Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell early Wednesday while serving a life sentence without parole, Massachusetts Department of Corrections officials said, concluding a catastrophic and implausible spiral from millionaire football star to convicted murderer to irremediably tragic figure.
Christopher Fallon, the deputy commissioner of communications for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, told The Washington Post in an email that state police were present and an investigation is ongoing. Hernandez had not been placed on a suicide watch.
Hernandez was 27. He left behind a 4-year-old daughter, to whom he had blown three kisses last week in court, and a fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, who had shown immense loyalty to Hernandez, taking his name even though they had not married.
“The family and legal team is shocked and surprised at the news of Aaron’s death,” Jose Baez, Hernandez’s attorney, said in a statement to The Post. “There were no conversations or correspondence from Aaron to his family or legal team that would have indicated anything like this was possible. Aaron was looking forward to an opportunity for a second chance to prove his innocence. Those who love and care about him are heartbroken and determined to find the truth surrounding his untimely death.”
Because Hernandez’s appeals had not been exhausted, his conviction for Lloyd’s murder was voided on Wednesday.
Baez requested that authorities conduct a “transparent and thorough investigation” and said his law firm will launch its own examination of Hernandez’s death. Brian Murphy, Hernandez’s agent, tweeted that there was “absolutely no chance he took his own life,” adding: “Chico was not a saint, but my family and I loved him and he would never take his own life.”
Hernandez died just four days after a jury had acquitted him of the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, two strangers whom the state argued Hernandez killed in 2012 after an altercation at a Boston club. Baez had called Hernandez a “happy-go-lucky guy” and told ESPN.com he would be “honored” to represent Hernandez in his appeal of the conviction for the murder of Odin Lloyd, the friend whom, a jury ruled in April 2015, Hernandez killed in a gravelly field a mile from his North Attleboro, Mass., mansion in 2013.
Lloyd was murdered months after Hernandez signed a seven-year, $40 million contract extension with the Patriots that included a $12.5 million bonus, then the highest for a tight end. He had caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLVI and formed a nearly unstoppable tandem with Rob Gronkowski, whom the Patriots selected alongside Hernandez in the 2010 NFL draft.
He had been a steal for the Patriots, falling to the fourth round because of concerns about his maturity and the people he associated with. Several NFL teams had removed him from consideration because of off-field concerns and incidents. “He was really intelligent, and that’s why he was such a pain in the [butt],” a former University of Florida staffer told NFL.com in 2014. “He knew how to beat the system on everything.”
The Patriots took a chance on Hernandez based in part on the close relationship between then-Florida Coach Urban Meyer and Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. Hernandez had, on the public surface, overcome those concerns by the time the Patriots signed him to the $40 million contract in the summer of 2013. He expressed gratitude toward the Patriots and donated $50,000 to a charity founded by owner Robert Kraft to honor his late wife, Myra.
“You get changed by Bill Belichick’s way,” Hernandez said at the time. “And you get changed by the Patriots’ Way. And now that I’m a Patriot, I have to start living like one and making the right decisions for them.”
The Patriots released Hernandez within hours of his arrest for the Lloyd murder. Kraft declared that the Patriots had been “duped” by the tight end.
Hernandez’s death came hours before the Patriots were scheduled to visit the White House in celebration of their Super Bowl title from February. A Patriots spokesman said Wednesday that he did not anticipate the club commenting.
“Juries have such tremendous power,” said Norm Pattis, a Connecticut lawyer who conferred with Hernandez after his conviction for the Lloyd murder. “He heard two words [not guilty] last week. If those words had been uttered in the first trial, it would have resulted in his freedom. I can imagine him thinking, ‘What if? What if? What if?’ And sitting there thinking that in a box the state of Massachusetts expects him to die in. I’m sure it was regret.”
There was “no indication,” Fallon said, that Hernandez left a suicide note, but there had been some indication of his frame of mind in letters sent since his conviction. In one, he suggested suicide methods to a pen pal. “Tie a cinder block to your ankles and jump in a deep body of water,” Hernandez wrote in a note verified by TMZ in February 2016. He went on to write: “Buy the most powerful firecracker in the world that’s possible to buy, tie it to your face with duct tape, light it and wait for your head to explode.”
Hernandez then swiveled to write of his affection for the Patriots and Brady. “I have a TV in my cell! And yes I still root for my squad and still love all the ones I loved. The closest I was with was probably Brady and whom I love to death and always will and only hope the best for them. But was cool with Julez [Julian Edelman], [Alan] Branch (I [messed] with and got mad love for) and ‘the BEST TE ever to walk on a football field’ Gronk!”
He had less affection for Kraft, who, he wrote, “told me he loved me every time he seen me but obviously shows his word ain’t [expletive].” Kraft had testified in the Odin murder trial, angering Hernandez by saying he felt lied to by the former player.
Mark Ziogas, who coached his son and Hernandez in Little League, told Sports Illustrated that he sensed some peace in Hernandez’s prison correspondence. “It almost feels like the pressure on him is off, now that he is in jail,” he said. “He must have felt a lot of pressure. It makes you feel sad. Why didn’t he try to deal with it through counseling or something?”
Staff writer Matt Bonesteel contributed to this report.