ROME — Friends, family and a grieving community gathered at a church in Rome Sunday to pay last respects to a fallen officer who was allegedly stabbed to death by two young Americans.
Hundreds laid flowers and prayed during the wake for Carabinieri police officer Mario Cerciello Rega.
The 35-year-old will be laid to rest Monday in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana, near Naples. His funeral will be held in the same church where he got married less than two months ago. Rega had just returned to work on the police force following his honeymoon.
Rega’s wake comes as police say they they are investigating a photo that appears to show one of the American suspects blindfolded at a police station in Rome.
The image was leaked to the respected Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera.
Italian police have confirmed the authenticity of the photo, and told CNN that a two-pronged investigation has been launched into why the suspect was blindfolded and who leaked the photo to the press.
“The general command of the Carabinieri police strongly distances itself from the photo and the distribution of the photo of the people detained for the homicide of the Officer Mario Cerciello Rega. The provincial Carabinieri command of Rome is quickly carrying out investigations to locate who is responsible,” police said in a statement Sunday.
The two Americans, Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 18, were arrested while on vacation in Rome in connection with the murder of Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega on Friday, Italian police told CNN Saturday.
Officer Rega, 35, was stabbed eight times at 2 a.m. local time on Friday, in the Prati neighborhood of Rome, near the hotel where the two young men were staying, police said. He was declared dead at 4:30 a.m.
A ‘heinous crime’
Surveillance footage and witness testimonies had allowed the Capitoline Investigative Unit to identify the two responsible for the “heinous crime,” according to the police statement.
The two Americans, both from San Francisco, were arrested inside their hotel room in Rome.
Police allege the boys stole a backpack from a man whom they had approached about buying drugs. The order and details of what happened next are still being investigated. However, police allege the Americans stole the backpack because they were sold crushed aspirin instead of cocaine.
The teenagers subsequently answered the owner’s cellphone, which they had also taken, and told him “they would not return the backpack without 100 euros and 1 gram of cocaine,” police added.
After police were contacted by the owner of the stolen bag, officers met the American suspects under the guise of retrieving the backpack, police said.
Both the Americans are accused of assaulting the police officers, who reportedly identified themselves as law enforcement officers. Then one of the suspects took out a knife and stabbed the officer eight times before fleeing the scene, police said. The officers were unarmed, police added.
The Carabinieri police force said in a statement that the Americans were arrested Friday night for “the crime of aggravated murder and attempted extortion.”
Police allege both Americans confessed to taking part in the assault, and say Elder confessed in the early hours of the interrogation on Friday to murder.
Elder’s appointed public prosecutor, Francesco Codini, said that during his court appearance Saturday his client “maintained his right to remain silent” in front of a judge.
In a statement to CNN, Elder’s family said: “We write as a family to express our deepest condolences to the grieving family and community that loved Brigadier Cerciello Rega. We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but have very little independent information about these events.”
Elder’s family added that they haven’t been able to have any communication with their son and appealed to the public to respect their privacy.
“We plan to go to Rome as soon as the State Department assures us we will be able to see our son,” the Elder family said in another statement.
“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.”
Italian police can legally hold suspects for an entire year without official charges.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini commented on the blindfold photo Sunday, saying in a statement: “To those complaining about the blindfolding of the arrested, remember that the only victim to cry for is the man, the son, the husband who is 35 years old, a Carabinieri officer, a servant of the homeland who died in service at the hands of the people who, if guilty, deserve only life imprisonment.”
The day before, Salvini had called for life-long prison sentences for the accused teens, despite them not having been put on trial.
“Hoping that the murderers of our poor policeman will never get out of prison, I remind the do-gooders that in the United States whoever kills risks the death penalty. I’m not saying we should go that far, but life in prison (obviously working), this, yes!” Salvini wrote in a message on Twitter on Saturday.