Aaron Hernandez: Inside Dark, Tragic Life of Former Patriots Star
This story, “The Gangster in the Huddle” originally appeared in September 12, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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 fiancée’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, 6-foot-2 and a rippled 250, facing off with the 5-foot-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.
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.’”
“Part of Aaron’s problem is, he never got no street sense; Dennis sheltered them from that life with all his might,” says Gary Fortier. “He was the perfect dad: He went to every scrimmage, and got ’em up at dawn to work out,” says Brandon Beam, an insurance agent in Southington who played against Aaron in practice each day as a cornerback for Bristol Central. A middle-class, mixed-race kid (mom Italian; dad Puerto Rican), Aaron had little trouble fitting into suburban Bristol. “He didn’t speak Spanish and had no tattoos,” says Jordan Carello, a Bristol football teammate who recently worked at the Doubletree hotel in town. “He was so focused on his body that he barely partied, maybe snuck a little weed here and there. But we all did that, ’cause our parents were always home. If we wanted to drink on weekends, we had to run out to someone’s car.”
His high school friends describe Aaron as an overgrown goof who was always trolling for laughs. “The guy would do anything to crack us up,” says Beam. “Stuff his lunch in his mouth in a single bite, or take a booger that was hanging out and eat that shit.” That was Hernandez: physically older than everyone else, but socially about five years younger. Friends say DJ was fiercely protective of his happy-go-lucky lug of a kid brother, and taught him what hard work really looked like. They’d be out running suicides in the dead of summer, and rising early to do squats in the basement. “Aaron was driven by DJ, who was like his second dad,” says Beam. “He really wanted to make Dennis happy.”
It was a very different story with his mother, Terri. “She was good about schoolwork and that sort of stuff,” says a friend of the family, “but she brought drama into that house – starting with the bust for taking bets.” In 2001, when Aaron was 12, Terri was arrested in a statewide sting for booking bets on sports. The matter was handled quietly and she did no time, but she cast shame on the boys and dug a rift with Aaron that deepened over the next several years. Friends say Terri had begun cheating on Dennis with a physically abusive coke dealer named Jeffrey Cummings, who was married to Dennis’ niece, Tanya Cummings.
Terri’s relationship with Cummings, whose nickname is Meathead, was a bottomless source of grief for the sons. There was an ugly spectacle in the stands at a UConn game, says a family friend. Terri, on hand to watch DJ play, was angrily confronted by her niece and slapped in the face. The aftermath, says the friend, “hurt Aaron bad and broke his heart.”
He might have held it together, or handled the fallout better, if Dennis had been around to see him through it. But in January 2006, Dennis checked himself in for a hernia repair at a local hospital. Something happened on the table, though, and he contracted an infection; two days later, he was dead. He was 49, in otherwise splendid health, and beloved by virtually everyone in town. His funeral, at the Church of St. Matthew, was like an affair of state: 1,500 mourners packed the biggest church in Bristol, and hundreds more waited to view the body. DJ was inconsolable, sobbing over the casket, but Aaron, 16 and shocked beyond tears, sat stone-faced. Friends tried to console him or draw him out; instead, he locked down, going mum. “He’d open up the tiniest bit, then say nothing for weeks, like it was a sign of weakness to be sad,” says Beam. “His brother was at college, and the only other person he would really talk to was the one who was taken away.”
Heartsick and furious, Aaron seemed to implode. “He would rebel,” Terri told USA Today in an interview three years later. “He wasn’t the same kid, the way he spoke to me. The shock of losing his dad, there was so much anger.” Small wonder there: She moved Cummings into the house she shared with Aaron, and married him when his divorce from Tanya was final.
