Gladiator Aaron Hernandez & Football, Inc.
Part 5 of 6: Prison
A room of his own
The series was reported by Beth Healy, Bob Hohler, Sacha Pfeiffer, Andrew Ryan, Todd Wallack, and editor Patricia Wen. Today's story was written by Healy.
He had lost all the trappings of life as a football star.
The Sunday glory, the rush of money, the posse of friends and protectors. All gone. His fiancee was not allowed to visit, and he could see his little daughter only through a glass window. Each day ended on a cot inside a 7-by-10-foot jail cell.
Yet Aaron Hernandez seemed strangely content at the Suffolk County Jail as he awaited trial in the summer of 2014. The former New England Patriots tight end delighted in playing poker, cribbage, and whist (he thought it was called “wiss”). He developed a fondness for Harry Potter books and reveled in such tiny privileges as using the prison microwave to warm up his snacks.
“So you get two honey buns, right? And you put a layer of peanut butter in between the two honey buns with the icing facing each other,” he explained in a phone call to his incredulous fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins.
The man who once seemed caught up in chaos any time he was off the football field appeared to thrive on the enforced structure of prison life.
“My room is very organized,’’ he told Jenkins. “I have everything lined up perfect, have my little trash in there. Everything all folded, I always make a nice perfect pillow.” He added, “It’s actually cozy. I think I enjoy it too much.”
For Jenkins, now raising their daughter alone and facing perjury charges related to his case, Hernandez’s childlike contentment seemed stunning. “Oh my gosh. I can’t even fathom what you’re saying to me right now,” she said.
To the public, Aaron Hernandez had turned virtually silent from the moment of his arrest. He appeared brooding and thuggish in court, relying on a cast of lawyers to speak for him, and did not take the stand at his own trials.
But inside the jails that held Hernandez for the next four years, his personal drama was unspooling, as he revealed his thoughts and feelings in letters and telephone calls.
Hernandez describing prison life in a jail call
Nearly 300 Hernandez phone calls from his six months at the Suffolk County Jail, obtained by the Globe Spotlight Team, provide a remarkable window into his world, at a time when he had not yet been convicted of murdering his friend Odin Lloyd, and when he was still hopeful about his future.
Many versions of the man come through in those calls. The domesticated Hernandez who appreciated a well-fluffed pillow. The rule breaker who would later be punished again and again for violations at the state’s maximum security prison. The tough guy who could handle months in solitary, but was wounded to learn his old sports awards were being taken down at Bristol Central High School.
And there was the philosophical Hernandez, who sometimes turned to books, and, increasingly, the Bible, for inspiration. Often, he sounded like a man struggling to make sense of his own bad choices.
“I tried as hard as I could to live the dream life,” he told a friend. “But it didn’t end up working out.”
The calls, along with hundreds of pages of records and interviews with people who knew Hernandez, shed light not only on his thinking, but on the institutions and people — family, friends, coaches — that might have slowed his downward spiral.
The final failure to intervene came in prison, where officials seemed to turn a blind eye to Hernandez’s drug use, neglected to safeguard their famous inmate, and hid from the public the truth of what happened in his final days.
“He was a 22-year-old kid who was ultimately signed for an enormous amount of money, who had known problems, and no one did anything to try to address what was going on,’’ said George Leontire, one of his lawyers.
“Three oatmeal cookies”
“Outside, the view is beautiful,” Hernandez told his mother in a phone call from the jail on Nashua Street, in downtown Boston. “When we go outside to play basketball, it’s on the roof.”
Tall fences surrounded the court, so people couldn’t jump off, he said. “But you look out the fence and you’re looking at the whole city, all the bright lights, and it looks beautiful at nighttime.”
Hernandez had spent the year since his arrest at a much harsher jail. Now he was telling family and friends about his view of the Charles River, and marveling at duck boats full of tourists moving from water to land. He got to watch TV, and ate more food than the 240-pound former athlete had been allowed in months.
He described meals to his lifelong friend Ryan McDonnell in a low voice so no one would hear.
