Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was convicted on April 15, 2015 of murdering an acquaintance, Odin Lloyd. Last week Hernandez was found dead in his Massachusetts prison cell after apparently committing suicide. A year ago I asked his brother, Jonathan, if he would talk to me for a story about him and Aaron. After some thought, he agreed, and I found him to be an open and honest subject. The following story, condensed and updated, is largely what was published on SI.com last July.
WYLIE, TEXAS—APRIL 2016
You can argue about climate change or what causes it, but you cannot argue with hail. It hits Wylie like something out of the Bible: stones that could slay Goliath breaking through roofs and landing in living rooms, shattering windows and demolishing cars. The storms typically last less than half an hour, but a home can be wrecked in less time than that.
Jonathan Hernandez is about to climb a roof in nearby Plano when his phone rings. He has been a roofer for less than a year; he has owned his company, High Rise Roofing, for a few months. But it doesn't matter. Word spread in Wylie after a smaller storm hit a month ago: Call Jonathan. He'll take care of you.
He ensures that shingles are placed precisely, and he prods insurance companies to cover everything they're supposed to cover. He'll ask clients what name they prefer, because sometimes Robert prefers Bobby or Kim prefers Kimberly. Now the people of Wylie are pleading: Jonathan! Jonathan! We need you! Now! They can't wait. Another storm is forecast for the next day.
There are 15,000 homes in Wylie, and at least 80% have been damaged. Jonathan and his crew work into the night, walking on roofs in the dark, boarding up holes where windows used to be. One desperate resident, who isn't even a client, asks Jonathan to board up a dozen holes. He does it, never asks to get paid and doesn't say a word about it, just as he never complains about the stifling Texas heat. Even on the hottest days he wears two shirts. They cover the tattoo over his heart:
THERE'S NO OTHER LOVE LIKE THE LOVE FOR A BROTHER.
THERE'S NO OTHER LOVE LIKE THE LOVE FROM A BROTHER.
Jonathan Hernandez used to be D.J. Hernandez, but his clients don't know that unless he tells them, and he usually does not tell them. There's a lot he does not tell them.
They need to know when their roof will be fixed, not that their roofer takes calls from his famous brother who's at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Mass., or that he still feels so close to his incarcerated brother that he says, "I feel him smile through the phone." The clients care about their own houses, not the one where their roofer lived when he was D.J., sharing a room for 15 years with a man who has since been convicted of murder. They're more focused on the paperwork for the roofing job than the zippered leather folder that holds it, the one engraved with a Hawkeyes logo and IOWA FOOTBALL.
IOWA CITY—JUNE 2013
D.J. Hernandez sits at his desk, another blade of grass on the coaching landscape: a graduate assistant at Iowa, making $18,144 a year to do what he's told. But D.J. doesn't give a damn about the money, and he doesn't always do what he's told, either. At 27 he has already checked off many boxes for a successful coach: soaring ambition, relentless work ethic, failed marriage, superior knowledge of the game.
During one game he will speak out of turn and get chewed out by offensive line coach Brian Ferentz; when D.J. apologizes, Ferentz will tell him, "You don't f------ listen!" One day D.J. will run his own program. One day he will do the chewing out. But for now he must act like a graduate assistant.
His phone rings. It's his younger brother, Aaron. The two speak almost every day. Aaron is a star tight end for the Patriots. He has completed one year of a seven-year, $40 million contract. He has paid off some of D.J.'s credit-card debt, and when they grab dinner or hit a club, Aaron pays. But their relationship is unchanged by money, geography or celebrity. D.J. says Aaron is his best friend. Every conversation might as well be taking place in their old backyard in Bristol, Conn.
Aaron sounds quieter than normal.
"Listen," Aaron says, "you remember Odin?"
