When it comes to Aaron Hernandez, the question always returns to “why”?
Why give up a life that seemingly had everything — football fame, money, a devoted fiancée, a beautiful daughter? Why kill, or be involved in the killing, of people who were unarmed and seemingly powerless against you? Why commit suicide in prison?
Why? Why? Why?
For years I wrestled with those questions and more while covering the Hernandez saga for Yahoo Sports — from talking with Hernandez friends and family, law enforcement and prosecutors, former teammates and coaches, to sitting through two lengthy murder trials. Much of that work later manifested itself into “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” a Netflix docuseries that I served as an executive producer on.
Here’s the truth: The whys have no conclusive answers, certainly not if you adhere to basic journalistic standards and try to sort through facts rather than chase sensational rumors (of which there are many). It is, I think, fair to say it was a perfect cocktail of circumstances that led to Aaron Hernandez’s downfall.
That may not be the most exciting revelation, but to pick one thing out and place all the blame on it wouldn’t be correct. Was it family issues? Was it CTE? Was it an unease with his sexuality? Was it an infatuation with guns and violence? It could be any. It could be all.
None are meant to provide an excuse for what he did, but rather to provide insight into the man who did it. Make no mistake, Aaron Hernandez made the decisions that devastated lives around him.
If you’ve watched the docuseries, you likely have questions or takeaway about this complicated and tragic case. What follows are my personal opinions, no better or worse than anyone else’s.
1. How did the death of his father impact Aaron Hernandez?
Dennis Hernandez could be violent, close-minded and intimidating. He was also very good at keeping his sons in line. Aaron had a fairly structured life until Dennis died unexpectedly following a routine hernia surgery. Suddenly, at age 16, everything changed for Aaron.
With his brother D.J. off at the University of Connecticut, Aaron and his mother were alone in the house. Then Terri Hernandez took up with Jeff Cummings, who had been married to Aaron’s cousin, Tanya Singleton.
That upended everything and pushed Aaron to spend more time at Singleton’s house, where a far more permissive and partying lifestyle could be found. This was somewhat disastrous for a teenager who needed structure more than ever as he watched his family splinter.
2. Was going to the University of Florida the best thing for him?
Aaron was such a gifted high school football player that nearly every national power in America came to Connecticut, which isn’t known as a recruiting hot bed, to try to sign him. He was committed to UConn, even though that program rarely signs such talents.
His father played at UConn and saw it as the perfect platform for Aaron — good enough to expose him to the NFL, but small enough that he could grow and develop in a bit of a bubble. It wasn’t far from home and D.J. was already there. UConn was the plan, no matter who came calling.
After Dennis’ death, though, Aaron visited Florida, which was the No. 1 program in America at the time under Urban Meyer. He almost immediately switched his commitment. The move worked out on the field; Aaron became an All-American and was part of a national title. Little else, however, was good.
Florida had Aaron leave high school a semester early and enroll in college so he could get extra practice time in before his freshman season. He was just 17. He was forced to prove himself on a daily basis, both athletically and socially, and his behavior became increasingly on the edge.
Meyer has always cited Aaron’s friends back in Connecticut for being bad influences on him, but when he left for Gainesville, he hadn’t been surrounded by many unsavory people (he wouldn’t befriend Alexander Bradley for a few years). It was at UF that he began to really change.
Would he have been a saint had he gone to UConn? Probably not. In hindsight, though, sending him off to the SEC at such an important and impressionable age wasn’t a good choice.
3. What if Aaron had never met Alexander Bradley?
Bradley is a real criminal and a very tough guy. He is a gun and drug dealer out of Hartford, Connecticut, who began selling Aaron marijuana as he prepared for the NFL draft. The two soon were playing video games together and hanging out. They became friends.
This is where things really went bad for Aaron, particularly the night of the 2012 shootings of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, who were shot dead in their cars after leaving a Boston nightclub.
