The Gangster in the Huddle
Aaron Hernandez might have been one of the NFL’s all-time greats, but he could never escape drugs, guns and a life of violence
The first text pinged him around nine that Sunday night: I’m coming to grab that tonight, you gon b around? I need dat and we could step for a little again. For Odin Lloyd, this was bang-up news, proof that his luck had turned around. Aaron Hernandez, the Pro Bowl tight end of the New England Patriots, was coming by later to scoop him up for another five-star debauch, just 36 hours after he’d taken Lloyd out for the wildest ride of his life. All night Friday, they’d kicked it at Rumor, popping bottles and pulling models up the steps of the VIP section of the Boston theater district’s hottest club. “Shit was crazy,” Lloyd told friends the next day at his niece’s dance recital. “The girls were off the chain. We smoked that super-duper and Aaron dropped 10 G’s like it was nothing. We kept rolling past dawn at his big-ass mansion, then he tossed me the keys to his Suburban.”
Big doings for a semipro football player and underemployed landscape helper, though there, too, fortune smiled on Lloyd, 27. He’d just gotten word that he’d have shifts all week, his first steady hours in some time. And now he was about to burn it down again with Hernandez, the $40 million man with the restless streak and a bottomless taste for chronic. The problem, Lloyd said, was it didn’t end there with Hernandez and his how-high crew: “Them boys is into way worse shit than herb.”
How much worse? About as bad as it gets, say longtime family friends. In exclusive conversations with Rolling Stone, those friends, who insisted they not be named, say Hernandez was using the maniacal drug angel dust, had fallen in with a crew of gangsters and convinced himself that his life was in danger, carrying a gun wherever he went. Sources close to the tight end add that throughout the spring, when players are expected to be preparing themselves for the marathon NFL season, Hernandez had missed workouts and sessions with a rehab trainer, and had been told by his head coach, Bill Belichick, that he was one misstep from being cut.
But training camp was six weeks away, and Hernandez wasn’t one to heed a warning. He went on hitting the clubs with his boys, including Lloyd, who was dating his fiancee’s sister. That Sunday, Lloyd’s best friend urged him to stay home, saying he needed his sleep for the week ahead. Lloyd had already been up all weekend – he’d taken his friends clubbing Saturday night in Hernandez’s black Suburban. Hernandez wouldn’t hear it, though; he kept texting Lloyd. Aite, where? Lloyd relented, ignoring his friend. It don’t matter but imma hit you, said Hernandez at 9:39. If my phone dies imma hit u when I charge it.
Tonight, though, wouldn’t be anything like Friday. All weekend, Hernandez had been stewing in his 7,000-square-foot mansion 45 minutes outside Boston in North Attleborough, not far from Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play, fixated on something that happened in the club two nights earlier. Per a close friend of Lloyd’s, they’d been getting buzzed in VIP when Lloyd saw two of his cousins downstairs. He went to hug them up and buy them drinks when one of them, a West Indian with dreads, started pointing and mean-mugging Hernandez. “I don’t like that nigger, he’s one of them funny people,” said the cousin. “Stop pointing, that’s my boy,” said Lloyd of Hernandez. “You’re gonna start some shit ’tween me and him.” “Well, I don’t want you with him, he’s a punk,” said Lloyd’s cousin, jabbing his finger again in Hernandez’s direction.
When Lloyd went back upstairs, Hernandez was enraged. Club security cameras allegedly capture the two men squabbling, showing Hernandez, six-two and a rippled 250, facing off with the five-11 Lloyd. The friends stopped short of throwing punches, though cameras mounted outside the club show the argument resuming in the street.
Most people, even self-important stars blowing thousands on bottle-shape women, might have simmered down about now. But the 23-year-old Aaron Hernandez wasn’t like most people; for ages, he hadn’t even been like himself. The sweet, goofy kid from Bristol, Connecticut, with the klieg-light smile and ex-thug dad who’d turned his life around to raise two phenom sons – that Aaron Hernandez had barely been heard from in the seven hard years since his father was snatched away, killed in his prime by a medical error that left his boys soul-sick and lost. Once in a great while, the good Aaron would surface, phoning one of his college coaches to tell him he loved him and to talk to the man’s kids for hours, or stopping Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, to kiss him on the cheek and thank him damply. There was such hunger in that kid for a father’s hand, and such greatness itching to get out, that coach after coach had covered for him whenever the bad Aaron showed – the violent, furious kid who was dangerous to all, most particularly, it seems, to his friends.