Odin? Sure. D.J. has met Odin Lloyd a few times. Nice guy. Just a few weeks earlier they all hung out at Aaron's house in North Attleboro, Mass., along with the brothers' childhood friend Stephen Ziogas and Aaron's pal Ernest (Bo) Wallace. They played pool and used Aaron's sauna; Aaron, who needed to get in shape for training camp, had worn a sweat suit in the sauna. Afterward Aaron's barber came by to give him a haircut.
Aaron's fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, was there too, but she stayed upstairs most of the time with Avielle, the daughter she had with Aaron, and Shayanna's sister Shaneah, who was dating Lloyd.
D.J. did not always approve of his brother's guests. Bo was a nice enough guy who mumbled a lot and helped Aaron coordinate his schedule. But it was no secret that he had a criminal record, including convictions for drugs. He was the latest in a string of guys who'd attached themselves to Aaron. Whenever D.J. would ask Aaron why he was hanging out with a sketchy character, Aaron would respond, "What's the worst that can happen? He's my friend."
That last time D.J. saw Lloyd, Aaron had left the house with him. But he could have left with anybody; he is social tofu, absorbing the flavor of whatever surrounds him. Ever since Aaron was a kid, he had a desire to like and to be liked.
Ziogas, who played linebacker at Brown, says, "I've never met anybody as socially versatile as Aaron Hernandez." He could play video games with a nine-year-old one minute, then bond with Myra Kraft, the sexagenarian wife of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and then hit a club with a friend who has two priors for drugs.
Anyway, maybe a simple question deserves a simple answer. "Yes," D.J. tells Aaron, he remembers Odin.
Aaron says Odin is dead.
There is more.
"I just want you to know," Aaron says, "because you're my brother and I love you: He was found, and they're trying to investigate, and my name is being thrown around."
Murder? D.J. sits at his desk, "frozen within my own body," he says later. Aaron promises he is innocent: "D, I swear on everything...." And D.J. believes him.
But still ... murder? D.J. does not press his brother for details. Before he can process the news, it becomes public, crawling across the bottom of his TV: POLICE ARE INVESTIGATING AARON HERNANDEZ IN CONNECTION WITH A POSSIBLE HOMICIDE. ODIN LLOYD HAS BEEN FOUND SHOT TO DEATH IN AN INDUSTRIAL PARK NEAR AARON'S HOUSE. D.J. wants to hug Aaron.
Forget the machismo of football. The Hernandez brothers love each other and don't care who knows it. When D.J. attends Patriots games, Aaron stands on the field before kickoff and blows his brother a kiss.
Now D.J. wants to go straight to North Attleboro and hold his 6'1", 245-pound brother ... but he doesn't. He thinks of his budding coaching career. He pictures himself on TV, walking onto the site of a murder investigation and how that would look to potential employers.
D.J. is supposed to go home in a week anyway, so he does. But what is home now? He can't visit Aaron. Too many cameras. Their mom, Terri, still lives in the little white house in Bristol with her second husband, Jeff Cummings, but the joy that D.J. felt there as a child is gone. Strangers lurk outside or knock on the door. A reporter offers Subway sandwiches as a way to get in the house.
D.J. drives to a beach in Old Lyme, Conn., to clear his mind. His phone rings again. It's Terri, screaming, "They're taking him! They're taking him!"
He drives back to the house and finds his mom on the living room couch, wailing. They had sat in that room so many times as a foursome—Terri, D.J., Aaron and their dad, Dennis. The boys would lie with their heads meeting at the right angle of the sectional couch, drinking cocoa and watching movies.
Now Aaron is on the news, being led out of his own house in handcuffs. The fact that it is actually unfolding on TV only adds to the sensation that this is only happening on TV. D.J. has to convince himself that it's all real.
"How does this happen?!" Terri screams. "What did I do wrong?"
She collapses on top of D.J., who holds her. He cries, but not because his brother has been arrested. He cries because his mom is blaming herself, a life's work undone.
"Mom," he tells her, "you've done a great job."
This is the Hernandez family now: a dead father, a son who's locked up, a mother in tears and D.J. He ducks into a nearby tavern wearing a hat, hoping nobody will notice him, but somebody says, "You look just like that guy on TV!"
