Jonathan (D.J.) Hernandez released a statement Tuesday. It was his first public comment since his brother Aaron took his own life on April 19. It was a tease, with the promise of new information to come. It was designed to increase interest in what Jonathan might be able to reveal.
“Many stories about my brother’s life have been shared with the public – except the story Aaron was brave enough to share with our mother and me,” Jonathan Hernandez said in the statement. “It’s the one story he wanted us to share with the world. It is Aaron’s truth.”
Only, Jonathan chose not to share that story.
Maybe the promise of it wrings more money out of a television show. Maybe it scores a personal media deal. In the interim, it only enflamed interest in why Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murder, who hanged himself with a prison bed sheet last month.
Even after that “truth” is revealed, we may never fully know why Hernandez decided to take his own life. His death came just five days after being found not guilty of a 2012 double homicide in Boston. He was still serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.
His death stunned his family and attorneys, who say they saw no indications of pending suicide. Letters left behind offer varying hints. Speculation has ranged from a plot to enrich his fiancée and their 4-year-old daughter via some lost bonus money from the Patriots (still a long shot) to the hiding of personal secrets (still lacking any proof). Jonathan’s statement certainly only fuels the latter theory.
The release in recent weeks of hundreds of pages of records detailing Hernandez’s time behind bars in Massachusetts, however, may point to a far more likely motive.
Hernandez’s life was awful. About as awful as maximum security prison should be for a convicted murderer. And it was unlikely to improve with 50 or 60 years still to serve.
That prison is hard is not news, but Hernandez entered into incarceration with a cocksure attitude and tried to present a hardened edge throughout his nearly four years in custody.
“This place ain’t [expletive] to me,” Hernandez once told officers at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts, according to an incident report. “I’ll run this place and keep running [expletive]. Prison ain’t [expletive] to me.”
His truth on this matter was not so bold – his life was marked by violent fights, attempts by other inmates to extort and intimidate him and outbursts of frustration at the arbitrary strictness of inmate life.
Hernandez, who traded in a 7,100-square-foot mansion and a $40 million NFL contract for a 7-by-10-foot cell was not running anything in prison.
He was surrounded by danger, pressure and, at times, just pathetic ridiculousness.
On the night of Nov. 20, 2013, Aaron Hernandez received a delivery from the jail commissary to his cell in Bristol County [Massachusetts] Jail, where he was housed as he awaited trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd in near by North Attleborough, Massachusetts. (He would be convicted of that crime). The delivery included some cakes, breakfast bars, cosmetics and a whole bunch of honey buns, two dozen in total.
Hernandez was on Disciplinary Detention Status at the time, a common occurrence during his imprisonment. This one was 30 days for possessing 15-feet of “fishing line” used to pass notes, and threatening to beat up the officer who discovered it if the two ever met outside the jail.
Hernandez knew part of his punishment called for a prohibition of commissary. He also knew the mistake – he shouldn’t have received the delivery – would soon be discovered, and corrections officers would confiscate his food. So Hernandez, who once lived a life where he could, and often did, have anything he pleased, sat alone in the middle of the night, as the 20th turned into the 21st, and began to eat, desperately stuffing his face before he lost what little he was allowed to possess.
He ate one honey bun and then another. And another. And another. Each was individually wrapped, so the trash began to pile up, as Hernandez plowed through his order. He alternated sleep with more and more of the pastries. This was Man vs. Food, Bristol County House of Corrections Edition.
By the time the guards realized the delivery error, Hernandez had polished off 20 honey buns. Just four remained.
“I’m a smart dude,” Hernandez told Major James Lancaster, according to a jail incident report. “I knew you’d be coming for this stuff … that’s why I ate as much food as I could.”
Hernandez then promptly asked if he could eat the final four honey buns. The request was declined. The honey buns were seized.
“I am so hungry,” Hernandez said.
Prison-grade confectioneries were the least of Hernandez’s problems behind bars, but they revealed how far a once-glamorous life had fallen. According to jail and prison records, Hernandez struggled with everything from routine disciplinary checks, to getting along with other inmates, to frustrations about having so few people to talk with.
