Killed Policeman
Two Italian Carabinieri officers stand near a blood stain, at the site where their colleague, Carabiniere Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega was stabbed to death by a thief in Rome, July 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Paolo Santalucia)

With the slain officer being widely mourned as a hero, some Italians, such as center-right lawmaker Mariastella Gelmini, worried that the publication of the photo might aid the defense or thwart justice.

Another prominent politician, Pier Ferdinando Casini, said those who respect the sacrifice of officers such as Cerciello Rega "cannot justify the treatment of the young American which goes contrary to every rule."

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

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

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

On Sunday, the family of Finnegan Elder released the following statement to KPIX:

We have not been able to communicate with our son since the phone call he made from the police station on July 26. We are working with the US State Department, but they have not been granted access to Finn. What we know so far is that Finn has been appointed an Italian public defender to handle his case. We plan to go to Rome as soon as the State Department assures us we will be able to see our son. We are also aware of the funeral plans for Officer Rega, and wish to be respectful of his family and friends at this devastating time. As any parents would be, we are deeply concerned for our son and are heartened by the expressions of sympathy and support from our friends and neighbors.

--The Elder Family

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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