The media covers the story like a spreading fire. Reporters attempt to explain the shocking events, highlighting his family's lowest moments and biggest mistakes: Aaron was a prodigy in Bristol, but his father was a former small-time thug and his mother had been arrested in a bookmaking bust; when Dennis died young and Terri remarried, Aaron rebelled and became a thug—and now a murderer. Write it that way and Aaron's arrest is no surprise.
D.J wonders how so many people can claim to know his brother better than he does.
BRISTOL, CONN.—MAY 2016
Jonathan knows all the streets, but he's not 100% sure what is on them today. He's 30 now. He has not lived in Connecticut in five years, and every trip home is the opposite of an archaeological dig: At any turn he might discover something missing.
He asks to meet at 5:30 a.m. at Starbucks, but he does not eat there. He wants to stop instead at a nearby Valero gas station to see if it still sells those delicious sausage-and-egg sandwiches. "The last time I came here, they had 'em. You want one?"
They have them. He buys two for himself. They're as good as he remembers.
He drives up Greystone Avenue and back down Pleasant View. He parks. "I'm going to get out," Jonathan says as he pulls up to the back of a small white house. "They can yell at me if they want." He opens the car door and says, "This is our backyard." Well, it was their backyard. Terri moved out two years ago.
If you believe Aaron Hernandez grew up to be evil, then the murder of Odin Lloyd began here. It began with Dennis Hernandez watching The Price Is Right while his five-year-old son, Aaron, rested his head on Dennis's belly. It began in the backyard, with the sound track from Space Jam on the CD player; the family's white German shepherd, UConn, pacing behind a gate; and grandma Edith Valentine watching the boys play basketball in the driveway from her chair. There were no easy layups. When one brother drove to the hole, the other bumped him into the grassy bank behind the basket. Yes: If you believe Aaron Hernandez grew up to be evil, then the murder of Odin Lloyd began here, and his older brother was a witness.
Jonathan looks around. A childhood home can seem smaller when you return, but this one felt small from the beginning. When Aaron lay in bed, the door to his and D.J.'s room would hit his feet. Sometimes the boys had to navigate around Terri, who ironed clothes in their room. But size is not just measured in square feet.
"This is the first house that my parents were able to buy," Jonathan says. "It was really a big deal for our family. They'd always wanted to buy a home. I was in third grade."
Dennis never hid his wild past from his sons. His boys knew him as the life of a party, and everybody was invited. Each year he would host the What's Up three-on-three basketball tournament, with burgers on the grill and hundreds of people watching. Dennis was a custodian in the Bristol school district, but sometimes it seemed like he was the mayor.
Terri was an administrative assistant at South Side elementary school. She put together collages of family photos and newspaper articles, and hung them above the boys' beds. She loved to buy flowers and plant them as soon as she got home.
Jonathan looks at the leaves strewn across the driveway. An old hoop lies on the ground. "Gosh, they let this place freakin' go," he says. "It was beautiful. My mom—if our yard ever looked like this, she would have gone crazy. I would have gone crazy. It's too bad."
The house on Greystone was defined by work—the work Dennis and Terri did to afford it and keep it up, and the work the brothers did when they lived there. Jonathan remembers sneaking into the basement during middle school and quietly lifting weights, defying the directives of his father, who believed he was too young. The boys would sprint up and down the hilly streets, and they would leave a jump rope at the top to use when they finished running. Then they sat and enjoyed the view of their city, lit up, and talked about their dreams of becoming pro athletes.
Dennis told them all the time, "You can't rely on other people. If you do anything great in life, it's going to come from within." Jonathan says his father lived that advice: "My dad worked his ass off. His paycheck went to the family. Everything."