Hernandez was found not guilty because it came down to the two men in the car (Bradley and Hernandez) each saying the other guy pulled the trigger. Since there was no way of truly knowing and Bradley was a compromised witness, Hernandez skated.
He wasn’t, though, completely innocent. He was there that night. At the very least he witnessed the shooting deaths, never reported them and continued to hang out with Bradley. Worse, the vehicle involved wound up stashed at Tanya Singleton’s home in Bristol.
Months later, he and Bradley were in South Florida, where (after a night out) Bradley wound up in a ditch with a bullet through his eye. Whether it was actually Aaron who pulled the trigger that night, Bradley held Aaron responsible and vowed revenge.
Hernandez’s resulting fear and paranoia of being killed by Bradley led to the renting of a flop house in Connecticut, bringing in Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace as bodyguards and reportedly asking the Patriots for a trade. Hernandez was so terrified of Bradley that he installed the home surveillance system that wound up providing the most devastating evidence against him in the Odin Lloyd murder trial. He also loaded up on weapons and spent much of his time high, particularly the weekend of the Lloyd murder.
There remains no known motive for the killing of Odin Lloyd, but Hernandez’s state of mind — while believing Bradley was trying to hunt him down — must have played a significant role.
4. Who were the victims?
Odin Lloyd was a laid-back, yet hard-working guy from Dorchester, Massachusetts. His friends marveled at his sense of humor and the way he made everyone around him feel comfortable. He coasted through an adolescence in a dangerous neighborhood, seemingly liked by all. When he sought work as a landscaper, he showed up in a suit holding a résumé. He then rode his bike to work.
Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu were similar. Both hailed from Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, and were working on cleaning crews that straighten up offices in downtown Boston after hours. One had been a police officer back home, the other a tour guide. They were seeking a better life and weren’t afraid to pursue it.
Maybe most painful is the realization that none of them were armed at the time of their deaths and none posed any physical threat to Hernandez or anyone else. All three of them were ambushed. It wasn’t even a fair fight.
If there is one thing that will stick with me when it comes to this story is the pain, yet pride, that could be seen in the eyes of their families. A total tragedy. Just a sickening tragedy.
5. Why did Shayanna Jenkins choose Aaron over her sister?
Shayanna and Shaneah Jenkins grew up in Bristol, raised by their single mother. They were once close. Shayanna started dating Aaron Hernandez in high school, moving with him to Massachusetts when he was drafted by the Patriots. They had a daughter together.
Shaneah, meanwhile, met Odin Lloyd while she was working her way through college and employed at a hotel in Connecticut. Odin was staying there working with an out-of-town construction crew. Odin used to hang around the front desk until he won her over. She later moved to Boston to attend the New England College of Law (where she would graduate) and be near her boyfriend and sister. Shaneah and Odin might have had a very nice life together.
During the trial, the sisters sat on opposite sides of the courtroom, each showing their allegiance. That Shay chose Aaron over Shaneah remains one of the most dramatic bits of betrayal/loyalty in a story full of both. Her carrying out a suspicious box from the mansion, which prosecutors believe contained the murder weapon, only to conveniently forget what dumpster she may have dropped it in, just sealed everything.
My opinion is that Shayanna Jenkins had a dream life going and never wanted to admit that it wasn’t real — so she chose to believe/pretend that Aaron was innocent and everything was fine. During the trials I found her smart, conversational and a devoted mother. Like everyone else, she’s complicated.
6. How loyal was cousin Tanya Singleton to Aaron?
The only person whose loyalty to Aaron that can approach, or even surpass, Shayanna’s is Tanya Singleton. The connection between the two was unshakeable. Singleton not only stashed the car from the Boston shooting deaths in her garage, she tried to help Wallace and Ortiz escape New England following the Lloyd murder.
She then refused to cooperate with authorities and was jailed on a contempt charge despite being riddled with cancer and the mother of two young boys. At no point did she ever crack and turn on Aaron before dying from her illness.