And so, two days after the spat with Lloyd, he was nursing his rubbed-raw grievance. “You can’t trust anyone anymore!” he’s heard screaming on the footage of his home-security system. Sometime that night, he reached out to a couple of Bristol goons, Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz – two stumble-bum crooks with long sheets of priors and no job or fixed address to lay their heads – and ordered them to take the two-hour drive to Boston on the double, telling one of them, Hurry ur ass up here, nigga.
According to family friends, Hernandez was using angel dust and was so paranoid he always carried a gun.
Around 1:10 a.m., Hernandez set off with Wallace and Ortiz in a rented Nissan Altima to pick up Odin Lloyd. Hernandez’s security cams show him with what looks like a Glock .45 in hand, pacing in his living room. On the 30-mile drive to Fayston Street, a war-zone block in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, where Lloyd lived with his mother and younger sister (he’d been forced to move home after losing his job at the local utility company), the three men stopped to buy a pack of blue cotton-candy Bubblicious and a cheap cigar, the type used to roll blunts. Usually, that was Lloyd’s job – Hernandez fondly called him the Bluntmaster. Making do without him, they got to Lloyd’s house at 2:33 a.m., where a surveillance camera posted across the street showed Lloyd getting into the back seat of the Nissan. It fast became clear to Lloyd, though, that this wouldn’t be a night of hot-sheet fun. He began firing texts off to his sister, sending distress flares every few minutes. U saw who I’m with... Nfl... just so u know...
The last one reached her at 3:23 a.m. Minutes later, Lloyd got out of the car in an industrial park in North Attleborough. He seemed to know what was coming, but decided to make a stand: The driver’s side mirror of the Nissan was broken off, a sign that he might have gone down swinging. On a sand-and-gravel patch, Lloyd raised his arms in defense of the first shot, and was then hit in the back twice as he turned away and fell to the ground. The gunman pumped two more rounds into his chest for good measure. The next day, cops lifted tire tracks near the body that matched the Nissan. Tracing the car back to the rental agency, police would eventually recover a .45 shell case and a wad of cotton-candy Bubblicious. And though Hernandez would monkey with his home-security system, getting rid of six hours of key recordings, and smash up the cellphone he’d turn in to cops, he’d neglect to scrub all the data they contained, handing police a honey pot of incriminating evidence.
They’ll need every bit of it to convict Hernandez of murder and send him away for life. Both on the field and off, he’s been hell to bring down; the man has a genius for breaking loose. According to several experts, he might just do it again, make one last run to daylight around the edge.
There have been 47 arrests of NFL players since the end of the last regular season: bar brawls, cars wrecked, spouses shoved or beaten. Violence travels; it follows these men home, where far too many learn they have no kill switch. But there’s the sociopathy of a savage game, and then there’s Aaron Hernandez. Since 2007, he’s been charged with, or linked to, the shootings of six people in four incidents. Three of the victims were gruesomely murdered. One survivor, a former friend named Alexander Bradley, has had multiple operations and lost his right eye. The other two survivors were shot in their car outside a Gainesville, Florida, bar after an altercation involving Hernandez and two of his teammates his freshman year at the University of Florida. While in Gainesville, he sucker-punched a guy and shattered the fellow’s eardrum, and reportedly failed multiple drug tests, though he was suspended only once for those offenses. He posed for selfies in the mirror while a) wielding a .45 and b) swathed from head to toe in Bloods regalia, and threatened to “fuck up” Wes Welker, his Pro Bowl teammate, just days after being drafted by the Patriots. (Welker, a veteran, had refused to help the rookie operate the replay machine.) Since high school, he’s scourged his skin with a scree of tattoos. Writ large on his left arm: HATE ME NOW. On the meat of his right hand, just above the knuckles: the word BLOOD in bright-red scrawl.
Of all the questions raised by the murder of Lloyd, two enigmas underpin the others: How did a kid so rich in gifts and honors – the most celebrated son in the history of Bristol – grow into such a murderously angry man? And why does Bristol, the town that time forgot, keep landing in the middle of this lurid story?