To no one’s great surprise, cops soon fielded phone calls that Cummings was abusing Terri. “We responded to that address on more than one occasion,” says Detective Lt. Kevin Morrell of the Bristol P.D. In June 2010, Cummings got drunk one night and flew into a rage. Grabbing a knife from the kitchen, he slashed Terri’s face and body before she fled to her neighbors next door. Cops arrested Cummings in the yard and charged him with assault and sent him to prison for two years. Terri divorced him that year, but took him back, say friends, when he was released in 2012. At last report, they had split for good; she currently lives alone on Greystone Avenue, though she hasn’t been seen there much since Lloyd’s murder. It bears noting that she’s the rare-bird NFL mother whose son didn’t buy her a big house when he got drafted.
With Cummings around, Aaron began getting scarce, spending a lot of time with family across town, in a roughneck stretch called Lake Avenue. This was the Bristol version of downward mobility, a hop from the hot plate to the fire. His father’s brother-in-law, Uncle Tito, had a house up the block from the projects, where he lived with his grown daughter Tanya – the woman Cummings had ditched to be with Terri. Aaron and Tanya, first cousins bonded by loss, drew close very quickly, friends say. (He has the name of her son – Jano – tattooed on his chest, and has supported them both financially since college.) Among the dubious people hanging around the house were goons like Ernest Wallace and T.L. Singleton, an older-but-not-wiser drug dealer who’d been in and out of prison since the Nineties. Singleton would wind up marrying Tanya and siring a child with her after Cummings left. Along with fringe hustlers like Carlos Ortiz, the angel-dust tweaker, they filled the heart-size hole Dennis left, bolstering Aaron with bromides about family love and vowing that they’d always have his back – which is another way of saying they sunk their claws in. Their motives couldn’t have been plainer if they’d hung them in neon: Here was a kid with can’t-miss skills, a malleable man-child who’d be rich one day and fly them out of the hood in his G-5. All they had to do was get him high and gas his head, inflame his sense of grievance at life’s unfairness.
From middle school, Hernandez had his sights set on UConn, and committed there as a star at Bristol Central. It had been Dennis’ dream to see his boys play there together, having quit the school himself after a couple of years and gone home with his tail between his legs. But then Dennis died, making a jumble of things, and the world came courting his younger son. Enter the University of Florida and the messiah, Urban Meyer, who persuaded Hernandez to renege on UConn and come to Gainesville. It seemed a gift from on high: a championship program in a Bible Belt town with a deeply pious coach and devout assistants. Meyer had a rep for reforming players who’d had trouble elsewhere with the law. And he tried, God knows, to convert Hernandez; did everything short of an exorcism. “But there’s only so much you can do in three years,” says John Hevesy, Hernandez’s position coach with the Gators and now a coach at Mississippi State. “Bristol had him for 17 before he came to us. In the end, I guess, that trumped what we put in.”
Hernandez left home in January 2007, taking early graduation to enroll at Florida and be eligible for spring football. But he was miserable and overmatched his first year there and told friends on the phone he wanted to quit. Meyer brought him in for face-to-face meetings, reading Scripture in his office each morning. He assigned Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, twin All-American linemen, to baby-sit Hernandez, and detailed Tim Tebow, the truest of believers, to be his life instructor. But even Tebow couldn’t save him from himself once Hernandez got a few beers in his system. The pair went out that April to a bar near campus, where the underage Hernandez had an argument with a waiter and punched him in the head as he walked away. Michael Taphorn suffered a ruptured eardrum, but didn’t press charges on Hernandez, telling the cops he was talking to Florida coaches, according to a police report. The matter seems to have been settled quietly out of court, which was fine with Gainesville cops and the DA. They treated the punch-out as a juvie offense, giving Hernandez a deferred prosecution on the hush.
“We didn’t hear that story till much, much later – the police didn’t file a report,” says a local reporter who was covering the team. As a sophomore, Hernandez was benched for the season opener, meaning he’d likely failed drug tests over the summer. But Meyer denied it, saying he “wasn’t ready to play,” again giving cover for bad behavior. “Meyer kept us at such a distance,” says the reporter, “or flat-out lied, that we couldn’t verify a pot suspension.”
