A Newport cigarette burning between his fingers, Tilio DiLoreto, the superintendent overseeing construction in an undeveloped section of the town’s industrial park, looked out on his workers Thursday afternoon. Cranes, bulldozers and dump trucks motored around as he put stakes in the ground by a fence. He wore dark sunglasses, a gold chain and construction boots, and pointed toward mounds of rock and dirt that lined four back lots. He noted a clearing where former Patriot Aaron Hernandez pumped six bullets into Odin Lloyd in 2013. It will soon be paved over as a road into a commercial subdivision featuring four new buildings. He noted that Hernandez’s house stood through the trees. He took a drag.
“Tough winter,” DiLoreto said. “Gotta move dirt.”
Lloyd, a landscaper, knew the job well. He was scheduled to work hours after he was left to die in rural darkness. A local jogger discovered him lying on his back that afternoon, LeBron James sneakers on his feet, a red Red Sox hat five feet from his head. During Hernandez’s 10-week murder trial, first responders detailed the murder scene, testifying about gnats flying in and out of Lloyd’s nostrils as they took note of the area around his bullet-riddled body, his stiff corpse surrounded by scattered fox feces. To preserve the evidence, from tire tracks to shell casings, law enforcement propped up a tent. Wind picked up; temperatures fell. Hard rain came.
“To cover the entire crime scene we would have needed a circus tent,” North Attleborough police detective Joseph Direnzo said.
A double rainbow emerged over the tree line that evening, but Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, didn’t believe the sun shone down on her until Wednesday. She sat in Courtroom 7 at the Fall River Justice Center when Hernandez, standing among his attorneys, listened to the jury forewoman’s guilty verdict. He was told to sit down in a swivel chair so that his hands and ankles could be shackled. Hernandez complied, his harrowing fall complete with him being convicted of first-degree murder, the jurors reasoning “extreme atrocity or cruelty” for a crime that carried mandatory life in prison without parole. Ward trembled when the verdict came. She recalled anger and pain, saying she wanted to join Lloyd in his grave when he was buried.
“My baby — just like God has left his footprint in the sand, my baby’s footprint is in my heart forever,” she said.
Hernandez, linked to the scene by footprints and DNA, was committed to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Walpole, Mass., as inmate W106228 for what he did by Corliss Landing. The jury — seven women and five men — agreed with prosecutors that Hernandez, joined by two confederates, killed Lloyd in a brutal manner. The autopsy determined that Lloyd was shot in the back, one bullet recovered by his buttocks. Gunshot wounds were identified in the right abdomen and right forearm. Two .45-caliber bullets penetrated his body by the nipples, one projectile piercing his heart. Three of the shots were fatal. Ward winced at all of it, but lead prosecutor William McCauley circled back to the scene in his closing after defense attorney James Sultan offered that Hernandez witnessed Lloyd’s murder.
“He didn’t know what to do, so he just put one foot in front of the other,” Sultan said.
McCauley, his tone rising from polite to nearly apoplectic when he spoke, countered, pointing at Hernandez repeatedly, referring to him only as “this guy.”
“Ask yourself first of all... what was the purpose in going to, what I’m going to suggest to you is, the most ideal place to commit a murder?” he said. “An industrial park. Nobody is around, it’s almost 3:25 in the morning.”
The jurors noted they were “shocked” Sultan placed his client at the scene. It was one more shot to Hernandez’s credibility. Most of the jurors laughed when asked afterward whether they believed the testimony of Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, who allegedly spirited the murder weapon out of their shared house the day after the murder. The jurors also did not assign much value to the PCP testimony introduced by the defense, an attempt to pass blame to Hernandez’s co-defendants, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, who drove to his house when beckoned by text message. No defense machinations could put the bullets back in the gun.
“The shots. There were six of them,” said Rosalie Oliver, 56, an accounts payable manager from Rehoboth, Mass. “That’s extreme.”
