BRISTOL, Conn. — When Aaron Hernandez was a child in this faded factory town, his mother, Terri, twice turned to the courts for bankruptcy protection.
When he was in sixth grade, she began taking bets for an illegal gambling organization. Police would later seize reams of evidence from the home.
There is no way to know how much, if anything, Hernandez knew about his mother’s activities, or about the darker side of her second marriage to a violent ex-convict who had previously wed his cousin.
But the events reflect a strained family dynamic that grew more tangled as Hernandez rose from schoolboy prodigy to prime-time Patriot, living a double life of sorts.
As his celebrity status grew, Hernandez was never far from his Bristol roots, never free of the orbit of his childhood — a fact that has become increasingly clear over the last 50 days, as he has gone from national football star to prisoner No. 174594 in the Bristol County jail.
Hernandez has long nurtured an image of himself as a former honor student whose deeds were worthy of the 2013 Pop Warner Inspiration to Youth Award. He has also cast himself as a loving father to his young daughter, and a committed partner to his fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, a high school classmate.
But in his alternate life, the lavishly tattooed multimillionaire allegedly consorted with a cadre of ex-convicts from Bristol in a volatile underworld of guns, drugs, and violence. He has been linked by prosecutors and a civil lawsuit to a series of assaults, shootings, and, ultimately, three killings.
Hernandez and his lawyers have proclaimed his innocence. But much remains unexplained, and perhaps unexplainable — including the influences of his childhood in Bristol, and growing up in a home where crime was no stranger.
Impact of father’s death
Police wiretaps allegedly intercepted Terri Hernandez relaying betting lines for games involving many sports teams, including the New England Patriots. Her alleged accomplice, Martin Hovanesian, was convicted of felony racketeering and professional gambling. The outcome of Terri Hernandez’s case — she faced several charges, including professional gambling — is not available under Connecticut law.
“It was a big-time operation in a little town,’’ said William Gerace, Hovanesian’s lawyer. “She was the phone operator, a minor player, not the brains.’’
Terri Hernandez has refused interview requests, and her former lawyer, a longtime family friend, declined to comment.
By the accounts of friends and acquaintances, Aaron Hernandez’s father loomed largest in his life, and his death in 2006 from complications after routine hernia surgery was a turning point.
For more than 30 years, the elder Hernandez was known on the streets of Bristol as The King. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Dennis Hernandez reigned as street royalty from his days as a three-sport star at Bristol Central High School and a running back at the University of Connecticut through his career as a school custodian.
Bristol changed over time, as ESPN’s headquarters swelled, helping to offset the jobs and taxes lost to shuttered factories. But Dennis Hernandez steadily kept his boys, DJ and Aaron, productive in school and sports.
Portrayed by friends and former teammates as generally popular but street tough and sometimes abrasive, Dennis guided DJ toward UConn, where he played football and earned a master’s in school counseling. DJ, 27, is now a graduate assistant football coach at the University of Iowa.
Aaron, who shattered several Connecticut high school records for pass receivers, regularly made the high school honor roll and earned enough credits to depart for the University of Florida midway through his senior year as the top-rated prep tight end in the nation.
His father’s death “ate him alive,’’ said Jordan Carello, a high school friend and football teammate. “He wasn’t as outgoing. He wouldn’t really talk. You could tell he was devastated.’’
Hernandez was, by his own account, unsure where to turn.
“Everyone was close to my father, but I was the closest,’’ he told USA Today in 2009. “When that happened, who do I talk to? Who do I hang with? It was tough.’’
A high school picture has since surfaced of Hernandez purportedly flashing the sign of the Bloods street gang while dressed in red, the gang’s color. Jail officials say an evaluation of his possible gang affiliation was inconclusive.
But his behavioral changes triggered alarms. Bristol school officials have declined interviews since his arrest, but his high school football coach, Doug Pina, told the Hartford Courant in 2010, “Personally, I’ve always had concerns.’’
Citing Hernandez’s youth — he was 17 when he entered college and 20 when he joined the Patriots — Pina said, “He’s still finding himself. With the right people around, [if] he keeps his head straight, he’ll do very well.’’
It was no secret Hernandez began running with some unsavory characters after his father died and continued some of those associations after he left Bristol.
“A lot of guys come into the NFL haunted by the past,’’ said Tully Banta-Cain, Hernandez’s Patriots teammate in 2010. “Some guys overcome it and some continue to be haunted throughout their careers if they’re not able to disassociate themselves from certain people or certain atmospheres. Aaron may have fallen victim to that.’’
Nowhere was the criminal element in Hernandez’s life more evident than at a powder-blue Cape house at 114 Lake Ave. in Bristol, across from a field where he once played football. The home is owned by Hernandez’s uncle.
The house became a way station for Hernandez’s inner circle, including Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, who allegedly accompanied him when Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player from Dorchester and Hernandez’s one-time friend, was killed near Hernandez’s home in North Attleborough.
Investigators planned to question another ex-convict, Thaddeus L. Singleton III, who lived at the Lake Avenue house. But Singleton died June 30, four days after Hernandez’s arrest, in a single-car crash in a vehicle registered to Valderrama.
Singleton was married to Tanya Cummings-Singleton, Hernandez’s cousin. She was jailed Aug. 1 in Boston for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Hernandez.
Police had previously seized Cummings-Singleton’s cellphone and credit cards during a court appearance by Wallace, Hernandez’s alleged “right-hand man.’’ A police affidavit alleges she bought Wallace a bus ticket to Florida after Lloyd’s slaying.
Yet Cummings-Singleton’s role in the Hernandez family history runs deeper than her relationship with Wallace. In 2005, she married Jeffrey Cummings, an ex-convict who would become Hernandez’s stepfather. They had a son before they divorced a year later.
