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The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez, the Superstar Whose Life Ended on Murderers' Row
With Mike Harvkey
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Matthew Kent ran track and played football at a high school in Attleboro, Massachusetts. After school, he worked out at a gym called Answer is Fitness. Then he would run, two miles north, to his house on Homeward Lane. The route went through an industrial park and into a clearing. The path turned to gravel, then dirt. On the far side of the clearing, at Landry Avenue, it turned into pavement again.
On June 17, 2013, Matthew did not get as far as the pavement.
It was a Monday. The day before the last day of school. Matthew had gotten to the gym at four. By the time he got out, an hour later, the weather—which had been beautiful all day—had started to turn. Clouds were gathering. The wind had started to gust. Matthew was running through the industrial park.
Suddenly, at the far end of the clearing, he stopped.
There was a man, lying on his back near a dirt pile.
Matthew called out to him: “Are you all right?”
The man did not answer. Matthew walked a bit closer, until he was about twenty feet away.
“Are you all right?” he asked again.
Once again, there was no answer.
Detective Mike Elliott was nearing the end of his eight-hour shift at the station when the transmission came over the radio: A guy down. A “possible sudden” behind the Corliss Landing industrial park.
Lieutenant Michael King, of the Massachusetts State Police, was coaching his son’s little league team when he got the call—he was already on his way down to the clearing. Assistant District Attorney Patrick Bomberg would arrive shortly after, along with uniformed police officers and members of the North Attleboro fire department. But North Attleboro PD Captain Joseph DiRenzo beat everyone else to the scene.
The captain had left work at four. He was less than a mile away from Corliss Landing when the call came in, and he showed up, in shorts and a T-shirt, at 5:38.
DiRenzo saw right away that they were dealing with a homicide.
“There were rounds, and what appeared to be bullet wounds to the torso,” he says. “When I knelt down and touched the body, I could clearly tell that rigor mortis had set in.”
The man on the ground was lying faceup. His left fist was clenched over his chest—one of several places he had been shot. He was young. He was black. His eyes were half-open.
Flies were buzzing around the man’s nostrils.
DiRenzo made note of the sneaker prints that had been left in the dirt. He saw a baseball cap, a white towel, and a partially smoked marijuana blunt lying on the ground. When he looked up, he saw something else: Dark, menacing clouds. A storm coming in from the west.
Soon, it would rain—heavy rain, which would wash away crucial pieces of evidence.
“It could not have come at a worse time,” DiRenzo recalls. “We have the body itself, tire marks, shoe prints, and rounds. All of a sudden you could see the trees bending over, clouds moving in in slow motion. It was a moment of, ‘Holy shit, we’ve gotta do something here!’”
The fire department had brought tents and tarps that the police could use to cover the crime scene. The cops worked quickly, trying to stay ahead of the storm. They measured, logged, and photographed as much as they could. But they also had to be careful not to contaminate the location.
Everyone had to park one hundred yards away from the body, in order to preserve the tire tracks. Everyone, including the firemen, had to wear boots and gloves, or have the bottoms of their shoes photographed for comparison purposes in preparation for the eventual homicide investigation.
The man had been standing when the first shot hit him. The detectives made note of the dirt the man’s heels had kicked up as he fell—it was the kind of detail that a rainstorm would wash away.
The man had been shot several more times after falling.
Boom, he goes down, the cops thought. Then, when he’s down: Boom, boom, boom. You could definitely tell, somebody wanted to make sure he was dead. And the shell casings are right there—one in the dirt and three more in a little indentation in the ground right next to the body. They’re all right there. Whoever did this was brazen. It’s crazy—not even bothering to pick up the brass?
The police put tarps over the tire and sneaker prints, set a tent up over the body, and covered the body itself with a tarp, placing rocks around the tarp’s circumference to keep the wind from blowing it away.
There was nothing more they could do before the storm passed.
The rain lasted for twenty minutes—a half hour at the most—but it was heavy. Forty-mile-an-hour gusts shook the trees that stood around the clearing. The temperature dropped by twenty degrees. When the rain stopped, a state trooper named Michael Cherven removed the tarp and went through the dead man’s pockets:
Sixty-four dollars and seventy-five cents in cash. Two sets of keys for an Enterprise Rent-A-Car. A cell phone.
“His cell phone?” one of the officers said. “For Christ’s sake, you’re gonna kill someone, take his cell phone!”
In the man’s wallet, they found an ID: Odin Lloyd. Twenty-seven years old. The face in the photograph matched the victim’s.
Back at the North Attleboro police station, Detective Elliott and Elliott’s colleague, Detective Daniel Arrighi, waited outside of the room as a state trooper named Eric Benson called the car rental company and spoke with a manager named Edward Brennan.