No matter the motive, Hernandez’s actions reflected a depraved approach. His halcyon days — a Super Bowl touchdown pass from Tom Brady, his name announced in Boston nightclubs (“Aaron Hernandez in the house!”), Patriots employees facilitating his finding a flophouse — grew more distant as the trial trudged along, through blizzards and a bomb threat. Testimony elicited by the prosecutors traced the trajectory of his quick descent, showing him to be an incorrigible cad, chain-smoking marijuana, cheating on his fiancée and questioning whom he could trust. Inebriated and high the night of the murder, clues led right to his mansion’s door.
“The fact that he was a professional athlete meant nothing in the end,” Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn said.
From this point on, hard work will be required for all involved. Ward started the healing process by forgiving Hernandez, but there will be more families seeking justice. The burden of proof shifted to Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley to show jurors Hernandez emptied bullets from a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver into two men when Hernandez stands trial for a 2012 double homicide later this year. Hernandez’s reputation was razed in Fall River, but a new case will have to be built to withstand his defense’s tests once again.
DiLoreto talked about the road ahead, too, targeting his first building’s construction by December. He noted that town officials stopped by once in a while to inquire about permit issues, but his company was cleared by the sheriff’s department to build at the murder scene for a while now. The workers kicked everything into high gear once the snow melted and the trial approached its end. DiLoreto eyed the dirt where Lloyd’s body once laid still.
“Hopefully this will all be gone by winter,” DiLoreto said. “Hopefully.”
Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the Patriots, walked through a metal detector inside the courthouse, a building where all of his team’s merchandise had been banned, per judge’s orders, so as not to influence jurors. It was half past 9 a.m. on March 31. A court officer asked Kraft to spread his arms out wide and waved a hand-held scanner slowly over his suit, first in front, then in back, as an onlooker photographed Kraft with his phone. Kraft, greeted by two Massachusetts State Police Troopers, gave the photographer a side-eye glance before proceeding to the fifth floor to testify to what he knew. Kraft, huddling with counsel, awaited his cue.
“Your honor, if I could call the next witness, Robert Kraft, please,” McCauley said.
Hernandez, known for smiling and strutting as a dimpled, dapper defendant, appeared anxious. Kraft remained outside a minute longer, but Hernandez, growing curious, craned his neck six times to catch a first look of the man who once awarded him a contract worth up to $40 million. Kraft, slowed by a head cold, trailed court officer Ralph Tavares, a 72-year-old Grammy winner for singing “More Than A Woman” on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, through double doors. Kraft, in pink tie and white-collar shirt, wore black sneakers with white soles as he hurried.
“Just follow you?” Kraft said.
“Straight to the podium,” Tavares said.
Kraft’s football team won its fourth Lombardi Trophy nearly two months earlier. He was asked to identify Hernandez in court, and Kraft did so. Hernandez wore a suit and tie, but he also donned AFC Championship gear as a Patriot three years earlier. That was the height of his life as a professional, before he slipped on a green jumpsuit emblazoned with inmate No. 174954 on it, and slept in a 7-foot-by-10-foot cell in the Bristol County House of Correction for 20 months. It was before Bills fans wore orange jumpsuits with his surname and No. 81 stenciled in black when the Patriots played their first game after his incarceration. It was February of 2012, a time when Hernandez was hailed as a hero, his hometown of Bristol, Conn. heaping praise on him, his face appearing via a pre-taped message to a student assembly.
“Have a great future,” Hernandez said at the time. “Make sure you listen to all your teachers, do good in school and hopefully the best happens to you.”
That was inside the South Side School’s gymnasium, days before his Super Bowl debut against the Giants, 820 miles west in Indianapolis. His mother, Terri, a widow, wore a T-shirt with “Go Patriots!” on the front. She donned a sash, decorated with “Super Bowl Mom” on it. There were flowers, and tears flowed. She tried to explain his ascent, from celebrated star at Bristol Central to the University Florida to New England.
“My son’s playing in the Super Bowl,” she said. “My God.”
