FORESTVILLE, Conn. — Morning breaks with white Bristol Police barricades sitting on the grass outside O’Brien Funeral Home. It is the day of Aaron Hernandez’s funeral in the former Patriot’s hometown. Closure comes to Lincoln Ave. at 10:31 a.m. One city cop blocks off the East Main St. intersection; a second police SUV is pulled up to Route 72. Hernandez’s mother, Terri, and brother, D.J., arrive early. Private security officers check each other’s collar; one removes lint from the other’s black suit with a roller. They are told to inform invited guests that cellphones will be checked at the door. A traffic officer sets the streetlights to blink yellow. Andy Shorey, a homeless man, drinks in the efforts for Hernandez, a native once feted as a phenomenon. Shorey, 56, carries a bag of empty Natural Light cans in each hand. His recycling route is interrupted.
“All of this for a murderer,” Shorey says after walking across the manicured lawn instead of his usual path up the driveway. “If I die, you think they’ll close the road? I don’t think so. They’d spit on my grave. He’s a murderer, a gang banger.”
Blue and red lights flash atop six police cruisers; mourners file in as cloud cover comes overhead. One by one, family members, former teammates and friends provide security guards with driver’s licenses in order to pass the checkpoint and a policeman on motorcycle. Entry is by invitation only. One man and his mother are denied. Two cars are re-routed, as well, forced to back out. Terri Hernandez steps out onto the wraparound porch at the 127-year-old Victorian house. She is dressed in gray and wears dark sunglasses. She draws from a cigarette. Across the street, a resident wears a “SONS OF BELCHICK” T-shirt. Another denizen stands on his car’s bumper to snap a photograph. His black T-shirt is emblazoned “SUICIDE SILENCE.” It is an American deathcore band. He winces when he looks at Hernandez’s mother.
“I probably shouldn’t have worn this today,” says John Burns, a 19-year-old local resident. “I wasn’t thinking this was going to happen. I’ll cross my arms.”
Hernandez, 27, is dead five days now. The Chief Medical Examiner in Boston maintains that Hernandez committed suicide. The cause is listed as asphyxia by hanging inside his cell at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Hernandez was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after being convicted of shooting Odin Lloyd, a landscaper, six times in the undeveloped section of a North Attleboro, Mass. industrial park. The killing happened on June 17, 2013, hours after Hernandez completed his first Father’s Day with an eight-month-old Avielle at his suburban manse. Avielle and Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, come to the funeral home in a black Mercedes Benz Sprinter van. Shayanna, dressed in black from top to heels, wears white pearl bracelets on her wrists. They are accompanied by Hernandez’s former Florida teammates, Maurkice and Mike Pouncey. Mike is on crutches. Shayanna holds her four-year-old daughter’s hand.
“My heart immediately broke for D.J. and his mother and the rest of his family that truly loves Aaron,” says Kristen St. John, a family friend who first met Hernandez when he was 11 years old in McCabe-Waters Little League. “It’s a sad day for the city of Bristol. My heart breaks for Shayanna, too. She stuck by him. Poor Avi will have to carry this with her her whole life. His name is not going to be forgotten.”
Hernandez’s attorneys from his second murder trial are present. They are Ronald Sullivan and Jose Baez, Linda Kenny Baden and George Leontire. They arrive separately 10 days after gaining an acquittal for Hernandez, who was tried for a double homicide. Massachusetts prosecutors charged that Hernandez killed Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu in “a hail of gunfire.” A jury of 12 found Hernandez not guilty of two homicide charges and two attempted murders. He was only found guilty of illegal possession of a firearm. Hernandez was discovered dead in his cell at 3:03 a.m. five days later. He was declared dead an hour afterward. His attorneys promise to probe Hernandez’s death amidst Boston’s “culture of misconduct.” Hernandez never lived to appeal his murder conviction. His brain was donated to Boston University’s Medical School to be studied as part of its CTE research.
“The family of Aaron Hernandez wishes to thank the public for its thoughtful expressions of condolences,” Sullivan says outside the funeral home.
A vigil is held across town at Casey Field at 6 p.m. Friends and family members who were not invited to the funeral home gather together. They blow up white balloons from a helium tank and affix ribbons to them. They scribble messages to Hernandez in permanent marker. Candles are lit. More than 100 Bristol residents arrive. Day cools into night. Flames flicker in the wind. T-shirts are emblazoned “LONG LIVE THE LEGEND.” The friends and family members count off 1-2-3 before releasing 60 balloons into the sky at sunset.
“Deepest condolences to his family,” says Patrick Keithan, a high school classmate, as he addresses the crowd on a microphone. “Especially to that baby girl.”