Growing up, the boys had whatever they needed, but not whatever they wanted, and good luck finding a teenager who can tell the difference. Jonathan remembers crying because other kids had the latest outfits from Abercrombie & Fitch, or because they had new bicycles and he didn't. One day he came home from basketball practice to find police inside the house. His mother was at the kitchen table, crying. His father was upset. Terri had been busted for helping a bookie. Only later did Jonathan connect her crime to his desires.
"I'm not saying it was right what she did—at all," Jonathan says. "I don't think it is. But this woman did this because I was crying every single night. She did it to provide for me and Aaron."
Charges against Terri were dropped, but the boys were humiliated; Jonathan remembers a friend teasing him by bringing a newspaper article about his mother's arrest into school.
There were differences between the brothers—small at first, but larger as they got older. Aaron was more physically gifted. He also had a hatred of being alone. And he thrived on encouragement. When Aaron was at Bristol Central High and Jonathan was off at college (and even later when Aaron was at Florida), Jonathan wrote his younger brother a letter before almost every game. Aaron would tuck it into his socks. He would never write back.
Jonathan was so thoughtful about the world and his place in it that he would sometimes just sit "off of this window," he says as he stands in the backyard, gesturing toward the house. "I could see a light over here, and it was just beautiful. You'd see the reflection off the snow, and ... I don't know. I'm a weird dude.
"You'd see this light here. I would just watch the snow, and it just reminds me of life. Everyone wants things to happen overnight. You see the snow hit the ground and nothing happens. It just melts. But eventually it builds up into something.
"Things don't happen with one flake."
JONATHAN PLANS to visit Aaron today. The brothers talked on the phone two days ago, on Jonathan's birthday. Aaron can't believe his big brother is 30. Sometimes when they speak, Jonathan forgets about the prison walls and the life sentence Aaron received in April 2015, and he'll casually ask his brother, "What's new?"
And Aaron says, "D. Come on. Are you serious?"
What's new? He's serving a life sentence. Nothing will ever be new again.
Jonathan drives to Bristol Central, where he's greeted like a combination of visiting dignitary and old fraternity brother. Great to see you! ... Who let the big Puerto Rican in?! He hugs old coaches and updates old teachers: He's living in Texas; things are going well. He visits the weight room. He sees equipment that has survived since his era, including the stool he never used because weight rooms are no place for sitting.
Jonathan walks out to the Rams' practice field. On Aaron's first day of football, as a freshman, he put a move on a senior at the line and caught a pass. The senior pushed him after the play, but Aaron just smiled and went back to the huddle.
Both brothers wanted to win, but Aaron also wanted to carry the whole town on those broad shoulders, to win the Super Bowl, to make strangers laugh and neighbors feel like family. Ziogas says Jonathan would sometimes blow past him in the hall, pretending not to know him. Aaron, though, would say hello even if he'd never met you.
"He had a very big heart," Jonathan says. "That's what's craziest about all this. There is a disconnect. He would open up his arms to anyone."
Is this it? The first snowflake? Is this a hint at why Aaron ended up in an industrial park, standing over Odin Lloyd's body? Is it possible that Aaron embraced the people he should have shunned, or that when his father died suddenly in 2006, it was such a shock to his soul, such a personal rejection, that... ? "I wish I had all those answers," Jonathan says. "I don't know. I just know he cared about people. And some of the people he cared about, I wasn't too fond of. I didn't think they were the best for him at that stage in his life. But he cared so much. He really did. It's very interesting ..."
He pauses, turning the thought over in his head—"... how much he cared."
Jonathan cares too. You can tell within 10 minutes of meeting him. But he is cautious. "I respect everyone," he says, "but I'm not going to be caught in certain situations. That's the difference. I surround myself with people who aren't going to have a negative influence on me."
At Bristol Central, Jonathan walks back upstairs. The school's Aaron Hernandez policy has been deletion. No pictures, no trophies, no sign of the best athlete ever to walk these halls. But memories cannot be deleted. Sixty-seven-year-old athletic director Bob DeSantis, who coached both boys as well as their father, approaches with an envelope stuffed with pictures of Jonathan and Aaron.