Hernandez stepped onto the game’s biggest stage in stride. He scored a 12-yard touchdown, flashing his make-it-rain celebration, motioning as if throwing cash in the air at a strip club. Despite defeat, he dashed into the offseason, welcoming more money from Kraft’s pockets when he signed the five-year contract that August. It was a reward for his ability to break free, a perfect complement to fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez and Gronkowski moved the chains at historic rates, but Hernandez was going too fast, smoking marijuana at a prodigious rate, burning through associates as sources for marijuana, according to Alexander Bradley, a former friend who transitioned from a business relationship to friend in time. Hernandez played to Kraft’s pride, insisting he was grateful Kraft’s coach, Bill Belichick, drafted him in the fourth round after falling due to character questions. One evaluation noted Hernandez lived “on the edge of acceptable behavior.” He insisted Foxborough transformed him, forced him to mature more than previously.
“You can’t come here and act reckless and do your own stuff,” Hernandez said. “I might have acted the way I wanted to act, but you get changed by Bill Belichick’s way. You get changed by the Patriots’ way.”
Kraft eventually caught Hernandez in a lie and told the court the details. Prosecutors questioned the owner about his meeting with Hernandez in the days after the murder. It was just outside the weight room inside Gillette Stadium’s bowels. Kraft hustled down from his office when he heard Hernandez, already a suspect by then, was in the building. Media helicopters hovered. Kraft asked Hernandez if he was involved and whether he needed assistance. Hernandez denied being at the scene. He gave Kraft his regular hug-and-kiss embrace, telling the owner “he hoped that the time of the murder. . . came out because I believe he said he was in a club.” Jonathan Carlson, a juror, called the testimony “compelling.”
“To this day — we just went through a three-month trial, and this is now two years later — we still don’t know the exact time of Odin’s murder,” Carlson said. “So I don’t know how Aaron would have had that information two years ago.”
Jurors never heard from Kraft about Hernandez’s divorce from the team. Kraft was not asked about Hernandez being released within an hour of being arrested or the jersey exchange that Kraft held at Gillette Stadium, fans wrapping around the building’s side on a weekend to trade in No. 81 jerseys for a player in good standing. Hernandez’s defense team highlighted his time with “our hometown team” in the opening, and the Patriots made cameos throughout the trial, their logo featured on Hernandez’s pool table or his fiancée’s bank checks. “Aaron Hernandez may have been a well-known New England Patriots football player,” Quinn III said. “However, in the end, the jury found that he was just a man who committed a brutal murder.”
Red flags were raised about Hernandez, but the Patriots pushed past them in making a personnel decision to select him in the draft. Kraft maintained after the murder that the entire organization was “duped” by Hernandez. Even in the Super Bowl run, though, there were reminders that everyone involved must be more vigilant. Team chaplain Jack Easterly handed out sheets of paper to interested players, and many could be seen in the locker stalls at the stadium before the team left for the Super Bowl. There was an iceberg in the photograph followed by words:
Character . . .
Because it’s what’s beneath
The surface that matters most
* * *
Michael Fee, a heavyset, curly-haired attorney, waited for Hernandez to take a seat next to him inside Courtroom 9 at the courthouse on July 9. It was just over a year since Hernandez had been arrested. The docket called for a pre-trial hearing.
The issue before the court was a dispute over personnel files that pitted Hernandez against his former employer, the Patriots. In the second row of the gallery, a woman wore a navy blue jersey with Hernandez’s No. 81 on the front and Randy Moss’ surname on the back. Hernandez, in khakis and sports jacket, entered through a side door, ushered in by three court officers. Once settled at the defendant’s table, Hernandez traded smirks and small talk with Fee.
“You should see the hate mail I get,” Fee said.
“Yeah?” Hernandez said. “You get hate mail? I didn’t know. What does it say?”
“You know, what are you doing representing that guy?” Fee said.
Fee sighed; Hernandez smiled. Fee slid a folder into a file in front of him.
“I hope you die, stuff like that,” Fee said.
“That’s crazy,” Hernandez said.
“For the last year,” Fee said. “That’s the way it goes, baby.”