“For breakfast,” he whispered in a call, “I got three pancakes, with two sausages — not bad.” Lunch was chicken parmesan, “with pasta, a little salad container, three oatmeal cookies, a milk, with some butter.”
For a man whose feats once played out on the national stage, the world had become much narrower. In jail, he focused on the smallest of creature comforts, taking “bird baths” at his sink, and wrapping his cell light in a shirt to give it a homey, burnt orange glow.
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Episode 5: Erasing Aaron
He talked, too, of sharing his new home with the four-legged creatures in the heater.
“There’s rodents here, so like mice,’’ he explained to a friend. “They may come out here and there, but they just, like, peek their head out and go right back in.” He said they didn’t bother him. “It’s better than mosquitoes, roaches, frogs, um crickets, spiders, ants, you know what I mean, that was at the other place.”
That other place was the Bristol County Jail, an hour south of Boston. There, Hernandez had been under the watch of Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.
Hodgson bragged about getting rid of the basketball court at his jail, and turning it into a religious retreat. He took french fries off the chow list (if you don’t like it, “don’t come here”). And he’d later draw headlines by offering to send inmates to help build President Trump’s border wall.
When Hernandez arrived at the Bristol jail, Hodgson said he told him, “ ‘I want you to know that you’re going to be treated no better and no worse than anybody else.’ ”
But he kept Hernandez in an especially grim section of the jail, reserved for inmates who were mentally ill or violent.
The guards did give Hernandez some privileges, however. They’d let him do pull-ups on the stairs outside his cell, and allowed him to work out in a small cement courtyard, instead of locking him up in one of the cages out there.
But Hodgson played up his tough treatment of Hernandez, who had not yet been convicted of a crime. He kept his celebrity charge in isolation, he said, to protect him from inmates who might harm him. He urged Hernandez to read the Bible, and talk to his dead father.
“He started more and more to trust me, almost like a father figure,’’ Hodgson said.
That claim was “nonsense,” according to Jose Baez, a Miami lawyer who would later represent Hernandez in a different murder case — the 2012 killings of two Cape Verdean men in Boston’s South End. When the sheriff would stop by his cell, Baez said, “Aaron would look up at him and flip him the bird.”
It’s possible Hernandez told both Baez and the sheriff what they wanted to hear. It was a skill he’d perfected over his life, to please whomever he was with. He would coo sweet “I love yous” to his daughter and fiancee one moment, then shift to gangster slang the next, crassly recalling nights of prowling strip joints with his college football pal Mike Pouncey.
Hodgson said Hernandez adapted to jail life, but there were also clear signs of distress. He would scream and bang on his cell door, according to prison records. He was disciplined a number of times. And when he once asked to be moved out of segregation, the sheriff did not allow it, he said.
So, when Hernandez was transferred to the Suffolk County Jail in Boston in July 2014 to be closer to the lawyers preparing for his trial, it came as a reprieve. At Suffolk, all inmates were awaiting trial and were given more freedom. Hernandez often sounded at peace there, working out, playing chess, and imagining a future with his daughter.
“Avielle,’’ he called to her on speakerphone. “Daddy loves you more than anything in the whole wide world, and that’ll never change!”
Outside the prison, the walls were closing in. Prosecutors were preparing their case against Hernandez in the Lloyd murder, and they had some damning evidence.
Lloyd was a young Dorchester native who’d been dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee. The two used to hang out together. On the night he was killed, Lloyd was in a car with Hernandez and two other men.
His body was found in an industrial yard close to Hernandez’s sprawling suburban home, with keys in his pocket to a car Hernandez had rented. And Hernandez showed up in video surveillance at his own house, shortly after the murder, carrying what appeared to be a gun.
No one seemed to know what could have driven Hernandez to kill, including the prosecutors. But they didn’t have to establish a motive. They just had to prove Hernandez was there that night, and that he was involved in the crime.
In jail calls, Hernandez said his lawyers were confident about his case.
“Trial’s in January, [expletive] looking good,’’ he told Mike Pouncey. “They know I ain’t do [expletive]. So they don’t got what they got to, you know what I’m saying, to find me guilty … and they know I’m innocent.”