Hernandez would fail other drug tests, according to reports, and should have faced bans for up to half a season, per school regulations. Instead, he didn’t miss a single snap, though he was seen hanging out with a crew of thugs at a local bar. One of them was Bristol pal Ernest Wallace, who came down to Florida, says a friend, to be “Aaron’s muscle.”
“I never saw him with them, but misery attracts misery: There’s vultures waiting to swoop,” says Coach Hevesy, who did everything he could to protect Hernandez. He brought him home for meals twice a week, took him deep-sea fishing and treated him like the oldest of his three kids. “He played video games with my son, and my daughter wore his jersey to sleep. But whenever he left campus, he’d come back different. That’s when the problems happened.”
Those problems didn’t hinder his development, however. He was the rare college freshman who outworked upperclassmen, training by himself even before the gym opened, doing kick-flips off the wall of his dorm. As a sophomore, he became a starter and Tebow’s third-down outlet, leading the team in catches in the national-championship win in 2008, the school’s second title in three years. “You see his athleticism and explosiveness, and as an athlete, it’s incredible,” said Tebow. By 20, Hernandez was a first-team All-American and winner of the 2009 John Mackey Award as the country’s top tight end. He could have written his own ticket if he’d kept his nose clean: been a high-first-rounder in the 2010 NFL draft and pulled an eight-figure bonus to sign. Instead, he cemented his don’t-touch rep by getting embroiled in a shooting outside a bar. “He was out with the Pounceys and [ex-Gator safety] Reggie Nelson, and some guys tried to snatch a chain off one of the Pounceys,” says the local reporter. “The guys drive off, then stop at a light, and someone gets out of a car and shoots into their car through the passenger window. One victim described the shooter as possibly Hispanic or Hawaiian, with lots of tattoos on his arms.” The Pounceys were questioned as witnesses to the crime, but Hernandez invoked his right to counsel and never gave a statement, most odd since he was also called as a witness. No charges have ever been filed, and the case is still open. Again, he walked away unscathed: He wasn’t even named in the police report. In hindsight, it might have been the worst thing for him. He seems to have concluded, with an abundance of probable cause, that he was untouchable.
In April 2010, a few months before the NFL draft, Hernandez sat down and composed a letter, or had his agent at Athletes First do so for him. (The firm is a top-tier NFL shop, repping Ray Lewis, Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, among others.) It was a Hail Mary pass to 32 teams, asking them to spike their bad reports and pick a dope-smoking, hair-trigger hothead. “My coaches have told you that nobody worked harder than me,” he wrote. “The only X-factor is concerns about my use of recreational drugs. To address that, I am putting my money where my mouth is” by offering to take eight drug tests during the season, and to return a portion of his paycheck if found dirty. This was both delusional and an empty vow: The players’ union would block even one extra test and any attempt to pay back guaranteed money. After seeing his pre-draft psychological report, where he received the lowest possible score, one out of 10, in the category of “social maturity” and which also noted that he enjoyed “living on the edge of acceptable behavior,” a handful of teams pulled him off their boards, and 25 others let him sink like a stone on draft day, April 24th. Only one team took the bait, burning a midround pick on a guy with “character issues”: the stoop-to-conquer Patriots of Bill Belichick.
Time was, the Pats were the Tiffany franchise, a team of such sterling moral repute that they cut a player right after they drafted him, having learned he had a history of assaulting women. But Beli-chick, the winner of three Super Bowl titles and grand wizard of the greatest show on turf, had decided long before he got to New England that such niceties were beneath him. Over a decade, he’d been aggregating power unto himself, becoming the Chief Decider on personnel matters. He signed so many players bearing red flags they could have marched in Moscow’s May Day parade (Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, et al.), and began drafting kids with hectic pasts, assuming the team’s vets would police them. Some of this was arrogance, some of it need: When you’re picking from the bottom of the deck each spring, you’re apt to shave some corners to land talent.
