For two years, I sat in courtrooms a few paces from Aaron Hernandez, listening as prosecutors described the New England Patriots star in the starkest of terms – as a man who could tweet out Father’s Day wishes one day and settle a score with a pistol the next.
And I inevitably heard the same question in every conversation about Hernandez: How could someone with everything do something like this?
This was murder.
Before June 26, 2013 – the day police officers led a handcuffed Hernandez out of his mansion, the day the Patriots unceremoniously cut him from the team’s roster – it was a question that would have made no sense at all.
This was a man who appeared to have it all. Other-worldly physical skills. A beautiful baby. A $40 million contract. A fancy house in a wooded enclave, where he soaked away the pains of a brutal sport in his backyard swimming pool.
But after living this story for two years – after spending nearly four months parked on the same brutally hard courtroom bench covering Hernandez’s 2015 murder trial – I came to believe that the premise of the question was all wrong.
Wednesday morning, as I lay in bed in the darkness trying to force myself to peel back the covers and face the day, my phone buzzed. It was 5:38 a.m., and the text was from my boss, 9Wants to Know Executive Producer Nicole Vap.
“Omg Aaron Hernandez!”
My first thought: She’d just read through some of the various post-mortems on Hernandez’s second murder trial, which concluded last week with an acquittal.
My second: Hernandez was dead.
It took me a couple of taps on my phone to find the stunning news: The former tight end, serving a life sentence in the murder of a man who was dating his fiancée’s sister, was found dead in his cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, apparently after hanging himself with a bedsheet.
His death came less than five days after a Boston jury had acquitted him of another pair of killings – the July 16, 2012, shootings of Daniel de Abreu, 29, and Safiro Furtado, 28, that left a third man wounded, a blood burst of street violence that began with a confrontation in a nightclub. And it came even as his attorneys publicly expressed optimism that they could prevail on appeals of his conviction in the June 17, 2013, killing of Odin Lloyd.
And in some strange way, knowing that Hernandez’s life was over was not all that surprising.
During all those months of covering the allegations surrounding Hernandez for FOX Sports 1, I was struck by the multiple portraits that emerged, none of them flattering.
The first was of a guy who was something short of a master criminal.
Lloyd’s body was found 40 miles from his home in the Dorchester section of Boston, but less than half a mile from Hernandez’s mansion. In his pockets, detectives found keys to an SUV rented by Hernandez, and a phone containing numerous text messages from the football star. When investigators pored over Hernandez’s home surveillance system, they found images of him holding a gun – images snapped both before and after Lloyd’s killing.
The second was of a guy who broke away from a tough town and the pain of losing his father when he was 16, making it all the way to the National Football League, but who never left behind the shady characters he’d hung around with for years.
Hernandez had summoned two men -- both with long criminal records – to his house the night he drove to Boston, picked up Lloyd, and then drove to the gravel pit in tiny North Attleborough, where the murder was carried out. Both men were later convicted of being accessories in Lloyd’s slaying.
And the star witness in Hernandez’s second trial was a drug dealer with an extensive criminal record who alleged that Hernandez shot him in the face in 2013 after a dispute at a Florida strip club. He was the godfather of Hernandez’s young daughter, and to testify he had to be transferred from a prison where he was serving a five-year sentence for shooting up a nightclub in Hartford, Conn.
And the third was of a guy who thought nothing of opening fire on someone he thought had crossed him.
Long before he was a star, Hernandez was implicated in a shooting after a beef in a nightclub.
It was Sept. 30, 2007. Hernandez was a freshman at the University of Florida, not yet 18. Gunfire erupted on a Gainseville street corner as a man described by witnesses as “large” and “muscular” pumped multiple shots into a car, wounding two men, then ran away. The wounded men were sure they’d been targeted by a football player they’d clashed with earlier at a club.
Detectives suspected Hernandez was the gunman, but no charges were ever filed.
Add to that the conviction of Lloyd’s murder, the charges that he killed the two men in south Boston, and the allegation he shot his daughter’s godfather in the head and left him for dead.
Now, as I look back, I see a series of contradictions.
I see the football star who strutted into the courtroom each day like the star he had been, fist-bumping his attorneys as though he had not a care in the world, always careful to avoid that display when the jurors were in the room. I see a guy who could turn and blow a kiss to his fiancée with a twinkle in his eyes but who could stare coldly at a witness testifying against him. I see a guy with an electric smile who could not – or would not – look in the direction of the shattered mother of his victim.
And I hear that inevitable question again.
But I no longer see someone with everything who did something inexplicable.
Instead, I see a deeply troubled man, a man whose athletic ability allowed him – for a time – to create an illusion that masked what was inside.