As Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley stood there speaking late Thursday morning, his horrifying words of ambush and execution captured by national television cameras, the mind drifted to a place and time 900 miles and 27 months away.
Aaron Hernandez was sitting inside Lucas Oil Stadium during Super Bowl Media Day that 2012 February day in Indianapolis when he gave reporters a tour of his well-chiseled, tattooed arms. He ran his left index finger from his right biceps to his wrist, and what he said next would become the lead of my column.
"This side," Hernandez said, "is about good days and bad days and the end is heaven." "And this side," he said, pointing to his left arm with his right index finger, "is all about my family and the things I have been through in my life."
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As Conley stood there, announcing the Bristol native's indictment on two counts of first-degree murder, the mind's eye focused back to Hernandez's index fingers. Which one allegedly pulled the trigger on that .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver in a shooting that left Daniel Abreu and Safiro Furtado dead as they sat in a car in Boston's South End five months after Hernandez had given us that tour?
As Conley described a chance encounter between Hernandez and the victims inside Cure Lounge on Tremont Street that he said led to Hernandez's pulling up beside their car at a red light on the corner of Shawmut and Herald in the early hours of July 16, 2012, the mind drifted to the left arm filled with inked stories of his life. As Conley described how Hernandez allegedly kept firing at Abreu, the driver who suffered a fatal chest wound, and at Furtado, the front-seat passenger who suffered a fatal head wound, the mind drifted to Hernandez's right arm. That's the arm that ends in heaven.
No man, no matter how holy or powerful, can stand in judgment of another man's immortal soul. Yet as Hernandez sits there today in the Bristol County House of Correction in North Dartmouth, Mass., on charges of another murder, the question must be asked: How long must that arm be for him to reach heaven?
If Hernandez is found guilty as charged in two separate shootings, he not only is a murderer. He is a cold-blooded executioner. He is an animal. He is a killing machine, as abominable and evil as any athlete in history. If Hernandez is found guilty, he will have been found to have hunted down two men he had never met until 90 minutes earlier and executed them gangland style. He already is being held without bail in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancee's sister, in an industrial park near his North Attleboro home. Was Lloyd murdered because he talked to others about the 2012 double murder? That should eventually come out in court.
Conley said that Hernandez and another individual, identified previously as Alexander Bradley, arrived at Cure Lounge about 12:30 a.m. on July 16, 2012. By coincidence, so did the victims. There is no evidence, Conley said, that they knew each other. It is fascinating to read the initial media accounts of the murders timed at 2:12 a.m. An unnamed law enforcement official said that the victims were tied to a Cape Verdean gang based in Dorchester. Only, according to Conley, Abreu and Furtado weren't members of any gang. "Nothing," Conley said, "could be further from the truth. Neither of them were involved in gangs, guns or violent crime of any kind. That characterization was unfair to their memory and their families."
The SUV in the incident was recovered in an uncle's garage in Bristol, the battery reportedly dead and covered in cobwebs. The murder weapon, Conley said, was recovered from an individual with ties to Hernandez. Additional charges were brought against Hernandez for allegedly shooting at three surviving men in the car. One was struck in the arm.
Here's the amazing part. Six weeks after the double murder, the Patriots signed Hernandez to a five-year, $40 million extension — including a $12.5 million signing bonus, the largest ever given to a tight end. And here's the sickening part. Hernandez played the entire 2012 season as an alleged double-murderer as if nothing had happened. I must have seen him 10 times in the locker room that season. It was business as usual.
When he signed the new deal in late August 2012, much was made of him going to Patriots owner Robert Kraft and tearfully presenting a $50,000 check for the Myra Kraft Giving Back Fund, the charity of his wife who had died a year earlier.
"One of the touching moments since I've owned the team," Kraft said at the time.
Yes, Hernandez's dad Dennis had died after routine hospital surgery and it affected him deeply. Yes, Hernandez had problems at Florida. He failed drug tests. Yes, he should have been drafted in the first round, lasted until the fourth and it cost him money. Yet the Patriots obviously believed that Hernandez had become a young man worthy of trust. If these murder charges are true, it will go down as the worst analysis of a man's character in the history of sports.
"[Kraft] changed my life," Hernandez said in 2012. "He didn't need to give me the amount he gave me and knowing he thinks I deserve that and he trusts me to make the right decisions. ... It means he trusts in my character and the person I am."
Read more of these quotes from Hernandez, who brought up the upcoming birth of his daughter after his signing.
"I called [my family]. They were all crying. I was crying right with them. I'll remember this day forever. I just hope I keep going, doing the right things, making the right decisions."
"I couldn't be with a better franchise. This is a place that not only did it change my future from them paying me, but it just changed me as a person. You can't come here and act reckless and do your own stuff. I came here, I might've acted the way I wanted to act, but you get changed by Bill Belichick's way. You get changed by the Patriots' way."
So much emotion from a man now accused of killing three people, it's sickening.
Hernandez missed a chunk of the 2012 season with a high ankle sprain, but still caught 51 passes and scored five touchdowns. He had the talent to be enshrined in the football hall of fame. Instead, Patriots' No. 81 is enshrined as Inmate 174594 in the Massachusetts penal system. And those touchdown celebrations in which Hernandez pantomimed digging up money or breaking into a safe? They seemed a little too edgy. Now they just seem obscene.
In January, The Courant reported that surveillance video showed Hernandez and Bradley at Cure the same night as Furtado and Abreu. Hernandez was spotted circling in his SUV outside. Bradley has a civil lawsuit pending against Hernandez for allegedly shooting him in the eye after a 2013 argument outside a Miami nightclub — yet another shooting. A prosecutor in the Odin Lloyd murder case has referred to Bradley as Hernandez's former right-hand man, replaced by Ernest Wallace, Hernandez's alleged accomplice in the Lloyd shooting. At this point, wow, it's unclear if Hernandez wanted to be the next Tony Gonzalez or the next Tony "Scarface" Montana.
"This case was never about Aaron Hernandez," Conley said. "This case was about two victims who were stalked, ambushed and senselessly murdered on the streets of the city they called home."
"When we have a shooting in the city, everyone right away thinks of gang activity," Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said. "These were two, young innocent victims."
Prosecutors are considered to have a stronger case in the double homicide than in the Lloyd murder because the vehicle was found and the alleged murder weapon was found in a car of a Bristol woman following a crash in Springfield. Hernandez's arraignment on the double-murder charge is expected next week.
These alleged murders weren't crimes of passionate love gone wrong. They weren't the acts of a panicked man in financial chaos. These were alleged acts of a cold-blooded beast living in some warped gangster movie. I only wonder if Aaron Hernandez is sitting in his cell today, tracing his right arm with that left index finger wondering if heaven is at the end of it all.