Lawyer and alleged murderer laughed. A microphone picked up each word, a pool camera zooming in to add a visual confirmation, sending the conversation across the Internet to anyone tuned in for the live stream. A court officer announced Justice Raymond P. Veary’s presence, and all parties stood, stiffening in recognition of the jurist. Later alerted to the video leak from a co-counsel’s family member, Hernandez’s defense team filed a protest with the court, calling for a reminder that private conversations were not to be broadcast. During trial sessions, white noise was pumped into speakers over the gallery when attorney sidebars were called.
Hernandez’s attorneys kept their antennae up. He enlisted two lawyers in addition to Fee. Sultan and Charles Rankin, name partners at a firm in Boston, huddled with Hernandez, as well, but it was Fee who made the initial trial push. Given the stage, he opened with the argument that jurors would be “flooded with meaningless facts.” He referred to Lloyd as “The Blunt Master,” a nickname assigned to Lloyd by friends for his craftsmanship in wrapping tight marijuana blunts. Fee told jurors that Hernandez and Lloyd partied and chased women together. Fee also attempted to gloss over Hernandez’s contradictions, saying he planned a life as a family man one minute, then acknowledging his propensity to step out another.
“Aaron had a lifestyle. That lifestyle may not be like yours or like mine,” Fee said. “In fact, it may not be a lifestyle that you approve of, but it was a lifestyle not unusual for an unmarried, 23-year-old star professional athlete. In June of 2013, the evidence will show that Aaron liked to go out on the town, he liked to listen to hip-hop music. He liked to drink. He liked to smoke marijuana. He liked to go to nightclubs with his friends. One of those friends was Odin Lloyd.”
Prosecutors chipped away with substantive counters, methodically building a circumstantial case with no murder weapon or clear motive to bolster the first-degree-murder charge. McCauley — tall, trim and steady — proved painstaking in prosecuting Hernandez, calling 132 witnesses and introducing 439 pieces of evidence by the time he rested. He threw everything at the court, including a pre-trial request that Justice E. Susan Garsh recuse herself due to a past clash with McCauley at trial. Garsh stayed on, and the prosecution stitched the evidence together, from surveillance videos to dumpster dives. Jurors rubbed their foreheads.
“We definitely experienced information overload,” said one juror, Anthony Ferry.
“But it was important information,” fellow juror Kelly Dorsey said. “Every bit of it.
“Whatever we got was important information and we used it to make a decision.”
McCauley’s team used wooden rulers to underline the times text messages streamed in and out of iPhones and Blackberrys. They trained a projector’s lens on exhibits they believed damning, pointing out the former tight end’s loose ends, including a hair-trigger temper seen by some. The government zoomed in on bullets and shell casings, highlighting curvatures and striations, calling a Glock expert in to talk about the weapon investigators never recovered. Jurors were left to decide if Hernandez was the triggerman. Due to Garsh’s evidentiary rulings, the jurors were unaware that Hernandez allegedly committed a double murder a year before Lloyd’s slaying or that he allegedly shot Bradley, a former friend, in the eye. They did not see the take-charge tattoo along Hernandez’s left forearm:
Hernandez appeared to relish life as the headliner. For months, he commanded the most attention in the old mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Each afternoon, his attorneys walked past a sign outside the Taphouse Grille across from the courthouse. It offered two specials: the “Guilty Burger” and the “Not Guilty Wrap.” Hernandez’s lawyers ate elsewhere, but Jenkins, in court by herself most days, went in occasionally. She was left alone, for the most part, but Hernandez’s attorneys paid close attention to her throughout. On the morning after Jenkins was granted immunity, Sultan, walking in his harried way, approached her when he shuffled into court.
“You have trouble getting out of your driveway today?” he said.
“No,” she said.
“Good,” he said.
Jenkins was the belle of the trial as she held the most unique position. Her sister, Shaneah, was dating Lloyd at the time of the murder. Her daughter, Avielle, was featured in home surveillance videos from the days before and after the murder, allowed to crawl from Wallace to Hernandez’s hands after Lloyd’s shooting. That video system, once put in to protect Jenkins’ young family, wound up being used as the lone eyewitness in the case, the private lens into the couple’s activities. To hammer home the fact that Hernandez was remorseless after the murder, McCauley allowed footage of Hernandez lounging around the pool to play uninterrupted.
