Aaron Hernandez was an affable clubgoer who mingled easily with fans, defense witnesses testified Monday in the double murder trial of the former New England Patriots star.
Their testimony differed starkly from the accounts of prosecution witnesses who have described Hernandez as irritable and standoffish, even prone to rages when he frequented Boston nightclubs at the time of the killings in July 2012.
Hernandez, 27, has pleaded not guilty to charges of murdering Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in a drive-by shooting in Boston’s South End in the early morning hours of July 16, 2012.
Prosecutors say Hernandez became livid after de Abreu bumped into him at Cure Lounge, a Theater District club, and spilled a drink on the athlete around 12:30 a.m. Hernandez allegedly fired five shots into the victims’ BMW two hours later at a stoplight.
But on Monday, jurors heard from a defense witness who described a cordial encounter he had with Hernandez during the roughly nine minutes the athlete was in Cure that night.
Antoine Salvador said he was celebrating his birthday at Cure when he noticed the football star and asked to take a picture with him.
Initially, Salvador said, Hernandez “politely declined” but agreed when Salvador said it was his birthday. The two retreated to a back room to take the photo, and Salvador offered to buy Hernandez a drink afterwards.
Hernandez again declined and said “I’m all right,” Salvador testified, adding that he did not see anyone bump into Hernandez during their interaction. He said the encounter lasted between seven and 10 minutes. Salvador said he later saw Hernandez outside the club after the 2 a.m. closing time and thanked him for the photo.
Hernandez responded, “no problem, have a good night,” Salvador said.
His testimony came after Suffolk County prosecutors rested their case Monday, after calling more than 60 witnesses over a five-week period.
Prosecutor Mark Lee aggressively questioned Salvador on cross-examination, asking him how much he drank at the club.
“I don’t recall, sir,” Salvador said. “I was not annihilated.”
Lee noted that Salvador previously said his interaction with Hernandez lasted five or six minutes inside Cure, rather than seven to 10.
“How long would you estimate a bump would take?” Lee asked, prompting a defense objection that Judge Jeffrey Locke sustained.
In addition, Salvador told Lee that he and Hernandez were walking in opposite directions when he saw him on the street after the club closed, roughly 15 to 20 minutes before the killings.
“No idea what he did next?” Lee asked.
“No idea,” Salvador said.
Hernandez is also charged with witness intimidation for allegedly shooting Alexander Bradley, his former friend and marijuana supplier, in February 2013 in Florida in an effort to silence him about the killings.
Bradley testified last month that he was behind the wheel of Hernandez’s Toyota 4Runner when the athlete reached across him from the front passenger seat and fired the shots. He testified under an immunity agreement and is currently jailed in Connecticut for an unrelated 2014 club shooting.
Bradley also testified he and Hernandez visited Tootsie’s Cabaret, a Miami-area strip club, with other men on the night he was shot. He said he and Hernandez argued during the ride home when Bradley asked the driver to turn back so he could retrieve his cellphone.
Hernandez vetoed the request and later shot Bradley in the face, he testified.
But on Monday, T.J. Gargasz, a Tootsie’s manager, testified that staff noticed someone in Hernandez’s party had left a cellphone behind in a VIP area. The phone was returned to the group.
Prosecutor Patrick Haggan asked Gargasz if he recalled telling investigators in a prior interview that the phone incident occurred during an earlier visit Hernandez made to the club with a group.
“I think the police officer made a mistake,” Gargasz said.
He testified that he observed Hernandez on at least three occasions at Tootsie’s, and he was always polite.
On one occasion, Gargasz said, Hernandez took a picture with a man wearing a Patriots jersey, even though the man was speaking obnoxiously.
“Aaron was always good,” Gargasz said.
Hernandez is already serving a life sentence for the June 2013 fatal shooting of Odin Lloyd. An appeal of his first-degree murder conviction in that case will be heard at a later date.
Testimony in the double murder case resumes Wednesday, with closing arguments coming as early as Thursday.
As he was led from the courtroom Monday, Hernandez blew a kiss to a small group of relatives that included his older brother D.J. Hernandez.Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.