“I’m investigating an apparent homicide in North Attleboro,” Benson said. “We’ve recovered two sets of keys to a black Chevy Suburban, Rhode Island registration 442427. We have reason to believe that the person who rented it may be in danger.”
Brennan looked up the number.
“Oh, no,” he said.
Outside of the room, the detectives strained to hear Trooper Benson’s side of the conversation. A few moments went by.
Benson opened the door.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said when he saw Elliott and Arrighi. “The car was rented by Aaron Hernandez.”
It was November 23, 2006, and Aaron Hernandez’s high school football team—the Rams—was suiting up for the Battle for the Bell.
Played annually on Thanksgiving mornings, the Battle was a grudge match between Aaron’s school, Bristol Central, and its crosstown rival, Bristol Eastern.
Bristol, Connecticut, is a working-class town—football country in the middle of a state where soccer and crew are the suburban sports—and the Battle drew thousands of people to Muzzy Field, an ancient, minor-league baseball stadium that had hosted Babe Ruth at one time, and had been scouted as a film location for The Natural.
Every year, going all the way back to 1959, bragging rights had been at stake: Would the Rams get to lord it over the Lancers for twelve more months?
This year, the stakes were especially high. If the Rams won, they’d advance—for the first time in nineteen years—to the state championship. If they lost or tied, it would be the end of their season, and the end of Aaron Hernandez’s high school football career.
The Rams were confident as they ran out onto the field in their red-and-white uniforms. They had good reason to be. With Aaron Hernandez as their team captain, the Rams had won all but one of their games. Everyone favored them over the Lancers, who had bigger players on their team but had lost four of their games that season. Everyone knew that, on this day, a win by the Rams would push them into the playoffs.
Once again, all eyes were on Aaron Hernandez.
Aaron was a quadruple-threat athlete. He ran track, and was the best player on the school’s basketball team. He had speed, dexterity, good reach, great hands. When he played baseball, he was the pitcher. On the basketball court, his dunks were legendary. And on the football field, he ducked, dodged, and stutter-stepped like a basketball star.
At 6′1″ and 245 pounds, Aaron already had the body of an NFL player. Big and fast, he was the kind of tight end who’d always be the offense’s primary option.
He was the best athlete that Bristol Central had ever produced.
“Bristol Central had become the powerhouse of the state,” says Armando Candelaria, who was coaching high school football nearby in New Britain. “And Aaron Hernandez was the big name in Connecticut football. New Britain is a bigger city than Bristol. Our rivalry goes back to 2001, when Aaron’s brother, DJ, was on Bristol Central’s team. Our rivalry went from there to Aaron’s own rise in football. In 2005, I remember game planning for Aaron. Planning just for him.
“He was like something you’d see on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. A man among boys, even as a junior. When we played him the second game of his junior year, he caught four balls for a hundred and eighty yards—on a losing effort. In college, he could have played tight end or defensive end—it didn’t matter. You knew who the best player was when he walked onto the field. He was. Definitely.
“I was the defensive coordinator, the secondary coach. It was my responsibility to stop Aaron. But he was very, very hard to block. He’d run away from the whole game. There was nothing you could do about it. From the coaching point of view, his numbers were unbelievable. As a senior, on both sides of the ball, he was dominating. His junior year as a tight end put him on the map. He would give you two hundred yards receiving as a tight end. I remember one game: DJ was a senior. Aaron was a freshman, but he didn’t look like a fourteen-year-old kid. He ran a shallow cross, coming across the middle, and turned it up against seniors. To do that at fourteen against varsity kids speaks volumes.
“In his junior year, we started calling him ‘The Big Guy.’ We started to play a tough man underneath him—whoever got at his feet—and then we’d have a man eight yards on top of him, in case he got free of the first guy. Double coverage the whole time. That was easier said than done because my staff and I did not anticipate how physical he was. He was a lot faster in person than he was on film, and he would get free from the first defender and get open in front of the second defender. That made the game plan difficult during his junior year. We still got the win, but he made it known that you weren’t going to double him.
“Everyone talked about his size. No one talked about his feet. He had really good basketball feet. His athleticism and speed took over. His footwork and balance. When you saw it live you understood, the kid was a born athlete.”
“The thing that stood out to me,” says Ian Rapoport, who covered football for the Boston Herald, “was the first time I saw a guy fall down. He was the first football player who played like a basketball player, making defensive backs fall down. The kind of player who made the press box go, ‘Wow!’ An incredible, freakish athlete, with unbelievable versatility and talent. The first time I saw him, I thought, This guy’s got game. He could start and stop on a dime. It was amazing.”
Aaron knew that the Lancers’ coach would double-team him at every turn, just as every other opposing coach had all season long.
