Something Is Not Right — Letter By Ethan Elder

Some months ago Italics Magazine ran my article on the stabbing and killing by Finnegan Elder of a police officer. Here follows his father's letter.

Rega Carabinieri 2 Elder

Something is not right, by Ethan Elder

A note to readers of Italics Magazine, from Ronald L. Trowbridge.

Some months ago Italics Magazine ran my article on the stabbing and killing by Finnegan Elder of a police officer. The case is ongoing. On January 22, Finn’s father released the story, “Something is not right,” that follows here. Readers may send questions or comments to

Full text of Ethan Elder’s essay published by Dan Noyes on ABC 7:

Something Is Not Right, By Ethan Elder

July 26, 2019, a Friday morning. My wife Leah and I were working at our home in San Francisco when I heard her yelling from the back of the house: “What happened, Finnegan?” Our 19-year-old son was in Europe traveling after his freshman year in college, and his mother had just helped him get a hotel room in Rome where he was supposed to meet a friend of his. A friend we’d never met.

I ran to our bedroom to find her talking to two Italian policemen on FaceTime. One of them said, “I don’t have an hour to decide if you have an Italian lawyer!” Right before they hung up we heard our son’s voice: “Mom, they’re saying I killed a cop!”

Over the next 24 hours we learned more about the allegations: According to the Carabinieri, Italy’s national paramilitary police force, Finn and his friend Gabe Natale-Hjorth were ripped off trying to buy cocaine from a street dealer in Rome. In response, they stole the backpack of the man who connected them with the drug dealer, and then arranged to return the bag in exchange for 80 euros. Instead, the boys were assailed by two men in plain clothes who turned out to be officers of the Carabinieri. In the ensuing struggle, Finn stabbed Officer Mario Cerciello Rega.

The Italian papers went crazy; one headline proclaimed Rega a “defender of Rome.” It was reported that the boys had confessed to the killing, and Italian politicians were calling for the death penalty. Rega had been married 46 days earlier, and when he was buried in the same church where he was wed, two deputy prime ministers attended. We grieved for him and his family as we tried to fathom their loss. Paparazzi began to hound us here at home: reporters asked our neighbors for their impressions of Finn while news cameras trained on our front door, waiting for us to make an appearance. We offered our condolences but were mostly too devastated to talk to the press or almost anyone outside of our family. Meanwhile the media ran pictures of the boys, taken from social media and their cell phones: Finn and Gabe posing like gangsters, holding knives, guns, bags of weed and bottles of booze, many captioned with violent rap lyrics. It was overwhelming and we struggled to make sense of it all.

We love Rome. It was where we honeymooned. We had brought the kids there when they were young, and took a historical tour of the Eternal City, given by a local guide.

Now we began to hear that people in Rome were asking questions. Why were the cops in plain clothes, dressed in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts, when they assaulted the teens at 3 am? Why did neither officer have a gun, a badge or even handcuffs with which to apprehend their targets? Why were they responding to a call from a guy who had helped the tourists in an illegal activity? How did a 150-lb boy overpower the 253-lb Rega, as his partner claimed? Gabe, who speaks Italian, did not say that the Carabinieri had identified themselves, as the police reported. Varriale had reported the “assailants” were North African; Finn and Gabe are distinctly Caucasian. The official story was full of holes, and Italians were beginning to mutter, “Qualcosa non va”-something isn’t right.

In August, I flew to Rome with our good family friend and attorney, Craig Peters, to meet with Finn’s Italian lawyers, Renato Borzone and Roberto Capra. While I was there I learned more about the case. I saw his initial police interview and within five minutes Finn said, “We didn’t know that they were policemen.” Rega and Varriale jumped them as they walked down the street, and the boys believed they were fighting criminals working with the drug dealer.

Our boy’s no saint. He has been in trouble before, for a fight off campus when he was in high school, and he’s had problems with marijuana. The Instagram images of him have shamed us, and him too. But the idea that he went out that night intending to kill a cop, as the prosecution states, is absurd.

We are a close knit family. When Finn and his big sister, Ali, were growing up, they went everywhere with us, to dinner parties and on dog walks, even to my volunteer stints at an SF soup kitchen. As they went through their not atypical teen issues, we knew we were blessed to be so tight with our kids.

Immediately we realized we are dealing with a very different legal system. The “confession” Finn gave to the police came after eight hours of him being slapped, kicked, spit on and stood on; different interrogators, none of them proficient in English, came in to interview him and extract the words they wanted to hear. (This technique, known as “leapfrogging,” was employed in the Amanda Knox case as well.) We later learned that the Carabinieri had secretly filmed us when we separately visited Finn in prison. Seeing the images of him with his mother, I was struck by their intimacy as Leah touched his hands, his neck, his hair. She pulled up his shirt to check his body for injuries. Her baby.

Throughout the dark times, the US Embassy has been there for us, responding quickly and helping us get past many of the Italian barricades. We were once again reminded of how fortunate we were to be American citizens. A sentiment echoed by our Italian lawyers.

Now we have a trial date of February 26, 2020. It could last six months, we’ve been told, and meanwhile we continue to amass evidence and battle misinformation. Just before Thanksgiving an Italian paper reported that the prosecution had transcripts from our private conversations with Finn in jail, and that he admitted to knowing they were cops. But the reports were a lie. We have viewed the recordings and know what was actually said. We must fight each lie with the truth to learn what actually happened that night.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, who served as chief of staff for former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, wrote of the case, “Varriale’s honesty as a witness is now compromised and unreliable” and that “‘Murder’ usually requires premeditation. That didn’t happen in this case. I will not be surprised if Elder is freed or charged with manslaughter.”

Were this trial to be held in the US, that might be the outcome. But the Italian justice system is different than ours, as are their definitions of murder, manslaughter and self-defense. We have seen enough not to make any predictions. But as a family we know that until the truth is known and our son is judged fairly, none of us will be free.

The essay posted above is for informational purposes only and does not represent Italics Magazine’s official views.

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