The Patriots cut Hernandez immediately after he was arrested. They hired a “character coach” to counsel players with problems and claimed Hernandez had duped the team’s top brass. And because he was no longer on the team, they said they would not discuss him further.
Even in his hometown, where he was once a sports hero, Hernandez’s memory was being erased. His mother told him in one prison call that his brother was picking up Hernandez’s plaques from Bristol Central High School.
“They took ’em down?” Hernandez asked. Yes, his mother said, “Your All-American, the Gatorade” Player of the Year award.
He tried to laugh it off, but it plainly hurt.
In jail, Hernandez was still a football star. On Sunday afternoons, inmates crowded around the TV and rooted wildly for the Patriots. Hernandez had always hated being a spectator, but still he joined in.
“So funny, guys in there, last year probably you were their favorite player,’’ said McDonnell, Hernandez’s friend from his boyhood in Bristol. “Now you’re hanging out with them.’’
Hernandez sometimes fretted that his former teammates had forgotten him. He was happy to hear that his old offensive coach, Josh McDaniels, had asked for him. But McDaniels couldn’t visit, Hernandez was told, because of how it would look.
So he wanted to write to McDaniels. In a phone call, he asked his agent, Brian Murphy, for the address. Murphy suggested Hernandez could always send mail directly to Gillette Stadium.
“Yeah, I’ve [expletive] sent one there before. But I don’t think they’ll even let it through,’’ Hernandez said. Murphy then admitted he had yet to deliver a letter to quarterback Tom Brady that Hernandez had written.
The conversation grew awkward, and Murphy changed the subject: “So tell me about jail, man. You getting good at handball?”
“I was very selfish”
Jail made Hernandez cling harder to the people most likely to take his calls. Chief among those were his fiancee, his mother, and his Bristol friend McDonnell. Hernandez kept track of when they’d be available to talk, since jail calls are only outbound and cut off after 20 minutes.
Jenkins would accept Hernandez’s calls, often twice daily, even when she was frustrated by him. She wanted to let him talk to their daughter. And she seemed to know she was his lifeline.
Still, over time, a physical distance grew between them, since Jenkins could not visit Hernandez in jail. She was facing her own charges in the Lloyd case — perjury over her role in disposing of a box allegedly containing the murder weapon. The charges were eventually dropped. But for a long time, the only way Hernandez saw Avielle was when Jenkins’s mother brought her.
Hernandez would sometimes show flashes of jealousy, worried his fiancee was seeing other men. He had hardly been a model partner himself, and now he was trying to make amends.
“I was very selfish,’’ he told her on one call. “The reason I always thought I had a good heart was ’cause I did it for all my friends. But I didn’t — I wasn’t a good-hearted person to the person that actually was my fiancee.”
Hernandez also reconnected with his mother in jail, after a long period of estrangement. He had been furious at her for dating Jeff Cummings, then the husband of his favorite cousin, Tanya.
“It used to ruin my life,” Hernandez told a friend. “But the only thing is, like, people do crazy things for love and I understand. So like, I can’t judge her because love makes you do stupid things.”
In some ways, jail was not foreign to Hernandez. Numerous friends and family members had done time.
“Jail doesn’t bother me,” he told his mother on a call. “I’ve been the most relaxed and less stressed in jail than I have out of jail.”
Hernandez also projected contradictory sides of himself. For a young man grappling with his sexual identity, he was prone to going on homophobic rants.
Hernandez reflects on his life
“There’s this [expletive] faggot that walks around too, puts butter on his lips for lipstick. It’s ridiculous,’’ he said in one call. “Walks around so flamboyant, like ‘Oh my God,’ crazy … ”
Hernandez said he wanted to punch the guy.
After his fiancee and his mother, Hernandez called his friend McDonnell the most, sometimes apologizing for sending him depressing or angry letters. McDonnell did not mince words with Hernandez, once telling him he could have tried harder in his life.
Hernandez admitted to him that he had hung out with bad people. He also claimed he didn’t miss his old existence. Not the money, not the fame. He said he missed his daughter — and something else he didn’t name.
