Across his second murder trial, across what would be the final days of his life before his prison cell suicide Wednesday, there was the slightest change in Aaron Hernandez. It was a behind-the-scenes betrayal of his public face, one that stared down homicide cases and life sentences with a carefree attitude and a hauntingly happy smile.
Hernandez began to talk more. Talk to whomever was around him – lawyers and court officers and courthouse workers and the few confidants who dared to show their faces. He’d always been an engaged defendant and a defiant presence, but this was different. Maybe it was four years penned up. Maybe it was the realization that this, sitting inside a courtroom, was the most contact from the outside he’d ever again get. Maybe it was a sign of what was to come, years and years, decades and decades of emptiness and regret.
So Hernandez began to talk, especially about the world that was barreling along without him. Not much, but something. From the weather to the NFL news to how his old college teammate Tim Tebow was attempting a baseball career to the traffic on the highways to and from prison. He was open to small talk.
Every day Hernandez would show up in Courtroom 906 in downtown Boston and confront a few rows of family and friends of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, who he was charged with killing one Boston summer night in 2012. There were parents and cousins and wives and friends and an entire close-knit community of Abreus and Furtados who showed up everyday in court to support each other.
He’d talk about that, too.
Hernandez had no one. Or almost no one. Most days not a single supporter showed up. Not his mother. Not his brother. Not any of the old guys he played ball with or boyhood friends or hangers-on who used to flock to his star power. Not even the folks who once cheered for him from Bristol Central High School to the University of Florida to the New England Patriots. His defense team served papers to get his old coach, Bill Belichick, to come and offer some kind of character support. Belichick managed to dodge it.
A couple months back, across the street from Suffolk County Court, a million Patriots fans turned out for a parade and rally on the bricked expanse in front of Boston’s city hall. It was the second Super Bowl won without him. Now, none still cared for him. Most just cursed him.
He talked about it. And tried to laugh about it. At least he had the Department of Corrections, he’d crack. At least the court officers would stand by him, he’d say with a smile. They’d never leave him. At least he had his attorneys, he’d joke. At the beginning and end of every day of court he’d hug them, kiss them, act like he was a long-lost brother, not billable hours they’d booked the night before.
Gallows humor in the face of a gruesome reality – he was isolated and all but forgotten. A hint of him dreaming of the old days – even as he knew he was 27 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. And no matter all that fantastical talk about winning a retrial in the Odin Lloyd case and winning that, nothing was ever going to change. He killed Lloyd in 2013, just as the jury said. The evidence was overwhelming on that one. Hernandez, for all his wickedness, was never dumb.
Aaron Hernandez was found hanging from a bed sheet at 3:05 a.m. ET Wednesday inside the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center. A man who once lived the big life in a 7,100-square-foot, three-car garage mansion, stuffed his few belongings up against the cell door to buy himself a couple extra seconds to die.
The suicide came just five days after a jury found him not guilty in the deaths of Abreu and Furtado. It was a legal vindication but not much more. Hernandez was there that night, riding shotgun with his buddy, Alexander Bradley, as they pulled up on a carload of Cape Verdean immigrants they’d briefly encountered earlier. Someone opened fire, killing two, wounding one and forever changing everything.
Prosecutors could never really prove who was the triggerman. Bradley, a convicted felon and admitted drug and gun dealer, said Hernandez did it. He was getting immunity, though, and admitted he hated Hernandez so much he’d kill him if he could. Hernandez didn’t say a word. There was scant additional evidence.
This is why drive-by shootings are so hard to crack, the district attorney lamented. It was almost the definition of reasonable doubt. The jury followed the law. The victim’s families suffered again, crushed to see Hernandez happy for an instant. Yet it was fleeting. Hernandez won a victory with no reward – he was still locked up in a dull and miserable place. It proved too much to bear.
