Parents speak out after son sentenced to life in prison for killing Italian police officer

·5 min read

The parents of one of two Americans who were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the slaying of an Italian police officer have broken their silence for the first time since the verdict.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News airing Monday on "Good Morning America," Ethan and Leah Elder said they are concerned about their son's mental health behind bars.

"We just want Finn to be able to survive this," Leah Elder said. "He has a noted history of attempted suicide, and we're really worried and really concerned. He was utterly devastated by the verdict, just devastated. It was completely unexpected for him."

MORE: Families of American teens detained in Rome in connection to cop's murder speak out

When Elder's mother testified in court in Rome last December, she spoke of her son's suicide attempt at the Torpedo Wharf, a pier in San Francisco that sits at the mouth of the Golden Gate, the one-mile-wide strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Leah Elder told ABC News that the court-appointed psychiatrist also noted other previous suicide attempts in his report on her son.

"He struggles with anxiety and depression, and his current situation is really perilous," she said.

PHOTO: Ethan Elder, left, his wife Leah Lynn Elder, center, and their family attorney Craig Peters, right, are seen in court during the murder trial of their son Finnegan Lee Elder and his co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjorth in Rome, Italy, on May 5, 2021. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
PHOTO: Ethan Elder, left, his wife Leah Lynn Elder, center, and their family attorney Craig Peters, right, are seen in court during the murder trial of their son Finnegan Lee Elder and his co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjorth in Rome, Italy, on May 5, 2021. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Prosecutors alleged that Finnegan Lee Elder, then 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, then 18, attacked two members of Italy's storied Carabinieri paramilitary police force on a street corner in Rome in the early morning hours of July 26, 2019, after a botched drug deal. Police said the teenagers, who are former classmates from the San Francisco area, were trying to buy drugs in Italy's capital but were sold a fake substance. They then allegedly robbed a man who had directed them to the drug dealer in the first place, stealing his backpack and demanding he pay them 100 euros and a gram of cocaine to get it back. The man agreed but, unbeknownst to them, he also contacted authorities, according to police.

Carabinieri Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, had just returned to duty from his honeymoon when he responded to the call with his partner at around 3 a.m. local time. Both officers were in plainclothes when they confronted the American tourists on a street near an upscale hotel in Rome where they were staying, according to police.

MORE: Widow of Italian police officer bids painful goodbye as US teens charged in his death declared 'dangerous' by judge

Elder testified that he and Natale-Hjorth were suddenly confronted by two men who they thought were drug dealers.

A scuffle ensued and Elder allegedly stabbed Cerciello Rega 11 times with a combat knife that he brought with him on his trip to Europe, while Natale-Hjorth allegedly punched Cerciello Rega's partner repeatedly, according to prosecutors.

PHOTO: U.S. citizens Finnegan Lee Elder, right, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, left, who are being tried on murder charges in the 2019 killing of an Italian police officer, wait for closing arguments to begin in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on April 26, 2021. (Remo Casilli/Pool via Reuters)
PHOTO: U.S. citizens Finnegan Lee Elder, right, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, left, who are being tried on murder charges in the 2019 killing of an Italian police officer, wait for closing arguments to begin in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on April 26, 2021. (Remo Casilli/Pool via Reuters)

A coroner concluded that Cerciello Rega bled to death. Italy mourned the newlywed policeman as a national hero.

Elder admitted to stabbing Cerciello Rega, but said he did it in self-defense because he feared that he was being strangled during the four-minute encounter.

MORE: Funeral for 'hero' Italian officer Mario Cerciello Rega allegedly killed by US teens to be held where he was married

Speaking to ABC News, Elder's parents described their son as "incredibly kind, incredibly sensitive" and "painfully honest."

"From the moment Finn was detained, he has not changed his version of that night one iota," Leah Elder said.

PHOTO: Rosa Maria Esilio holds a photograph of her late husband, Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on Sept. 9, 2020, ahead of a hearing for the trial in which two American tourists are accused of his murder. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)
PHOTO: Rosa Maria Esilio holds a photograph of her late husband, Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on Sept. 9, 2020, ahead of a hearing for the trial in which two American tourists are accused of his murder. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Police said Elder and Natale-Hjorth were captured on surveillance video fleeing the scene with the stolen backpack. The duo were tracked down at their hotel, a block away from the scene and near Rome's Tiber River. Police said they discovered the knife and blood-soaked clothes hidden in the ceiling of the teens' hotel room.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were questioned by police for hours and, when "faced with overwhelming evidence, they confessed," according to the Provincial Command of Rome.

Natale-Hjorth testified that he hid the knife at Elder's request and that he didn't know his friend had the weapon on him prior to the stabbing.

MORE: Americans confess to involvement in killing of Italian police officer in Rome, Italian authorities say

In the days after the killing, Italian newspapers published a leaked photo of what appears to be Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and handcuffed while in custody, prompting questions about the pair's confessions. It is illegal to blindfold a suspect in Italy.

Elder's parents told ABC News that their son was "illegally interrogated" by police "without a lawyer present."

"We raised Finnegan as I’m sure many other parents do, to tell the truth and things will be okay," Ethan Elder said. "And part of his utter devastation at this verdict is he has told the truth from the very moment he was being illegally interrogated."

PHOTO: Rosa Maria Esilio bursts into tears in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on May 5, 2021, after a jury convicted two Americans on murder charges for the 2019 killing of Esilio's husband, an Italian police officer. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Rosa Maria Esilio bursts into tears in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on May 5, 2021, after a jury convicted two Americans on murder charges for the 2019 killing of Esilio's husband, an Italian police officer. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

During a press conference in Rome on July 30, 2019, the Carabinieri commander told reporters that Cerciello Rega had "forgotten his gun" that fateful night, but there was still "no time" for the officers to react and the suspects then took off. Cerciello Rega's partner could not have used his weapon on the suspects as they fled because it's a serious crime and was trying to help the wounded officer, the commander said.

MORE: Italian officer allegedly stabbed to death by American teens had 'forgotten his gun'

The murder trial ended last Wednesday. A jury convicted both Elder, now 21, and Natale-Hjorth, now 20, on all five identical charges and handed them life sentences, Italy's stiffest punishment. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder even if they did not actually kill the victim.

Cerciello Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, broke down in tears in the courtroom upon hearing the verdict.

PHOTO: U.S. citizen Finnegan Lee Elder reacts in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on May 5, 2021, after a jury convicted him and another American on murder charges for the 2019 killing of an Italian police officer. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: U.S. citizen Finnegan Lee Elder reacts in a courtroom in Rome, Italy, on May 5, 2021, after a jury convicted him and another American on murder charges for the 2019 killing of an Italian police officer. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

Elder's parents said they were shocked that Natale-Hjorth was also charged with murder and received the same sentence.

"My heart breaks for that entire family," Leah Elder said.

Elder's parents said they feel their son's sentencing was too harsh, given his mental health issues and young age, and that they will appeal the "abhorrent decision."

"Finnegan expected and understands that he was wrong to bring a knife to Italy, he understands that a man's life is gone, he understands that he should have some jail time and he should serve some punishment. But this is disproportionate. It's just proportionate?

ABC News' Clark Bentson, Katie Conway, Mya Green, Phoebe Natanson and Ian Pannell contributed to this report.

Parents speak out after son sentenced to life in prison for killing Italian police officer originally appeared on abcnews.go.com