This city of 60,000 was always a sweet, sleepy place to buy a house, raise children and send them elsewhere. The locals built firearms and doorbells in the plants here, then car parts and mainsprings for clocks. The population spiked in the decades after D-Day – vets moving in to take factory jobs and rent small pillbox homes on the west side of town. No one got rich or stuck around for college, but it was heaven to be a 12-year-old here: manicured ballfields, Boys Club summers, a sky-blue pool in every park.
Aaron’s father, Dennis, ruled those fields before his son followed in his footsteps. In the Seventies and Eighties, Dennis and his twin brother, David, became local sports heroes. Enormous for their age and fast and tough, they took to football straightaway and were happier running through, than around, you. They’d be three-sport stars in high school and draw scouts to their games, though as good as they were at football, they were better in street fights, say friends: Nobody fucked with the Hernandez boys.
“They were the roughest kids by far in Guinea Alley,” says Eddy Fortier, who went to Bristol Central with them in the Seventies and is a former youth counselor. “They had to be tough – they were about the only Puerto Ricans in an Irish-Italian town,” says Fortier’s brother, Gary, a reformed ex-con who’s now a painter and assistant pastor at a Bristol church.
Dennis, in particular, was built for big things. A larger-than-life charmer with a maitre d’s flair and a habit of hugging everyone he met, he was called “The King” in his glory days and owned the back pages of The Bristol Press. An All-Everything tailback, he was the rare kid from Bristol to get a full-ride offer to the University of Connecticut, the state’s only Division I football program. (David, a wide receiver, got one too.) Alas, Dennis was no angel: He loved to drink and get high, and had lousy taste in friends, which did him in. His best buddy was a teammate, Rocco Testa, who fancied himself a mobster-in-training. “Rocco and his uncle did burglaries together, broke into houses here in town,” says Detective Sgt. John Sassu of the Bristol Police Department, who also went to high school with the twins. “He got Dennis and David in it before the three of them went to UConn, then more so after they all dropped out.”
The twins were pinched for small-change crimes – assault and petty larceny – in the decade after they both left UConn. As late as 1990, Dennis was busted for burglary, though neither brother seems to have done prison time. Friends say they also occasionally smoked crack, beat up dealers for drugs and cash, and bet way over their heads on sports. As for their pal Testa, he was caught in the act while robbing a house with his uncle, who shot and killed a cop while they tried to escape. “The rumor on the street was Dennis and David were there too,” says Sassu, “but we couldn’t make the case.”
Either way, parenthood seemed to scare the twins straight. Both became fathers, found steady work and had no further truck with Bristol cops. (Neither David nor anyone else in the Hernandez family returned phone calls seeking comment.) Dennis married Terri Valentine, a school secretary in Bristol, and got a job on the custodial staff at the other of the town’s two high schools, Bristol Eastern. They bought a small cottage on Greystone Avenue and produced two wildly gifted sons: DJ, now 27 and an assistant football coach at the University of Iowa, and Aaron, three years younger but bigger and faster, the apogee of the family’s genetics.
Each surpassed his father, both on the field and off, in part because Dennis took elaborate pains to keep them on the straight and narrow. Dennis built a gym in the family basement, paved a chunk of the backyard over for a half-court and staged three-on-three tourneys there, and peppered the boys with can-do slogans, burning them in through repetition. “Some do, some don’t,” he was always telling them. “If it is to be, it is up to me,” went another. He was bent on getting his sons to do everything right, whether it was making the proper blitz read or handing homework in on time, perhaps because he’d squandered his own chance.
DJ seemed his natural heir – the star passer and guard at Bristol Central who played three years of quarterback at UConn and made the dean’s list two years running – until Aaron blew by him on the rail. A huge-for-high-school tight end with wideout speed and a pair of glue-trap hands, he posted the kind of numbers you never see in Northeast states: 1,800 yards and 24 touchdowns in a season, almost 400 yards receiving in a single game, and 12 sacks and three forced fumbles as a part-time blitzer, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors his junior year in 2005. His great asset, besides his hands, which were strong as clamps, was the gift scouts call escapability; he couldn’t be brought down after the catch. He was too big and too fast, and he used his free arm well to shed tacklers. You had to gang up or pin him against the sideline, and even then he’d wriggle out for more yards. “Best athlete this city’s ever produced, and a more polite, humble kid you couldn’t find,” says Bob Montgomery, a columnist for the Press and the town’s official historian. “He’d be in here with his father being interviewed as Athlete of the Week, and there was never any swagger or street stuff from him, just ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir’ and ‘Thank you.’”