A man of so much talent and so much promise and so much life, Hernandez leaves nothing but a wake of betrayal and tragedy. Three dead. Three people who came to this country seeking the American Dream, willing to work as landscapers and janitors to climb rungs on the ladder, all dead – if not at his hands than as part of it. Hernandez, at best, helped Bradley hide the murder car and cover up the deaths of Abreu and Furtado.
At least one other was shot, not even counting Bradley, who sits in his own Connecticut cell with one eye he said he lost at the hands of Hernandez, but the knowledge he’ll get out by 2019.
Then there is Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, who took her man’s name and stood her ground and then watched him bail. Her loyalty brought her public scorn and cost her a once inseparable relationship with her younger sister – who was Lloyd’s girlfriend at the time of his murder. Then there is the 4-year-old daughter she shared with Hernandez, who came and charmed a courtroom – she’s left with even more trauma. As for the lawyers who defended him and boldly declared they’d get him out – the court calendar will be cleared now, “abated by death.”
Hernandez betrayed everyone. He thought only of himself. Yet his greatest betrayal may have been self-inflicted – of the natural physical talent that sent him to the NFL, to the end zone of a Super Bowl, to the signature line of a $40 million contract. It was the talent his father helped cultivate and his brother tried to mentor and his mother tried to shepherd. He once had that support system. In the end it never mattered to Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez grew up in a two-parent home until his father’s death when he was 16. The home sits on a hill in Bristol, basketball hoop in the driveway, fence out front, small yard the boys had to mow and rake as the seasons came and went. The kids would lift weights in the basement and run gassers up the hill, preparing for the big time. Around the corner is where Shayanna grew up, elementary school classmates with Hernandez and an on-again, off-again couple since junior high.
And yet when Hernandez got out of the University of Florida, he decided to pal up with Bradley, an East Hartford (Conn.) marijuana trafficker. When Hernandez made it to the NFL he decided to befriend the street life. Hernandez’s story is the strangest of them all. He wasn’t dragged back down by his hometown or old gang ties or anything like it – he sought it out. Bradley and his friends used to mock him for his cushy upbringing and comparatively quiet hometown, best known as the home of ESPN.
Being in the NFL wasn’t enough. Hernandez wanted to be a gangster, so he became a wanna-be gangster.
When he was first arrested, in June 2013, for the murder of Lloyd, he was hauled out of his oversized home and placed in a 7-by-10-foot cell that he had to pay $5 a day to “rent.” The Sherriff of Bristol County, Thomas Hodgson, put him on suicide watch and waited for the breakdown. In Hodgson’s experience, every defendant facing significant charges breaks, no matter their background. They scream they don’t belong. They cry for hours in their cell. They bang on the door and ask for extra privileges. It’s always something.
Except Hernandez did none of that. In the nearly two years inside the county jail as he awaited and then stood trial, Hodgson marveled at Hernandez’s odd detachment from reality and the ease in which he transitioned to jail. “It surprised me,” Hodgson said. “He was never nervous, never upset.”
It was chilling. Maybe it was because running from the law exhausted him. Maybe it was he knew he was safe from Bradley trying to murder him. Maybe it was all just a relief.
Four years later, though, the pressure finally got to Aaron Hernandez. The outward toughness was but a charade. Everyone else was moving on with their life, too busy or humiliated or angry with him to even show up and support him. He was sitting in a courtroom, staring at devastated families, staring at true love and loyalty, and his only buddies were the legal team paid to represent him.
“Pretty sad,” he joked to one person who was with him across the trial. Except no one laughed.
Soon he was dead, incapable of facing the future he chose, he carved out, he coveted. Soon he was gone, running from reality, crushing Shay and their daughter, the only two left who still cared.
Soon it ended for Aaron Hernandez, the tragic star of the NFL, who had it all and chose evil, who was given everything but delivered misery; a monster, in the middle of the night, dangling from a prison bedsheet.
More on death of Aaron Hernandez from Yahoo Sports:
• Hernandez commits suicide in prison cell
• Hernandez’s agent skeptical of prison suicide
• Prison: Hernandez showed no suicidal signs, left no note
• Watch: The life and death of Aaron Hernandez