NEW BEDFORD — The prison where Aaron Hernandez died is on lockdown as part of an investigation into “issues” involving the former football star that reach beyond his apparent suicide, the state’s top public safety official said Monday, while Hernandez’s family sought their own answers in the letters he left behind.
As mourners began arriving at Hernandez’s funeral in Connecticut, a judge in New Bedford ordered any notes Hernandez wrote in connection with his death to be released to his family. Those notes could help his survivors make sense of swirling rumors and media reports about his sexual identity, a lawyer for the family said.
Judge Thomas F. McGuire Jr. ordered the letters to be delivered to George Leontire, a New Bedford lawyer representing Hernandez’s fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins Hernandez, in time for Hernandez’s funeral. The order allowed Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. to redact material that might jeopardize the investigation, but a spokesman for Early said the letters were sent to the family as written.
The Massachusetts Department of Correction initially objected to releasing the notes in full, and Daniel Bennett, the state’s public safety secretary, took the unusual step of appearing in court to argue the case. The judge and several lawyers conferred quietly in a sidebar session, but the conversation was recorded by court microphones and released to the Globe Monday afternoon.
During the sidebar, Bennett said the state was concerned that release of the letters could jeopardize an ongoing investigation inside Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, where Hernandez was found hanging by a bed sheet in his cell last week.
“It’s in lockdown and one of the reasons is because of issues with Mr. Hernandez. And things that have happened with Mr. Hernandez,” Bennett said. The specific subject of the investigation was not discussed at the hearing.
“There was a lot of other issues that could have gone on at Souza,” Bennett said, calling it the state’s “most dangerous prison.” It was not clear how the contents of the letters might have impeded an investigation.
“I have never seen the letters,” Bennett said during the sidebar discussion. “I have a police report with references to three letters and a reference to how he’s going to be — essentially don’t cry for him, he’s going to be happy in the afterlife.”
In court papers filed earlier Monday, Leontire wrote that “the family has the right, during this grieving process, to know their loved one’s final thoughts” and that Jenkins Hernandez had legal standing to demand them as the personal representative of his estate. The letters have not been made public.
“They desperately [need] the closure the suicide notes would provide,’’ Leontire wrote.
Hernandez’s family has been rocked by reports in recent days that involve everything from his last moments — law enforcement sources say he wrote the biblical citation “John 3:16” on his forehead — to alleged romantic relationships with men.
“This family doesn’t know if he had a gay lover in the prison. Or didn’t have a gay lover in the prison,” Leontire said during the sidebar conversation. “Allegedly one of the notes is to a gay lover. They have a right to know that.”
Later in the day, a lawyer for Hernandez denied reports that Hernandez wrote a letter to a male lover.
“Rumors of letters to a letters to a gay lover in or out of prison are false,” Hernandez lawyer Jose Baez said in a statement provided by Leontire. “These are malicious leaks used to tarnish someone who is dead.”
“The press is killing us. It’s killing this guy. It’s killing his family,” Leontire said during the sidebar discussion. Leontire asked Bennett to help dispel false rumors before they become folklore, and said he would seek a grand jury investigation into leaks from law enforcement.
The state will do “everything we can ... to find out who is producing this information, because some of it clearly is coming from agencies,” Bennett said.
The sidebar conversation was available through a pilot program called For The Record, or FTR. Under that program, audio from some Massachusetts courtrooms is available by request online for a small fee. Sidebar conversations are typically not audible in open court, but are recorded.
Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of Odin L. Lloyd, addressed two of the letters found in his cell to his 4-year-old daughter and his fiancee, according to two law enforcement officials briefed on the investigation.
On Monday, a lawyer for a 22-year-old inmate who media outlets have reported was involved in a sexual relationship with Hernandez released a statement stating he was the intended recipient of one of the letters Hernandez left.
“My client is obviously saddened by the loss of his friend,” read the statement, according to WBZ. The lawyer repeatedly hung up the phone on reporters who attempted to reach him Monday afternoon.
Early’s office said last week that Hernandez had been locked inside his cell at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and no one else entered it until a guard forced his way in at 3:03 a.m. Hernandez had jammed the door to keep would-be rescuers out, officials have said.
The DOC did not respond last week to questions about whether any correctional officers are being disciplined because of their actions in Hernandez’s cell block.
Last week, Leontire convinced McGuire to order the DOC and other state agencies to preserve any physical evidence collected during their investigation.
Another hearing on Monday, on a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Hernandez’s victim, Odin Lloyd of Boston, was postponed.