“I don’t miss football. I miss one thing,’’ Hernandez said on a call with him.
“Being free,’’ McDonnell suggested.
But that wasn’t it. “Freedom, that’s not what I miss,’’ Hernandez said. “It was the same thing I missed when I was on the streets.”
Hernandez did not go into further detail. With his beloved cousin, Tanya, he offered a more stark summary.
“I’m just one empty person,’’ Hernandez told her. “I’ve been like that for so long.”
By January 2015, Hernandez was getting fitted for suits for the Odin Lloyd trial. He bragged to friends that he’d be looking “fly” in court. But he knew the case against him was daunting.
His mother told him the Boston double murder charges scared her more than the Lloyd case. But Hernandez corrected her. No, he said, “Odin’s is the rough one,” because it would come down to what the jury believed.
The trial went on for three months. During that time, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. The team rode through Boston streets on duck boats to celebrate in February 2015, past throngs of cheering fans.
Meanwhile, in the Fall River courtroom where Hernandez stood trial for killing Odin Lloyd, Jenkins sat on one side, while her sister — Lloyd’s girlfriend — sat on the other. The trial had moments of high drama, such as the day Patriots owner Robert Kraft was called on to testify.
And one day, two mothers met. As she was leaving court, Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, said Hernandez’s mother approached her. “His mom came to me and said she’s sorry for everything,” Ward said in a June interview.
On April 15, 2015, after deliberating for six days, the jury of seven women and five men found Hernandez guilty of murder. They did not find premeditation, but they cited “extreme atrocity or cruelty.”
Hernandez dropped into a chair as the verdicts were read, his face blank. The conviction meant an automatic sentence to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. His fiancee and mother wept. So did Lloyd’s mother.
Things were about to change big-time for Aaron Hernandez.
Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center is a maximum security prison 40 miles west of Boston, located in a remote area and surrounded in razor wire. It was nothing like the Suffolk County Jail, with its poker matches and rooftop views. At Souza, inmates spent about 20 hours a day in their cells.
“It’s definitely not the place to be,’’ said Darrell Jones, a former inmate at Souza-Baranowski who had some interactions with Hernandez. “It’s a horrible place, period.”
Jones should know. He was recently released after 32 years wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in Massachusetts, the last nine of those at Souza. He would say hello to Hernandez in the hall, he said, and in the visiting room when their kids came to see them.
“He was always respectful to me,’’ Jones said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m too big to speak.’ So he was cool.”
The Department of Correction declined to let the Globe listen to Hernandez’s recorded phone calls from Souza. But previously unreleased records — as well as interviews with people who knew Hernandez, including his brother, Jonathan — portray a much darker chapter there for him.
Within weeks of arriving at Souza, Hernandez was already in trouble.
He used another inmate’s passcode to avoid being tracked on the phone. He served as lookout for a fight, which landed him in segregation. And he was caught with a new tattoo on the side of his neck that said “Lifetime Loyalty,” above a star that’s often associated with the Bloods gang.
Aligning with a gang is common in prison. Souza records call Hernandez a member of the Bloods. It was more likely the Latin Kings, according to Jones, though Hernandez would wind up in a big fight with the head of that gang.
Hernandez was disciplined dozens of times, and spent a lot of time in the hole. He was moved to 23 different cells at the prison in two years, usually as punishment.
“He talked about the relentless taunting by the guards,’’ said Leontire, the Hernandez attorney. “I think the hardest part was the amount of time that he was required to spend in his cell.”
The Department of Correction was not aware of allegations about bad treatment by guards, spokesman Jason Dobson said.
Hernandez became more religious while he was locked up, according to his brother, Jonathan, whose book, “The Truth About Aaron,” comes out this month. Fellow inmates would later describe Hernandez as spiritual.
At the same time, matters that Hernandez had always kept tightly under wraps were coming to the surface. He had once told his mother at Suffolk that she would die without ever truly knowing her son, and that he couldn’t trust her enough to confide in her. But while at Souza, he found the courage to tell her two painful things — that he was gay, and that he had been molested as a child, according to Leontire, the lawyer.
“He had been molested fairly intensely as a very young kid,” Leontire said. Hernandez seemed to think the sexual abuse had made him gay, Leontire recalled. He saw it as a way to “control his self-hatred, because it wasn’t his fault.”
His mother declined the Globe’s interview requests. But his brother said Hernandez had endured their father’s homophobic slurs as a youth. He also said he’d learned that Hernandez had been molested.
“It’s just something that you don’t wish for anyone,’’ Jonathan Hernandez said in a tearful interview. He did not name the abuser and said he has not confronted the person, adding, “I need more time.”
Hernandez hired Leontire and Baez, a Miami defense lawyer, to represent him in his second murder trial, which started in March 2017. In this one, Hernandez was accused of shooting Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, after drinks at the Cure Lounge in 2012.
Hernandez had been out with his friend and drug dealer Alexander Bradley that night. The two were allegedly in a silver SUV; one drove and the other pulled the trigger. Prosecutors had to persuade the jury Hernandez was the shooter.
Now, Bradley was testifying against Hernandez, in a deal to save himself from murder charges. The two men had been at war since Hernandez allegedly shot Bradley in the face in Florida, and Bradley had been threatening him in texts.
The Boston prosecutor handling the case, Patrick Haggan, knew Bradley was no Boy Scout. Bradley readily admitted in court to having a cache of guns, including an assault rifle. Those comments “probably looked bad ultimately to the jury,” Haggan said. “But to me it struck a chord as far as his credibility. He wasn’t shy about who he was.”
The defense asked Hernandez’s family to attend the trial, to support him. But his mother never showed up. His brother went once. His fiancee, Jenkins, was a constant presence. One day, she brought Avielle to court, too. Hernandez blew her a kiss.
Jenkins kept coming back, even after she was hit with another unhappy surprise.
Baez asked her to meet him on the deserted sixth floor of Suffolk County Superior Court, according to his book about the case, “Unnecessary Roughness.” He felt he had to prepare her for something.
Prosecutors had learned that Hernandez had told another woman he called frequently from Souza that he was attracted to men. Hernandez had told her it made him “angry all the time,’’ according to Haggan.
The prosecutors couldn’t rule out that this might come up if Jenkins took the witness stand, Haggan said.
Hernandez’s lawyers strongly objected to the idea of Hernandez’s sexuality being revealed in court. Still, Baez felt he needed to warn Jenkins, and Hernandez was stricken over how she might react.
“His concern always was the impact on somebody who he loved and who truly loved him, and had stood by him all these years, and how hurt she would be,’’ Leontire said.
The issue never did come up in court. But for Hernandez, the secret was out — to his fiancee.
On April 14, 2017, after weeks in court, the jury acquitted Hernandez of murder. In the end, they did not find Bradley credible. The verdict brought a normally stoic Hernandez to tears. This victory meant his legal team would likely next try to overturn his conviction in the Lloyd case.
The moment was bittersweet. The judge added five more years to his life sentence, on a weapons charge. By now, Hernandez had already been locked up for four years, more time than the 27-year-old had spent in high school, or college, or the NFL.
He was ushered out of the courtroom and returned to cell No. 57, on the G-2 block at Souza-Baranowski.
“God and death”
Three days after Hernandez’s acquittal for the South End murders, his cell door unlocked and slid open. It was gym night. He walked out and headed down a set of stairs at the regular time. Moments later, another inmate slipped into Hernandez’s cell and hid under the bed.
Hernandez wasn’t really planning to work out; he doubled back to his cell just before the door electronically locked shut. The area lights — controlled by guards — went strangely dim for 6:40 p.m., obscuring the view of surveillance cameras.
Hernandez and his visitor smoked K2, an informant later told investigators. It looks like marijuana but it’s more toxic: plants sprayed with chemicals that can cause hallucinations and are hard to detect in drug tests.
The two men talked of God and death. Two hours later, the lights came back up. The cell doors opened and the visitor left. These were brazen breaches of prison rules, but officials did not seem to notice.
This was not a tryst, the inmate later told a prison social worker, according to records. Conversation only. That inmate’s name was not disclosed.
That same day, hours earlier, WEEI sports radio hosts and a guest had made raunchy comments about Hernandez being gay. Jones, the wrongly convicted former inmate, said he never believed Hernandez was gay, and that it would have been dangerous for him in prison. Still, rumors swirled on the outside.
The next evening, on April 18, Hernandez made phone calls as usual, the last one to Shayanna Jenkins, who described the conversation as ordinary. He hustled back to his cell for lock-in at 7:59 p.m., as the light drained from the sky outside his cell window.
Hernandez chatted with other inmates through his door, as the guard on duty made hourly rounds.
Then, correction officer Gerard Breau arrived for the overnight shift on the G-2 block. He walked past Hernandez’s cell three times — at 11:01 p.m., 12:01 a.m. and 1:02 a.m., records show. He never broke his stride or shined a flashlight into Hernandez’s cell, according to an official report describing the prison’s video surveillance that night.
Guards are required to see “living, breathing flesh” on every round.
When Breau went by at 3:03 a.m., he saw a sheet covering Hernandez’s door. He knocked and called out. No response. Breau tugged down the sheet and saw Hernandez hanging from the bars of his window.
Breau couldn’t immediately open the cell door — he’d left his keys in a back room, in another breach of department rules. A fellow guard grabbed the keys, and together they pried open the jammed door.
More guards arrived. The cell floor was covered in a slick of shampoo, so they struggled as they approached Hernandez. He had written John 3:16 on his forehead in blood. His lips were already blue, and he was naked. There was a Bible open on the desk and red writing on the walls.
One guard put wrist restraints on Hernandez, in case he was faking. It took multiple men to hoist his large frame, and two sets of shears to cut the sheet from around his neck; the first pair was dull. Once he was down, guards took turns doing chest compressions, until paramedics arrived to take him to Leominster Hospital.
At 4:07 a.m., a doctor declared Aaron Hernandez dead.
The news was a shock to everyone who knew Hernandez. State Police launched an investigation, but there was much officials never shared with the public.
For one thing, on the night Hernandez died, Breau skipped his 2 a.m. round altogether. He’d later tell investigators he was tired from getting little sleep the day before, and was “in a fog,’’ according to the records obtained by the Globe.
Breau did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did officers of the prison guard union. Corrections officials found misconduct by Breau, according to their partially redacted report, but would not say whether he was punished. He kept his job.
The Department of Correction also would not explain how Hernandez got access to drugs a day before killing himself.
K2 can stay in the blood for 72 hours. Its psychotic effects include religious preoccupations, and users can become impulsive, according to Dr. Kevin Hill, chief of addiction psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
“They may ultimately do things that are out of character for them, things that people they are close to would never expect,” Hill said.
The official 71-page State Police report said toxicology of Hernandez’s blood came back “negative for all substances tested, to include synthetic cannabinoids.” But the chemicals in K2 vary widely, making them tricky to identify. Investigators refused to disclose what tests had been done on Hernandez.
The guards who turned down the lights that night were not punished because, according to the investigative report, there was no specific rule about dimming lights.
The state failed to disclose these prison errors and missteps to the public, and to Hernandez’s family. Eighteen months after his death, his lawyers are still fighting for basic records, including the autopsy and toxicology reports.
Hernandez took to his grave his reasons for ending his own life, and there might have been many. But something he said to a fellow inmate offered a hint of one thing that might have been on his mind at the time.
He learned that if a convicted man dies with an open appeal in Massachusetts, his record is cleared. Did he think that would free up his Patriots money for his family?
In the midst of their grief, it fell to Hernandez’s mother and his fiancee to make a quick decision about his body — to let Boston University study his brain for signs of harm from his many years playing a violent game.
And then, amid a storm of public headlines, they planned a private funeral in his hometown of Bristol.
Read the final installment of Gladiator, “A terrible thing to waste.”
Spotlight reporter Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Spotlight Team email is email@example.com.