7. Could Jose Baez have gotten Aaron off in the appeal of the Odin Lloyd murder?
I’ve covered a few high-profile cases and Baez is the best trial attorney I’ve seen. He won not-guilty verdicts for both Casey Anthony and Aaron Hernandez.
However, the evidence in the Lloyd case was completely overwhelming.
At the time of the trial there was a belief by those outside the courtroom — mainly talking heads on cable television — that Hernandez could walk because he was a football star, a la O.J. Simpson. That took root when the jury spent nearly a week going over the evidence.
Talking to jurors after, however, it was never close. They were a very thorough group that took their responsibilities seriously. Hernandez never stood a chance. There was no way to overcome the home security video, the cell phone location evidence that placed him at the scene of the crime, the gun shells in the rental car and the testimony of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
While some will say Aaron was excited about Baez winning an appeal in the case and getting a retrial, it’s my opinion he knew that he would never, ever even get that far let alone ever win the case. He was guilty, 100 percent guilty.
8. Did Aaron commit suicide because he was outed on WEEI?
No one knows why Aaron committed suicide. The people closest to him — his family, friends and attorneys who spoke with him regularly — were so stunned by his suicide that they initially wouldn’t rule out foul play. The evidence, particularly his very personal suicide notes to his lawyer, fiancée and daughter, made it clear he took his own life.
Two days before his suicide, a Boston sports radio show revealed the longstanding rumor that Aaron was bisexual. It was done in crude terms. Did that spur him to kill himself out of shame and/or embarrassment?
Again, no one knows. It remains a mystery. However, the way Hernandez planned out his suicide suggests that this wasn’t a rash decision. It isn’t easy to commit suicide in prison. To do so, he needed to complete time consuming tasks such as tying a bed sheet with so many knots that it was strong enough to hold his large body. He acquired enough soap that he could spread it across the floor of his cell and prevent himself from standing up if he had last-second regrets.
He wrote the notes, got enough cardboard to jam his cell door (so it would take longer for guards to open) and covered the window so he might not be immediately discovered. He then staged an elaborate death complete with blood drops on particular Bible verses and stigmata on his hands.
It’s just an opinion, but that didn’t seem to be a rushed suicide. It looked meticulously planned.
9. Did Aaron commit suicide to get back his bonus money from the Patriots?
Aaron had signed a $40 million contract in 2012 but he played only one season under it. His first two years he made a relatively low salary (around $500,000 per year) as a fourth-round draft pick. He did, though, get a $12.5 million signing bonus. New England, and Hernandez’s victims, went after his money when he was convicted.
Through a then-archaic Massachusetts law known as “abatement ab initio,” Hernandez could have his murder conviction thrown out if he died while that conviction was in the process of appeal. Conceivably, that would allow his family to fight for his millions because he would technically be innocent.
We don’t know that he knew that. He did write “you’re rich” in his suicide note to Shayanna Jenkins, but what that means is undetermined. Even if that was Hernandez’s plan, it seems ill-conceived. First off, the Patriots, even if they were somehow obligated (and that remains a question), were not going to just hand over millions of dollars to the Hernandez estate.
They would fight it legally until there were no other options — a lengthy and expensive battle for the Hernandez estate to take on against a billion-dollar operation. Even then, if Hernandez won, he would almost certainly lose civil suits to the family of Lloyd as well as Furtado and de Abreu.
There is no way of telling, but my opinion is he always planned on committing suicide after the second trial because he was 27 and knew he was facing 50 or so more years in prison. His life at that point was hopeless (he was never beating the Lloyd murder conviction) and he just didn’t want to continue.
That isn’t a particularly interesting opinion, but it’s the one that makes the most sense. As with nearly everything when it comes to Aaron Hernandez though, a mystery remains.
10. Is Odin Lloyd’s mother that good of a person?
Yes. She is. The ability of Ursula Ward, Odin’s mother, to offer forgiveness to Aaron is one of the few positive aspects of the entire story.
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