Hence, Hernandez, who’d make the Pro Bowl one season later on an NFL-minimum salary. Such was his immediate impact, in fact, that the Patriots rewrote the book on tight-end play. In 2011, the tandem of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski blew away the league marks for most combined yards, catches and touchdowns at the position, pushing the records far out of reach. It was a wrinkle opponents hadn’t seen before and were helpless to defend: two hybrid tight ends who could overpower safeties and outrun any linebacker in coverage. Belichick signed both to big extensions years before their rookie deals expired, giving Hernandez $40 million and Gronkowski $54 million, while stiffing Wes Welker, the slot receiver.
Like most of Belichick’s recent gestures, this would come back to burn him – he’d lose Gronkowski and Hernandez to injuries. But the seeds of the fiasco were sown years earlier, when Belichick replaced the Pats’ security chief with a tech-smart Brit named Mark Briggs. The NFL and its teams spend millions each year employing a web of former cops and ex-FBI agents to keep an eye on players and their posses. For decades, the Patriots relied on a homegrown crew of retired state troopers to do surveillance. Whenever a player popped up where he didn’t belong – a strip joint in Southie or a weed spot in Brockton – Frank Mendes, the team security chief from 1990 to 2003 and a former state trooper himself, would get a call from his cop or statie friends, whether they were on payroll or not. “I’d have known within a half-hour if Hernandez had gotten in trouble with police,” he says, “and told Belichick and he’d do whatever.” But when Belichick hired Briggs, who’d managed security at London’s Wembley Stadium and had limited street associates in the States, the tips from cops and troopers dried up. “The Patriots aren’t receptive to those kind of calls,” says a law-enforcement official who knows the team and dislikes Briggs. “It’s not a friendly environment to call over.”
In his first remarks after Odin Lloyd’s murder, Robert Kraft described himself as “duped” by Hernandez, saying he’d had no knowledge of his troubles. That is arrant nonsense: Every team knew him as a badly damaged kid with a circle of dangerous friends and a substance problem. Once a Patriot, Hernandez practically ran up a banner that said STOP ME! I’M OUT OF CONTROL! He’d get high all the time driving away from games, say friends of the family, “smoking three or four blunts” in the ride back to his place. He avoided all contact with teammates after practice, even among the guys in his position group, which is unheard of in the league. Since his arrest, several Patriots have called him a “loner,” saying, “No one hung with him.” Retired lineman Matt Light went a step further, telling the Dayton Daily News that he “never believed in anything Hernandez stood for.”
Instead of teammates, Hernandez built a cohort of thugs, bringing stone-cold gangsters over to the house to play pool, smoke chronic and carouse. “One of his uncles went to Boston to talk to him, and these scary-looking dudes are hanging out in his game room,” says a friend. “They wouldn’t say hi or shake his hand, and when he brought it up to Aaron, he laughed him off.”
There’s broad agreement that the problem snowballed once Hernandez signed his megadeal last summer ($40 million over a five-year term, including the largest signing bonus, $12.5 million, ever given to a tight end). In an alleged letter to a supporter from jail, he acknowledged that he “fell off especially after making all that money,” though added, with the diplomacy of a preschool kid, that “all the people who turned on me will feel like crap” when they hear “not guilty.”
But even before fixing his name to the deal, Hernandez raised the stakes on bad behavior. Six weeks earlier, at a Boston club called Cure Lounge, he and his crew got into a scrap with some men from Cape Verde, a bar brawl that bred two murders, police suspect. Afterward, a few blocks from the club, a silver Toyota 4Runner with license plates from Rhode Island pulled up beside the sedan carrying the Cape Verdean men. A gun came out the window of the Toyota, spraying the sedan. Safiro Furtado and Daniel Abreu were killed by the barrage. The Toyota sped off and went missing for months, despite a statewide search by Boston cops. It turned up a year later, undriven and caked in dust, in the garage of Hernandez’s Uncle Tito back in Bristol.