"The Hernandez family has had a great impact on Bristol," DeSantis says. "Their father—the earth, the moon, the sun and the stars set on those two kids."
Jonathan's uncle Vito—Dennis's brother—comes by too. He works here.
Jonathan says, "I'm going up to Mass to see Aaron tonight."
"I gotta go see him," says Vito. "I haven't even gone yet. Is it easy to go in?"
"It's super easy," says Jonathan.
Truth is, the drive to Souza-Baranowski is super easy—about two hours—but going in is not. The first time he visited Aaron, Jonathan was nervous. He surveyed the lobby, taking measure of the kind of people who visit prisons. Now he's one of those people. He wonders what others think when they see him.
IOWA CITY—WINTER 2015
D.J. is a stoic on the job, acting strong for his players, focused on Hawkeyes football. But at night he lies in bed, crying. He dreams that he's in the industrial park on the night of the murder, only he's playing all the parts: He is Odin, he is Aaron, he is dead, he is alive. He has one recurring nightmare so stark that he starts screaming, only to have his mother wake him and say, "It's going to be O.K." ... except his mother isn't really there. He has only dreamed that. He is still asleep. He is trapped in a nightmare inside a nightmare inside his life.
Prosecutors are saying that Aaron, along with his friends Ernest (Bo) Wallace and Carlos (Charlie Boy) Ortiz, orchestrated Lloyd's murder. D.J. knows Bo, of course, but who is Charlie Boy? D.J. sees his picture on the news and wonders: That guy? Still, Ortiz's lawyer says there is "a good possibility" that D.J. introduced Aaron to Carlos when they played freshman basketball together. (Actually, D.J. and Carlos were never on the same team. Both Wallace and Ortiz would be convicted on charges of accessory to murder after the fact.)
D.J. thought he understood public embarrassment. Once, when he coached high school ball in Southington, Conn., one of his assistants found a wristband with the opponent's plays on it. D.J. says he used it for four downs before realizing it wasn't helping, but even trying to use it was wrong. Opposing coaches caught him, and he was suspended for one game. He was humiliated—24 years old and already branded a cheater. Suddenly that seems like a parking ticket.
Aaron, the kid who wanted to be everybody's friend, has been branded football's Al Capone, blowing away anybody who crosses him. But he is still the man D.J. plays tic-tac-toe with. D.J. draws the game on a piece of paper and mails it to him in jail; Aaron makes his moves and sends it back.
D.J. is finishing his second year as a Hawkeyes graduate assistant. It's time to find a full-time job, but nobody is willing to hire Aaron Hernandez's brother. So he keeps looking. He flew to Massachusetts for the first two days of the trial, employment prospects be damned; now he's back in Iowa City. There are two monitors on his desk. On one is video of Iowa's offense. On the other a live feed of Aaron's trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd.
Aaron has maintained his innocence, both publicly and to his brother. "D, I love you," he says. "I swear on everything, I didn't do it...." D.J. says Aaron has never lied to him.
Maybe Aaron has never lied to his brother, but it's becoming clear that he has not always told the whole truth, either. D.J. says he knows his brother smoked pot often. He assumes he did it every day. Aaron has explained that he would rather stay home and get high than go out, get drunk and possibly get into trouble. But Rolling Stone has written that Aaron also smoked a lot of PCP. D.J. hears testimony about Aaron's "flophouse" in Franklin, Mass., but he doesn't even know what a flophouse is. He has no idea that Aaron had this apartment.
As kids, Aaron and D.J. never shot anything more powerful than a Super Soaker. D.J. says he still hasn't. But a bank teller testifies that in 2013, Aaron sent $15,000 to a Florida man, allegedly in exchange for a cache of firearms. Then Alexander Sharrod Bradley takes the stand. D.J. met him once at Aaron's house, following a Patriots game. Bradley tells the jury that he sold large amounts of marijuana to Aaron and that he saw a gun in Aaron's basement. (In a separate lawsuit Bradley accused Aaron of shooting him in the face at a Florida nightclub; that lawsuit was settled in February for an undisclosed amount.)