All eyes were trained on the couple’s interactions during the trial. Day in, day out, Hernandez strode from a holding cell into court, dipping his left shoulder and strutting as if ready to walk out the door free. He scanned the room each time, mouthing sweet nothings to Jenkins, one time purring, “I love you, girrrrrrrrllllllllll!”
She blushed. When the defense rested, he enjoyed one last moment of levity while his lawyers reviewed evidence with prosecutors. He watched the jurors file out of the room as they readied to deliberate down the hall, and quickly turned his chair around. He eyed Jenkins, dressed in a striped dress and pearl earrings. He inquired about a tattoo on her right arm, and how their daughter, getting over pneumonia, was doing. Cleared by a court officer, Jenkins leaned against the wooden bar to draw closer to Hernandez. Another court officer positioned his chair to their side as Hernandez asked whether his mother, Terri, had already departed court for the day. He rolled his eyes, and Jenkins noted she was gone. Hernandez smiled widely.
“I’m going to change my last name to Jenkins,” he said.
She smiled then, but she wanted out of the courtroom forever. After the forewoman announced that Hernandez was guilty in the first degree, he craned his neck to find his fiancée. She was crying on his mother’s shoulder. He looked a second, third and fourth time. He pursed his lips and shook his head at the jurors, saying, “You’re wrong.” He then attempted again to make eye contact with his fiancée and mother. In between his attorneys and court officers, he leaned back and looked at them, but the women sobbed in each other’s arms. His mother finally saw him. She consoled Jenkins in her right arm and waved for her son with her left hand.
“Come back,” his mother said.
The women left a few minutes later, hustled into an elevator and escorted by eight court officers to their vehicles outside. No supporters sat in court for his sentencing, just Hernandez and his attorneys, the men he paid to be there.
Frank Fort, a former Patriots season-ticket holder, watched the lawyers leave as he was walking his poodle and drinking coffee on the sidewalk. He wore a Red Sox World Series hat and a T-shirt emblazoned with Hernandez’s face. The words “Chillin’ Like A Villain” ran across Fort’s chest. He shrugged at the verdict.
“Eh,” he said. “I expected it.”
* * *
Wooden stakes with yellow caution tape wrapped around them offered a warning to visitors making their way down the pebbled path that leads to Lloyd’s final resting place in the Serenity Garden section of Oak Lawn Cemetery in Boston Wednesday. Rocks were crushed as land was cleared for more burials.
A plastic football stood against Lloyd’s granite headstone, and the No. 53 he wore while a member of the Boston Bandits, a semi-pro football team, was etched beneath his surname. Lloyd’s image greeted all comers from a photo in the center. He wore a Sox hat and flashed a peace sign. He was buried in all white — from Kangol hat to gloves. The casket’s inner lining was stitched with “Going Home” next to a dove flying skyward.
“I have to go to his gravesite to look at his tombstone to tell him that I love him,” his sister, Olivia Thibou, said.
She was driving en route to court when the verdict came in. She screamed and cried in her car when she heard Hernandez was “guilty.” Her sister, Shaquilla, called immediately, telling her, “I love you!” Shaneah, the eulogist at her brother’s funeral, then made it to court in time to offer an impact statement before the sentencing. She told about Lloyd’s pride, the sandals with holes in them that he wore, the 10 miles he biked to work each day. Later, in front of the courthouse, she noted that she lost a brother but gained a sister in the process, turning toward Shaneah Jenkins and pulling her to the front. Olivia smiled at Shaneah’s shyness.
“I love her because she loved Odin,” Olivia said. “I know Odin loved her.”
Olivia and Shaneah, now a law student, vacationed together in the months since Lloyd was killed, but the family made the cemetery a destination on judgment day. Many paid respects. The sun faded as a strong wind picked up. The assembled masses wore purple — Lloyd’s favorite color — on shirts and in braids. They scribbled personal messages to him on balloons and released them, letting go of the strings.
“I can finally say my son is resting in peace,” Ward said. “We got justice.”