Convicted killer and former New England Patriots star Aaron J. Hernandez was found hanged inside his cell at the state’s maximum security prison in Shirley early Wednesday, dead of an apparent suicide five days after he was acquitted of two additional murders.
He was found hanging from a bedsheet attached to a window in his cell in Unit G-2 of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center at about 3:05 a.m., the state Department of Correction said in a statement. The agency said Hernandez had tried to block the door to prevent officers from entering.
His death came on the same day that many of his former teammates were honored at the White House for winning Super Bowl 51. At one time, Hernandez was a key piece of the team’s offense. He had been a football prodigy, selected by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 National Football League draft.
Hernandez, 27, who had appeared buoyant during his recent trial on charges of killing two men in the South End, was already serving life without parole for killing Odin L. Lloyd in an industrial park near the football player’s million-dollar North Attleborough home in 2013.
The arc of Hernandez’s life was short and steep. He seemed destined for the highest levels of fortune and acclaim in professional sports, only to throw it away by shooting Lloyd, his friend, whom he picked up the night of the murder and drove to the execution.
Hernandez’s legacy in Boston sports will be one of profound tragedy.
Prison officials said Wednesday that Hernandez was taken to UMass Memorial-HealthAlliance Hospital in Leominster. He was pronounced dead at 4:07 a.m., the Department of Correction said. The state medical examiner’s office has since taken custody of Hernandez’s body. An investigation will be overseen by Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.’s office.
The medical examiner’s office will conduct an autopsy at its Boston facility, according to Early’s office.
A prisoner advocate said hanging from a cell window is an unusual way for an inmate to kill himself at the Souza-Baranowski facility, which is designed to make suicide difficult.
Hernandez’s lead defense attorney, Jose Baez, said his office will conduct its own investigation into the death.
“There were no conversations or correspondence from Aaron to his family or legal team that would have indicated anything like this was possible. Aaron was looking forward to an opportunity for a second chance to prove his innocence,” Baez said in a statement. “Those who love and care about him are heartbroken and determined to find the truth surrounding his untimely death. We request that authorities conduct a transparent and thorough investigation.”
Correction Department spokesman Christopher Fallon said there was no suicide note found during the initial search of the two-man cell Hernandez occupied alone. He was not on a suicide watch because he had not signaled he was at risk, Fallon said.
“If he had made any kind of statement, he would have not been in that unit,’’ Fallon said.
Hernandez is the 27th recorded suicide in Massachusetts state prisons since 2010 and the second this year, according to state records.
Corrections officers conduct nighttime bed checks once an hour, Fallon said. The checks are done on a staggered schedule to increase the chance of discovering an inmate with an issue, he said.
Speaking in general, Fallon said inmates most often use paper to jam cell doors when attempting to prevent corrections officers from entering.
Souza-Baranowski Superintendent Steven Silva personally notified Hernandez’s relatives about the former professional athlete’s death, he said.
Last Friday, a Suffolk Superior Court jury acquitted Hernandez of killing Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in a July 2012 drive-by shooting in the South End.
For 61-year-old Ernesto Abreu, there was no satisfaction in Hernandez’s death: It would not, he said, bring his son back.
“I’m not happy about his death; it’s actually a shame, any loss of life is a shame. I believe in leaving things in God’s hands,” said the father, speaking in Cape Verdean Creole.
Later, by phone, he said he wished the case had turned out differently.
“Legally, there is no one at blame for my son’s death, and, yes, I’m sad about that, but we are moving on from this,” Abreu said. Furtado’s family declined to speak to reporters.
“The family has their own loss to concentrate on, the loss of these two young fellows,” said William Kennedy, the attorney for Furtado’s estate. “I don’t think they take any joy in the loss of the Hernandez family. . . . That’s the way they are. They keep God in their hearts at all times.”
Throughout his recent trial, Hernandez appeared alert and engaged. He would smile or wave when he looked at Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, his longtime fiancee and the mother of his daughter.
During the seven-week trial, Hernandez often joked with court clerks, told them to enjoy their day and teased one clerk in particular about his haircut — because the man is bald and has nothing to cut.
During lunch breaks, the tall former athlete would devour the egg salad sandwiches he was provided by the court, several clerks said.
“The happiest defendant I ever saw,’’ said one courthouse employee, who asked not to be identified by name.
The jury deliberated for six days. Hernandez nodded and choked back tears when the verdict came down — not guilty on every charge except a gun-related crime.
A person with direct knowledge who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while many observers of Hernandez’s recent trial remarked on his confident demeanor, within prison walls he was insecure and clung to gang members for approval.
He was not aloof with other inmates, this person said. Instead, he appeared eager to be “one of the boys.” He often sat and laughed or played basketball with gang members. Hernandez was briefly put on on suicide watch immediately after the Lloyd conviction, the person said.
John M. Thompson, the Springfield attorney assigned by the court to handle Hernandez’s appeal of his conviction for Lloyd’s murder, said he was “shocked and saddened’’ by his client’s death.
“It’s awful to see a young man to die at this age,’’ Thompson said in a telephone interview. “We were engaged in his case. We were dedicating to getting his appeal going.’’
Thompson, citing attorney-client privilege, declined to say when he last met with Hernandez and also declined to describe his client’s state of mind recently. He said his office had received 61 volumes of transcripts covering portions of the Bristol County trial.
He said he hoped that Hernandez’s death would be properly and dispassionately investigated.
Thompson also said his office will file paperwork to have Hernandez’s conviction voided once a death certificate is available, because he died before his appeals were exhausted.
Thompson noted that Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III could challenge the motion to vacate the conviction.
Quinn spokesman Gregg Miliote declined to comment on that issue Wednesday. However, Quinn issued a brief statement about Hernandez’s death.
“This is a shocking and sad end to a very tragic series of events that has negatively impacted a number of families,’’ Quinn said in the statement.
Odin Lloyd of Dorchester, 27, the man that Hernandez was in prison for shooting, was a semipro football player for the Boston Bandits. He was shot multiple times by a .45-caliber weapon in a secluded sand pit near Hernandez’s home in June 2013. After the killing, suspicion quickly built around Hernandez. News crews staked out his house.
Nine intense days after Lloyd was found dead, the NFL star was arrested for murder. The Patriots cut him from the team within 90 minutes of his arrest and swiftly scrubbed his name from the team website.
Hernandez’s sports agent on Wednesday questioned the report that he had killed himself.
“Absolutely no chance he took his own life,” Brian Murphy, the agent, wrote on Twitter, using a nickname to refer to his client. “Chico was not a saint, but my family and I loved him, and he would never take his own life.”
Hernandez was represented at his most recent trial by top defense lawyers, including Baez and Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard Law School professor.
Both lawyers have said they believed the acquittal meant that Hernandez was moving toward being reunited with his family — the sole barrier being his conviction for murdering Lloyd, which was to be automatically reviewed by the state’s highest court.
Baez on Tuesday tweeted a link to a long ESPN story in which he expressed confidence that he would successfully overturn Hernandez’s Bristol County Superior Court conviction.
“I think there are plenty of flaws in that conviction,” he told ESPN. “If they are exposed properly, [Hernandez] certainly can and should get a new trial.”
After the verdict last week, Hernandez turned in court toward Jenkins-Hernandez, and said, “I love you.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.