Classmates recall 2 Bay Area teens accused of killing Italian police officer

Former classmates say two Bay Area teens being held in an Italian jail for killing a police officer in Rome, were well-known at Mt. Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley where they graduated in 2018. 

"It's definitely been going around the kids in my grade like wildfire. It's really shocking to all of us," said Lucy Viscardi, who says she knew both young men. 

Italian police say Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, and Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, were in Rome and stole a backpack from a man who they say sold them fake drugs instead of cocaine. Police say the two teens demanded money and a gram of cocaine from the dealer, who reported the theft to police.  

Members of the Italian Carabinieri paramilitary unite responded, and police say Natale-Hjorth punched one officer and Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, at least eight times. 

On Sunday night, the coffin of Cerciello Rega was escorted from a chapel in Rome. He had just returned to work from his honeymoon days before being killed.

His wife of one month was seen in tears as long lines of people paid their respects and applauded for the slain officer as the hearse prepared to leave.

Sunday, there was concern about a photo leaked to the press showing Natale-Hjorth blindfolded. Italian authorities say that was illegal, but police say both teens confessed to having a role in Cerciello Rega's death.

"I can only say the investigations are still underway to better understand the facts. The young boy's family is very upset about what happened. The American consulate is trying to do the best for Elder's protection," said the attorney Francesco Codini in a statement. 

Former classmates say the teens were known to friends as "Gabe" and "Finn."

"In Gabe's case, he had a ton of friends at school. Neither of them were necessarily disliked. A lot of kids liked them, were friends with them," said Viscardi, who added that she had known Gabe Natale-Hjorth since elementary school. 

Another graduate Kayla Campbell says she'd just seen Natale-Hjorth with his girlfriend a few weeks earlier. She says he was asking her about working at a local store and asked her to be a reference. 

"Every time I talked with him, he wasn't ever mean to me. He was never cruel to me in any way and was always nice to me," said Campbell, adding however, "He was known to be someone who was always involved with drugs and getting into trouble. He definitely had a couple scuffs." 

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth was enrolled at Santa Barbara City College, having just completed his first year. He was reportedly visiting his parents in Italy and had gone to Rome to meet his friend who was staying in Le Meridien hotel. 

Investigators say surveillance video helped them identify the two young men and led police to their hotel room. Police say inside the room, they found a knife hidden in the ceiling and clothes believed to have been worn during the stabbing.