Aaron Hernandez’s casual prison behavior ‘chilled’ guards, according to a new Netflix documentary showing how he lived a double life of NFL stardom and murder

Former NFL player Aaron Hernandez.

Former NFL player Aaron Hernandez.
REUTERS/CJ Gunther/Pool
  • On Wednesday, Netflix released “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” a three-part documentary investigating the life and death of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
  • The documentary examines Hernandez’s life growing up in Bristol, Connecticut, his rise to fame, subsequent court cases, and eventual suicide.
  • It also looks into questions over Hernandez’s sexuality, which was the source of tabloid speculation for weeks after his death.
  • Also discussed is Hernandez’s severe CTE, a brain disease caused repetitive brain trauma. Researchers found he had CTE after he died by suicide in his prison cell in April 2017.
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A new documentary focused on the life and death of the former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez reveals how he lived a double life as an NFL star who would later be accused of killing several men.

“Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” which is divided into three parts, was released on Netflix Wednesday.

In just over three hours, the documentary examines Hernandez’s life growing up in Bristol, Connecticut, his rise to fame, subsequent court cases, and his death, questioning how the football player turned to a life of crime.

Hernandez had a sensational stint as a tight end at the University of Florida, scored a Super Bowl touchdown for the New England Patriots, and secured a nearly $40 million contract with the team in 2012.

But in 2013, he was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancée’s sister. He adjusted so quickly to jail that it “chilled” correction officers, according to the documentary.

Just as he was settling in, he was charged with murder in the killings of two other men in a 2012 Boston drive-by shooting.

What followed were two court trials, a life sentence in prison, and Hernandez’s eventual suicide.

Hernandez playing for the New England Patriots.

Hernandez playing for the New England Patriots.
Elsa/Getty Images

The documentary covers both murder trials – the 2015 case, in which he was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Lloyd, and the 2017 trial, in which he was acquitted in a 2012 double-homicide case in the deaths of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado. Hernandez died by suicide in his prison cell, where he was serving a sentence of life without parole, just days after he was acquitted in the 2017 trial.

The film uses Hernandez’s jail phone calls; interviews from relatives, former players, and childhood friends; and court recordings to look into Hernandez’s case.

Giving viewers the fullest look yet at Hernandez, the film shows the football player asking his fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, to send him “Harry Potter” books in jail and yelling at his estranged mother over money.

It also investigates his post-mortem diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

His brother Jonathan Hernandez told filmmakers how they grew up with an abusive father who died when Hernandez was 16. At the time, Hernandez was a rising football star who would eventually sign to play at the University of Florida, one of the nation’s top teams when he joined.

Hernandez found jail ‘cozy’

When Hernandez was first jailed in June 2013 while facing the murder charge in Lloyd’s death, Thomas Hodgson, the Bristol County sheriff, told him there would be an adjustment period for the football player to go from living in a mansion to living in a 7-by-10-foot cell.

He was initially put on suicide watch, a normal protocol in the jail for inmates facing murder charges.

But according to the documentary, Hernandez appeared to have no trouble adjusting.

Hernandez told his mother he was healthy and liked his “cozy” jail cell in one phone call.

“Know what I always do? I always walk to my door and turn and look the opposite way and just look how perfect my cell looks,” he told his mother, Terri Hernandez.

Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, the documentary’s executive producer, said Hernandez moved into the jail “like it was no problem,” something that “chilled even veteran correction officers at the Bristol Jail.”

He was a ‘chameleon’ and ‘multifaceted character,’ the documentary maker says

“Killer Inside” filmmaker Geno McDermott called Hernandez a “chameleon” in an interview with Mass Live ahead of the documentary’s release, suggesting this was how Hernandez could be a rising football star and criminal at the same time.

“He talks to his mom a certain way. He talks to his fiancée in a different way. He talks to his former football friends a totally different way with totally different slang,” he told Mass Live. “He talks to people he may have been with in the dark part of his double life another way … That’s why those phone calls are so important. You can wonder is this guy really a bad guy or not or is he fooling me the way he fooled other people.”

Wetzel also said that Hernandez “lived a life as a chameleon.”

“People talk about O.J. O.J. Simpson was a retired football player who was involved in a string of domestic violence. We’ve seen this kind of crime before,” he said in the documentary. “No one has allegedly murdered two people, then played an entire season as a professional athlete. We’ve never seen something like that.”

Patrick Haggan, a prosecutor in Hernandez’s second trial, said he was surprised by how quickly Hernandez’s emotions could change.

“You see this common theme of him being impulsive and being able on the drop of a hat to go from being extremely jovial, nice, friendly, somewhat loving guy to, in a moment, becoming angry and physical and violent,” he said in the documentary.

The documentary investigates questions over Hernandez’s sexuality, which prosecutors considered using against him

Throughout all three episodes, the documentary dived into questions about Hernandez’s sexuality. Prosecutors considered arguing in his 2017 case that Hernandez was a “closeted gay man who lived in an extraordinarily homophobic world of sports, and that conflict made him strike out in anger against people.”

The notion that closeted homosexuality causes people to become violent has been repeatedly discredited by researchers.

A member of Hernandez’s legal team, George Leontire, who is gay, warned prosecutors against taking that approach, and they ultimately stood down.

Odin Lloyd.

Odin Lloyd.
CBS News

Hernandez’s sexual orientation also became a subject of tabloid fodder after the trial. Filmmakers interviewed former Patriots lineman Ryan O’Callaghan, one of the only openly gay former NFL players, and Dennis SanSoucie, Hernandez’s high-school football teammate, who said he and Hernandez hid a sexual relationship for years.

Hernandez had a severe case of CTE caused by brain trauma

Days after Hernandez was acquitted in the 2017 trial, he died by suicide in his prison cell on April 19, 2017. When his brain was later examined, researchers found he had severe CTE, a brain disease caused repetitive brain trauma.

Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and expert in neurodegenerative disease at Boston University’s CTE center, said Hernandez’s CTE was advanced.

“He had a very advanced disease. And not only was it advanced microscopically, especially in the frontal lobes, which are very important for decision-making, judgment, and cognition, we could see damage to the inner chambers of the brain,” she said.

Aaron Hernandez

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Those who were interviewed in “Killer Inside” speculated that the CTE could have played a role in Hernandez’s actions, but this was never confirmed.

“I didn’t know too much about CTE, but I started to look at the signs of CTE – impulsiveness, you know, rash decisions, sometimes propensity to be violent. It was Aaron Hernandez,” Haggan said in the documentary.

“And if you look at everything that this young man had going on – not only physically, but mentally, emotionally, from what had happened when he was a child, and what had happened in his own life – then on top of it you add the CTE, it all made sense that this tragedy had probably begun,” he added. “Or the seeds of this tragedy had started many, many years earlier.”

A previous version of this story said Hernandez won the 2012 Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. The Patriots lost the 2012 Super Bowl to the New York Giants.