“From a coaching perspective, the philosophy had to be to figure a way to take Aaron out of the game plan,” says Sal Cintorino, who ran the football program at Newington High School and went on to coach Bristol Central. “That was what everyone tried to do. We’d try to put two guys on him, try to influence Matt Coyne, who was their quarterback at the time, to go in a different direction. But Coyne had so much confidence in Aaron. He didn’t care who covered him. He’d throw right into the coverage. Somehow, Aaron would come away with the football.”
Given how well Aaron had been playing, Bristol Central should have steamrolled the Lancers straight back to their side of town. But, just after kickoff, dark clouds full of rain, slush, and snow filled the sky.
Although it was just a few degrees above freezing, the cold did not bother Hernandez. He had played beautifully in the cold in last year’s Battle, making seven catches for 112 yards, scoring a touchdown, leading the Rams to a thirteen-point victory. More troubling was the fact that the Rams were a passing team—and, Aaron knew, passing teams did not do well on rainy, windy football fields.
The Lancers took a 7-0 early lead in the game, moving fifty-five yards on eleven plays. In the second quarter, the Rams’ coach, Doug Pina, adjusted for the rain and moved Aaron into the backfield. Hernandez did not disappoint. He ran straight up the middle, plowing straight through the other team’s players. He made a short but explosive touchdown run that opened up a 14-7 lead. But stripped of their passing game, playing in the mud, the Rams struggled to maintain their advantage.
“It was a bad day,” Pina recalls. “The field was a mess. Our quarterback was having a lot of trouble throwing.”
“It was the coldest I’d ever been,” one of Aaron’s teammates remembers. “I remember being out there, just stepping in puddles when I was on the field. Down in the line your hands would sink into the mud.”
“The downpour was torrential,” says Cintorino. “The rain was sideways.”
Aaron’s teammates on the sidelines wondered if Bristol’s Parks Department had let the game go forward because the department employee who had made that call was biased toward Bristol Eastern.
“Physically, the Lancers were bigger, and the conditions would have given them an advantage there,” a player on Aaron’s team says.
“Paul Philippon, the head coach at Bristol Eastern, was adamant about playing that game,” Cintorino remembers. “Everyone else was like, ‘It’s a terrible game in this weather!’ But Phillipon said, ‘We’re playing this game.’ The reason was, Central was not going to be able to throw the ball. The weather was that bad. And if you couldn’t throw, you had to figure out some other way to get the football to Aaron.”
Aaron battled through freezing rain in the third quarter. The Rams held the Lancers to seven points. But midway through the fourth quarter, the Lancers capitalized on the advantage the weather had given them. Rallying, they ended the game in a tie at fourteen.
Given the Rams’ reputation, that tie—one of only two in the decades-long history of the Battle—felt more like a loss. (“Probably the biggest upset anyone could think of,” Cintorino says.) It knocked Bristol Central out of contention for the upcoming state championship, ending Bristol Central’s season as well as Aaron’s high school career.
But if Aaron was disappointed, he did not show it that day. As a high school player, he was known for his composure.
“Mature before his time,” Cintorino recalls. “A lot of kids at seventeen would have been very angry after a loss like that. But in the football arena, where I saw him, he was very mild, very humble, and very mature. He carried himself in a way you’d appreciate.”
Blows sustained on the football field were already altering the structure of Aaron’s still-developing brain.
Celebrity status, drug use, and criminal associations would help to make Hernandez unstable, paranoid, and dangerous.
But some of those who knew Aaron in Bristol suggest that, even then, his humility was a put-on. The only real change, they say, had to do with Aaron’s ability—or his desire—to hide his true character.
The formation of Aaron Hernandez’s mask began at home, in a cottage on Greystone Avenue.
Growing up, Aaron shared a bedroom with DJ—Dennis John—who was three years his senior. Sometimes, it felt as if everyone in the family was living right on top of one another. But Aaron’s parents, Dennis and Terri, were proud of the home and took even more pride in DJ and Aaron. They were determined to keep the boys on the straight and narrow.
“I met the Hernandezes in second grade, or third grade, when I began to play football,” a family friend named Tim Washington remembers. “Aaron and DJ lived near the high school, in a rural type of area off of Union Street. They had a nice house with a nice finished basement. Their dad had a little gym set up down there for them to work out. It had some weights and a weight bench. There was an in-ground pool and the basketball court right behind that. Aaron and DJ played basketball and home run derby in the woods off to the back of the house.
“Dennis and his brother, Dave, were on the coaching staff for the Bristol Bulldogs and the Pop Warner league. Dennis was the janitor at my middle school. And in high school and college, I dated Dave’s daughter, Davina. We were very close. Dennis would always tell me, ‘My boys are coming up! You need to watch out for my boys. You need to protect my boys.’
“Dennis knew that those boys were going to be special in any sport that they played. And Aaron was driven to make his dad proud.”