Hernandez had a dismal season, hobbled by an ankle sprain that cost him six games and about half his yardage from 2011. Then, a week after the Patriots’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, he and a friend named Alexander Bradley were pulled over by a state trooper on Boston’s Southeast Expressway, going 105 mph. Bradley, who was behind the wheel, was charged with driving under the influence and speeding, but once again Hernandez (who stuck his head out the window and said, “Trooper, I’m Aaron Hernandez – it’s OK”) walked away with no summons or team-imposed fine. Weeks later, driving from a strip club in Miami, he allegedly shot Bradley in the face, then dumped him, badly hurt and bleeding but alive, in an alley north of the city. (Bradley, keeping it gangsta, declined to tell cops who had shot him and where. No street code says you can’t get paid for it, though; he’s filed suit against Hernandez in civil court.) Then, months after that, Hernandez and his crew got in a beef outside a nightclub in Rhode Island. Someone matching Ernest Wallace’s description pulled a .22, then ditched it beneath a car. Police traced the piece to a Florida gun shop near Wallace’s parents’ house, where a second .22 had been purchased that would later turn up in the woods near Hernandez’s mansion in the wake of the murder.
By now, even Hernandez seems to have sensed that he was wildly off course. According to a source close to Hernandez, he flew to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis this past February and confided to Belichick that his life was in danger. Hernandez was trying to break away from the gangsters he’d befriended. He worried “they were actually trying to kill him,” says the source. Hernandez began arming himself, stashing a rifle in his gym bag and installing a 14-camera security system at his mansion. “He was very paranoid, but was that because of his addictions or because he was trying to leave the gang?”
This past spring he skipped out on team training drills, going to California to rehab an aching shoulder and take a much-needed break from New England. But while out there, according to the source, he blew off sessions with his therapist, Alex Guerrero, and stood up Tom Brady, who was running a camp for Pats receivers. Worse, the police were called out to his Hermosa Beach rental on March 25th, summoned by his fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins, after a loud dispute during which Hernandez put his fist through a window. No arrest was made, but word got back to Belichick, who exploded and tendered notice: Any more disruptions and he’d be traded or cut at the end of the 2013 season.
Mortified, Hernandez returned to Boston; Belichick, per a close Hernandez associate, had told him to lay low, rent a safe house for a while. In May, he leased a condo in Franklin, Massachusetts, that Carlos Ortiz referred to as the “flophouse,” 12 miles from his mansion in North Attleborough. Wallace moved in there, telling neighbors his name was “George,” and drove Hernandez to and from team workouts. Neighbors described them as “quiet” or absent, until the day after Lloyd’s shooting, when Wallace and Ortiz camped out there before taking off in a rented Chrysler for Bristol, according to a statement Ortiz gave cops.
En route, said Ortiz, Wallace claimed Hernandez had shot and killed Lloyd. Of course, Ortiz also said he’d stayed in the back seat and couldn’t say exactly what happened, a contention everyone but his government-appointed lawyer laughs at. The dust-addled Ortiz, the only one of the three men not indicted, is now the star witness in the case against Hernandez, and his account is probably worthless if he takes the stand. Meanwhile, Hernandez is paying a team of strong lawyers to defend him in his first-degree-murder and weapons charges, and there’s speculation he’s paying the legal bills for Wallace, who is being charged as an accessory. It will shock no one if Aaron Hernandez tries to save himself by turning on his friend Ortiz. He and Wallace could tell the same story in court: that it was Ortiz who shot Lloyd out of misplaced panic, and that all they’d meant to do was rough him up.
Whatever went down in that industrial park, Hernandez’s motive remains unclear. Had Lloyd, one of the few people Hernandez hung with who wasn’t mobbed up or in the drug game, done something else that night to set him off? Did Hernandez mistake Lloyd’s West Indian cousins for some of the Cape Verdeans he’d come to blows with? Or did the argument begin as one thing and end as another, broadening into a beef over drugs and money, as was widely conjectured?
“Don’t matter what it’s about: Aaron’s out of his mind,” says one friend of the family. “He’s been twisted on dust now for more than a year, which is when all of this crazy shit started.”