Cummings then married Hernandez’s mother on a trip to Las Vegas in 2009. There is no indication that Aaron, then in college, attended the ceremony. It occurred eight days after he helped Tim Tebow and Florida defeat Oklahoma, 24-14, for the national collegiate title.
But this was much clear: Even before his mother found herself in a problematic marriage with Cummings, Hernandez began behaving badly in Florida, where he never seemed far from his Bristol cronies.
Four months after he arrived in Gainesville, the 17-year-old was out with teammates, Tebow among them, at The Swamp bar when he punched a bouncer over a disputed bill, police stated. The punch allegedly broke the man’s ear drum.
The incident took few of the Gators by surprise.
“Of course everyone knew about [Hernandez’s] troubled past,” one of his former Florida teammates said. “Starting college at 17 is a lot for a person to handle.”
Hernandez also tested positive for marijuana, triggering a one-game suspension. But he excelled on the field, winning both the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end and first-team All-America honors as a junior.
But once he de termined he would skip his senior year to join the NFL, Hernandez was seen more frequently with his Bristol buddies, according to former college friends.
During his final year at Florida, according to an image TMZ released this year, Hernandez photographed himself wearing red and hoisting a handgun.
At home, the violence continued. A month before Hernandez reported to his first Patriots training camp in 2010, his stepfather knifed his mother. Terri Hernandez suffered lacerations to her right cheek, right shoulder, and left wrist. Cummings went to jail, and she divorced him.
During the same period, several of Hernandez’s other Bristol acquaintances landed in jail.
From 2010 and 2012, Wallace, the right-hand man, was sentenced to 120 days in jail for various crimes, including larceny. Ortiz, 27, a career criminal with a ninth-grade education, also gave police the Lake Avenue address. Since 2004, he has been convicted in Connecticut of 15 crimes, from threatening to assault.
When a Globe reporter recently knocked at the Lake Avenue house, a woman pulled back a curtain several inches and said the occupants had no comment. A man who arrived moments later with a case of beer said Hernandez’s friends and relatives “don’t want to talk to the press.’’
A contract, but more trouble
The house at 114 Lake Ave. continued to be a hub of activity, some of it of increasing interest to police.
Court records indicate that authorities, in the course of investigating the shooting deaths of two Cape Verdean immigrants on a Boston street last summer, recovered a sport utility vehicle of interest at the home.
Police suspect Hernandez and the victims clashed at the nightspot Cure before the men were shot by a suspect in a silver SUV. The vehicle at 114 Lake Ave. registered in Hernandez’s name.
In searching the property, police also seized documents and nearly 100 rounds of ammunition. The case is now before a Suffolk County grand jury.
A month after the killings, Hernandez and the Patriots agreed to a five-year, $40 million contract extension, with $12.5 million guaranteed. Hernandez vowed afterward that his life as “the young and reckless Aaron’’ was behind him.
But with his rich contract secured, Hernandez increasingly isolated himself from his teammates, and he was involved in a series of incidents this year before Lloyd’s slaying that suggested the “reckless Aaron’’ and his Bristol sidekicks remained active.
The first occurred in January, when a trooper clocked an SUV on the Southeast Expressway traveling 105 miles per hour. The driver was Alexander Bradley, an ex-convict from Bristol who has described himself as Hernandez’s former paid assistant.
Fifteen days later, Hernandez allegedly shot Bradley in the face in Florida, according to Bradley’s civil suit against him. Bradley lost an eye.
Hernandez next surfaced in California, where he was scheduled to work out with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Soon he was involved in two disturbances at his rented condo in Hermosa Beach, police reported.
On March 25, Hernandez had been drinking and was arguing with Jenkins when he cut his wrist punching a window, a police report stated. Jenkins called 911 for an ambulance, saying Hernandez was “losing a lot of blood.’’ No charges were filed.
Eight days later, police returned when a neighbor reported a disturbance. Again, Hernandez and Jenkins were arguing. Police took no action after restoring calm.
Six weeks later, Hernandez and his Bristol pals were back in New England, where police responded at 2:30 a.m. to the Viva lounge in Providence, to disperse a crowd after a New York Jets fan followed Hernandez out of the club, taunting him. Police reported seeing a man toss a .22-caliber handgun under a car before he fled. In court, prosecutors suggested the man was Ernest Wallace.
Wallace was in Bristol on June 16, when Hernandez — before taking Jenkins on a date — tapped out a Twitter message: “happy father’s day to all the great dads out there.’’
Before the date ended, prosecutors say, Hernandez set in motion a plan to kill Lloyd. A law enforcement source has told the Globe the motive for Lloyd’s slaying may have been linked to his knowledge of Hernandez’s possible involvement in last year’s double homicide of the Cape Verdean immigrants.
Father’s Day had ended by the time Hernandez, Wallace, and Ortiz picked up Lloyd in Dorchester and drove to an industrial park in North Attleborough. There, Lloyd was shot five times.
Several minutes later, prosecutors allege, a surveillance camera captured an image of Hernandez at his home carrying a handgun.
Wallace and Ortiz returned to Lake Avenue before they were arrested. Hernandez also was arrested, at his home, before police began investigating an alleged effort to cover up the crime.
In a police affidavit released last week, investigators stated Shayanna Jenkins and Cummings-Singleton made “overt attempts to hide evidence,’’ possibly including the murder weapon.
On Tuesday, police suspended an exhaustive search of Pine Lake, not far from 114 Lake Ave., without locating the weapon.
Hernandez, meanwhile, sits behind bars, with only memories of Pine Lake, the football fields of his youth, and his childhood home on a steep hill overlooking a little city that once adored him.
His next scheduled court date is Aug. 22.