Dennis woke DJ and Aaron at dawn so that they could work out. The boys practiced their layups for hours on end. They ran countless suicide drills up and down the hills around their home. All the while, lessons their father had instilled in them rang in their heads:
If you do anything great in life, it will come from within, Dennis would tell them. And, If it is to be, it is up to me.
Aaron and DJ worshipped Dennis. And if Dennis was overprotective of them, it was because he had come close to living out his own dreams.
Dennis Hernandez had played for Bristol Central back in the 1970s. Like his son, he’d been triple-varsity, running track and playing basketball as well as football. Along with his twin brother, David, he’d been big and fierce: a dominant player. For decades to come, Dennis held on to his high school nickname—“the King.”
Along with David, Dennis had gotten a full football scholarship to the University of Connecticut. But, in his youth, he had also gotten into a fair deal of trouble.
As one of the only Puerto Rican kids in a hardscrabble, Irish-Italian town, Dennis had spent his youth proving his mettle, on and off the football field. A wild kid with a chip on his shoulder, Dennis drank and partied. Along with his brother, and a friend and teammate named Rocco Testa, he got into fights, broke into strangers’ houses, and stole. Surrounded by friends from the wrong side of town, both twins ended up dropping out of UConn.
Testa came to a bad end. A few days before Thanksgiving, in 1977, he and his uncle, a petty criminal named Gary Castonguay, were burglarizing a house in Plainville, Connecticut. When a police officer named Robert Holcomb arrived, responding to a call about a burglary in progress, Castonguay shot him four times and left him to bleed to death. Officer Holcomb was twenty-eight, with a three-year-old son. Castonguay was thirty-three, with a long rap sheet. Testa was twenty. When Castonguay was arrested, two weeks after the shooting, Testa was given immunity from murder and burglary charges in exchange for testifying against his uncle.
For David and Dennis, this story would serve as a cautionary tale. But fatherhood was the thing that straightened the brothers out for good. David became a corrections officer. Dennis got his job as a janitor at Bristol Eastern. Dennis’s wife, Terri, who’d been a majorette, a few years behind him at Bristol Central, became an administrative assistant at a Bristol elementary school.
The young couple scrimped and saved to buy the cottage on Greystone Avenue. They had their boys, and a white German shepherd named “UConn.” They loved their lives. But money would always be an issue for them.
Dennis and Terri saw to it that Aaron and DJ had everything that they needed to be safe and comfortable. Still, they couldn’t afford the designer clothes and fancy toys that other parents bought for their kids. Watching her boys go without, and suffering for it, caused Terri to make poor decisions. In 2001, the Bristol police came to the house and placed her under arrest: Terri had gotten involved in a bookkeeping operation run by a local restaurant manager named Marty Hovanesian.
“She was the phone operator,” Hovanesian’s lawyer told the Boston Globe. “A minor player, not the brains.” But the operation was serious enough that Hovanesian was convicted of felony racketeering and professional gambling. “I’m not saying it was right, what she did—at all,” DJ would tell Sports Illustrated. “I don’t think it is. But this woman did this because I was crying every single night. She didn’t do it for the thrill. She didn’t do it to pocket the money. She did it to provide for me and Aaron.”
The case against Terri never went to trial. But in Bristol’s close-knit community, word got out. Before long, the whole town seemed to know about Terri’s arrest.
Aaron was twelve at the time—an innocent, outgoing kid who liked pranks and practical jokes. But despite his popularity, and DJ’s, Aaron and his brother were teased about the incident, and if DJ was quick to forgive, Aaron was more of a cipher. He kept his feelings to himself. But try as he did to mask his embarrassment, Aaron’s relationship with his mother grew strained as he entered his adolescence—and decisions Terri made as the years went by only increased the distance between her and her younger son.
By all accounts, Aaron kept up appearances. His former classmates describe a likable, well-behaved teenager. The worst thing that Bristol law enforcement has to say about Aaron, in his youth, is that once, at a party, he ran up onto a car and put a slight dent in the roof.
On that occasion, the Bristol police had called Dennis Hernandez.
“Dennis came down and rode a hard line on him,” an officer remembers. “The old man made him do the right thing. Made the kid apologize. And the kid wouldn’t say ‘boo.’ He was reserved. Not a bad kid at all.”
Now, as Aaron finished out his last year of middle school, there was no doubt that he would be joining DJ on the BCHS varsity squad. Aaron’s grades up to this point had been good. (In high school, Hernandez would make the honor roll.) His football game was already exceptional.
Though he preferred basketball, Aaron seemed to have a sixth sense for the sport, leaving spectators with the feeling that he was seeing the field from above.
Dennis Hernandez watched everything that Aaron did on the field from the stands, just as he had with DJ.
Whenever one of his boys scored or made a beautiful play, Dennis was not ashamed to cry tears of pride. But back at home, the family dynamic was changing.
Dennis’s brother, David, was struggling with cancer, and the family had braced itself for bad news.
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- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing