Italian cop ‘caught lying in US students’ murder trial: defence

An Italian policeman whose partner was fatally stabbed during a failed drug bust last year was accused Thursday of fresh lies in the murder trial of two US students.

Andrea Varriale claims his police 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 Americans, who had earlier tried to buy drugs.

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.

Elder’s lawyer Renato Borzone told the court Thursday his team had discovered an audio message on Varriale’s mobile phone in which a colleague from his precinct told him to keep quiet about an allegedly falsified police report.

“Andrea, you mustn’t speak to anyone about this report. (Sandro) Ottaviani (the precinct’s chief at the time) knows all about it. Come and see me and we’ll fill it in together. Don’t speak a word,” the colleague said in the audio, heard by AFP.

Borzone told AFP the audio was proof that the case report, which referred to the identification at the scene of an intermediary who put the Americans in touch with a drug dealer, “was falsified”.

Varriale claimed he had jotted the details of the case down on a rough bit of paper to be transcribed later into a formal case report — which is against police rules.

The defence say the apparent cover-up is relevant to the case because it is one of several elements demonstrating that the police were breaking rules that night — and therefore could also have failed to identify themselves to the Americans.

“It is the umpteenth lie, it seriously undermines Varriale’s credibility as a witness,” Borzone said.

– ‘Surprised’ –

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.

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.

Varriale was first caught out in a lie when he claimed that he and Cerciello had been armed the night of the slaying — as they should have been while on duty.

Ottaviani initially backed up that falsehood, only to be undermined later when the truth emerged.

Varriale said Thursday that lying about being armed had been “a stupid mistake”.

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 has admitted he had not only been present, he had taken the photograph and had filmed the scene as well.

But on Thursday he told the court he had been “surprised… (because) I had never seen a suspect treated that way”, and that he had been “surrounded by superiors” and had not been calling the shots himself. 

by Ella IDE