In Bristol County Jail, where he served about 22 months, Hernandez was charged with 21 disciplinary offenses stemming from 12 separate incidents, according to records. At the Souza-Baranowski prison, where he spent two years, there were 78 more disciplinary offenses and 12 major incidents, according to records.
There were at least four physical altercations, with Hernandez often challenged by other inmates. He was caught with a nearly 6-inch shiv at one point. At times he was treated for cuts, bruises and reddened fists after battles so intense guards couldn’t pull the men apart without using mace.
“Hernandez struck [name redacted] with a closed fist to the face and both men engage[d] in a physical altercation,” one Souza-Baranowski incident report detailed. “The combatants ignored several direct orders to cease their actions and chemical agent was utilized to separate the inmates.”
Another time, in Bristol County, he and an inmate were placed in individual cages in the “yard” for their designated hour outside their cell. An argument ensued and, unable to get at the other man, they proceeded to spit on each other through the fencing.
After fights, Hernandez could appear despondent, according to guards. While prison records labeled Hernandez a member of the “Bloods Street Gang,” many inmates told authorities that he mostly “kept to himself” and tried to engage in spiritual behavior. If he thought being a football star would endear him to others, it often worked the other way, with convicts challenging him.
His fame made him a target for everything. In Bristol County he once received a note, later confiscated by guards, from another inmate offering to “look out” for him if he would use his resources and connections to bail the inmate out. The offer made little sense – once bailed out, how would the inmate be able to “look out” for Hernandez?
In other incidents, Hernandez complained about his mail being read by prison officials, letters he wrote being seized and other mundane tasks. He once physically tore up a letter in front of guards and then ate it so they couldn’t keep it. “I’ll eat the [expletive] and then you don’t get [expletive],” Hernandez shouted according to an incident report.
He complained about body cavity, strip and cell searches. He often called the jail “corrupt.” He argued guards were unnecessarily intrusive in his life. “You’re overdoing your job,” he shouted at one, according to a report.
He was known, in fits of extreme frustration, to kick and pound his door and shout for assistance.
“His aggressive tone … has become an excessive habit when he does not receive what he wants, when he wants it,” one Bristol County guard wrote in a report. “He is constantly kicking his cell door and screaming at the top of his lungs utilizing profanity at times when he wants something, regardless of how miniscule it is. It is not uncommon for Hernandez to kick his cell door constantly until an officer approaches his cell merely to ask the officer for the current time.”
As angry as he often got with corrections officers, he also seemed to seek them out. Prison is filled with high school dropouts and the mentally unstable. Despite the tattoos and criminal acts, Hernandez, who grew up in a two-parent, working-class home, attended three years of college and thrived in the demanding world of Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Mentally, at least, corrections officers were more of a peer group.
At one point during his stay in Bristol, Hernandez was ordered to stay away from the guards’ area during his time outside his cell, as they were not there to socialize with him.
During his two murder trials, Hernandez regularly bounced into court with a smile. He hugged and chatted with his attorneys. He was a happy-go-lucky defendant, seemingly grasping on the brief respite of normalcy – if a homicide case can be deemed normal.
His life in prison was anything but, though. There was no respect there, not from other inmates, not from guards, not from the system. Hard time didn’t appear to harden him. His requests for more food, a cellmate he liked or anything else was always summarily dismissed. He was a nobody.
With the possibility of winning an appeal for a new trial on the Lloyd murder unlikely, and subsequently earning an acquittal even less likely, Hernandez’s challenging and dispiriting reality must have set in.
The motives for suicide are complicated, personal and perhaps never fully understood. Maybe Jonathan Hernandez’s promised “truth” will shed further light. One simple answer, though, is at 27, with nearly four years inside and a lifetime to go, Hernandez’s reality had become unbearable.
He was a former superstar now under constant threat of violence, petty harassment and so bottomed out that stuffing his face with honey bun after honey bun was, at times, the only option to fend off starvation.
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