The friend has an intimate knowledge of the player’s family and his thug-life cohorts from Bristol. He also knows plenty about angel dust, or phencyclidine, the scourge of the 1970s. Before crack came along in the mid-Eighties, dust was the madman’s drug of choice. First marketed in the Fifties as a surgical anesthetic, it was banned for its psych-ward side effects: mania, delirium, violent hallucinations. Cops shake their heads in awe at the crazy-making powers of dust: “Kids fighting four of us and running naked down the street because their body temp is going through the roof,” says Morrell, the Bristol detective. For his department, alas, dust isn’t a dead letter; it’s still one of the drugs of abuse in Hernandez’s hometown. “We have been experiencing a resurgence in the use of angel dust. We deal with it all the time.”
As befits a crime studded with gross stupidities – killing Lloyd minutes from Hernandez’s house, drawing a bread-crumb trail of texts and calls to the victim’s cell, then leaving that phone on the dead man’s body for the cops to find – the story ends with an idiot run by Wallace and Ortiz. They would lead cops back to Uncle Tito’s house in Bristol – the very place from which Hernandez’s life vectored off course – leaving evidence out for the cops to bag up. Ortiz was picked up a week later, while Wallace had the sense to leave the state, at least, fleeing to Georgia, then Miramar, Florida, where he was arrested; Tanya Cummings-Singleton bought him a bus ride with her credit card. She, meanwhile, sits in jail for contempt and accessory charges, having refused to testify to the grand jury weighing murder charges against Hernandez. Her husband, T.L., was being sought by cops in connection with the double killing of the Cape Verdean men last July. But before detectives could come to take him in for questioning, he hopped into his car and took off with a former girlfriend sitting beside him. Hitting a curve at high speed, T.L. made no attempt to brake; he jumped the curb and flew 100 feet into a wall of a country club. The woman survived, but T.L. was killed on impact – a loose end neatly knotted; an accomplice who’d never flip.
And so here we are now, a year out from trial, and the open-and-shut case against Aaron Hernandez probably won’t be as easy to prosecute as it seems. Without the gun used in the shooting, a persuasive motive or a witness to the crime and its planning, the state’s chances of winning a conviction on murder in the first will depend entirely on circumstantial evidence. There’s no shortage of that, of course, and much of it is compelling: the security tape seems to show Hernandez with the black .45 the night of the crime; the videotapes that track his car’s movements, from the time he picked up Lloyd at his house in Boston to the second they entered the industrial park before the shooting; the shell casing recovered from the rental car that matched the ones found beside Lloyd.
To undercut the damning evidence, Hernandez may have to take the stand and provide an explanation, says Gerry Leone, the former district attorney of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, who convicted Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, among other high-profile cases. “You put him on if your defense case hinges on something that can only come from him” – for instance, the claim that he always carried a gun when leaving the house, protection from the gangsters who wanted him dead, and that it was Ortiz, not Hernandez, who pulled the trigger after a botched attempt to scare Lloyd. “If he says he was shocked by the shooting and only agreed to scare him, that might get him off,” says renowned Boston attorney Anthony Cardinale, who repped John Gotti and other mobsters and has taught at Harvard Law School. “It’s not a crime to be there if you had no reason to expect that someone would be shot.”
A bigger problem for the prosecution is the all-or-nothing charge they’ve levied against Hernandez. In deciding to try him for murder in the first, they’ll be asking jurors to send a young man to prison for the rest of his life, no parole. “In these cases, juries think that reasonable doubt means no doubt at all,” says Cardinale. “If the defense can create even the slightest crack, he may walk like George Zimmerman walked – probably guilty, but the DA overcharged.”
So call him stupid or sloppy or a menace to society, Hernandez keeps catching the breaks. He’s gotten rich running to daylight after being hemmed in, shedding tacklers and accusers to escape. If he eludes pursuit again, there will be blame to go around, but no one can claim they didn’t see it coming. He’s been getting away with murder, figuratively, if not literally, his whole life.
PAUL SOLOTAROFF is a ROLLING STONE contributing editor.
RON BORGES is a columnist at the BOSTON HERALD.