D.J. believes heinous crimes should be punished severely, and he believes family comes first. So which matters more? Is he rooting for justice or for his brother?
Even an impartial observer may wonder whether Aaron killed Lloyd. No eyewitnesses testify. No murder weapon is found. But there is too much evidence to ignore all of it. Aaron's lawyers finally admit during their closing argument that he was in the industrial park when Lloyd was killed. Aaron's home surveillance video shows him carrying what appears to be a gun. Shayanna testifies that after the murder she removed a box at Aaron's request, but she didn't check to see what was in it.
D.J. acknowledges that Aaron was, at the very least, "involved." And there is no defense for that. He wonders about Aaron's attraction to the wrong crowd. He thinks Aaron ended up in this situation because of "drugs and people who don't have the best intentions for you." But he knows that pinning this on Ortiz or Wallace or anybody else is a cop-out. "I don't blame them." At some point Aaron became the center of a circle that he should have avoided.
Even that does not come close to explaining how Aaron Hernandez ended up on April 15 listening to a jury find him guilty of first-degree murder. In court the mother of the murderer and the mother of the murdered both cry. On the monitor in Iowa, D.J. recognizes Aaron's look of complete devastation. D.J. bursts into tears and drops his head in his hands. Fellow graduate assistant Chris Polizzi puts his hand on D.J.'s shoulder.
D.J. goes home, destroyed. He might as well stay there. Iowa, his office, his job—he can't stay a graduate assistant forever. He has applied for jobs all over the country. No offers. When he finally gets an interview, somebody on staff pulls him aside and says, "Listen, you know the deal...."
"They don't want the negative publicity," he says later. "Which is completely fine. I understand."
D.J. says understand so much, in so many different forms—I understand ... understandably ... it's understandable—as if to affirm that he is not paranoid, crazy or bitter. He does not think the world has conspired against him. He understands. Tell him that his plight is a mosquito bite compared to what happened to Odin Lloyd, and he says he understands. When he says women were wary of dating him, he quickly adds, "I understand why."
Shortly after the conviction, D.J. makes two decisions. He will leave coaching, and he will no longer be D.J. That was a sports name, he says, and he doesn't need it anymore. He won't go by his first name, Dennis, because that belongs to his father. So his middle name, Jonathan, it is. He hears about a job working for a roofer in Dallas and decides to try it out.
One good thing happened before Jonathan left Iowa—the best thing that ever could—he found the love of his life. Karen Sandhu, the manager at a Buckle store, brought a friend along on their first date. Of course she did. They went to dinner. "All guys, after the date, what do we want more than anything?" he asks. "A text! She texted me before the night was over: I HAD A REALLY GOOD TIME. I gave myself a little fist pump."
In November, Karen gave birth to a girl, Parker. And in January 2017, he was named head coach at Ledyard (Conn.) High. Jonathan carries an intense sadness wherever he goes, but he says he is happier than he has ever been.
BRISTOL, CONN.—MAY 2016
Jonathan brushes dirt off his father's gravestone.
Dennis was 49 when he went in for routine hernia surgery. The next day Jonathan knew something wasn't right. Dennis, who never complained, said he wasn't feeling well. Jonathan remembers crying as he left the hospital, certain that something awful was about to happen.
The last hours of the father's life are a blur to the son: infection, intensive care, tubes coming out of Dennis's body, doctors yelling "Clear!" as they use the shock paddles, Terri and the boys resting their heads on his chest, their tears welling up around his cross pendant.
Jonathan thinks back to the receiving line at the funeral. At 19, he was a hot mess; Aaron, 16, was a cold one. He was bawling; Aaron was not. "I saw a kid who was devastated," he says. "I think he was confused. He was lost. He cried, but [only] at moments. Crying is not always the answer, but being an emotional family, for him to put up a wall during the services ... it was shocking to me. He was holding everything in."