HARTFORD, Conn. — The murder case against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has led investigators to his hometown of Bristol, Conn., the working-class Hartford suburb where he began a meteoric rise that would carry him to the upper echelons of the NFL.
He is remembered as a fun-loving teenager at Bristol Central High School, where he followed in the footsteps of his older brother, D.J., who would star as a quarterback and tight end at the University of Connecticut.
Some recall him struggling with the death of his father, Dennis, in 2006, but remaining determined to become a pro athlete, spending hours working out before and after school. As Bristol police assist Massachusetts investigators, arresting one local man as a fugitive from justice, the community was left to ponder the fall of the hometown hero with the $40 million pro contract and a new family of his own.
A former high school teammate, Andrew Ragali, 24, said the troubled street hood he has seen portrayed on television is not the Aaron Hernandez he knew.
“You could maybe say he was immature, but he wasn’t a gang-banger at all,” Ragali said. “I think when he went to college things might have changed, hanging around with the wrong people, but in high school, he wasn’t like that at all.”
The 23-year-old Hernandez was arrested Wednesday at his mansion in North Attleborough, Mass., and accused of orchestrating the execution-style shooting of his friend, Odin Lloyd, allegedly because Lloyd had talked to the wrong people at a nightclub. He was denied bail at a hearing Thursday in a Massachusetts courtroom, where a prosecutor said a Hummer belonging to Hernandez turned up an ammunition clip matching the caliber of casings found at the scene of Lloyd’s killing.
Hernandez’s lawyer argued his client is not a risk to flee and the case against him is circumstantial.
On June 16, the night before the slaying, a prosecutor said, Hernandez texted two unidentified friends and asked them to hurry to Massachusetts from Connecticut. A few minutes later, he texted Lloyd to tell him he wanted to get together, the prosecutor said. Authorities say the three picked up Lloyd at around 2:30 a.m. June 17, drove him to an industrial park near Hernandez’s home and shot him five times. They have not said who fired the shots.
New Britain State’s Attorney Brian Preleski said Thursday that his office and Bristol police have been assisting investigators in Massachusetts and that Carlos Ortiz, 27, of Bristol, had been charged as a fugitive from justice. He waived extradition to Massachusetts and was being held on $1.5 million bail in Hartford.
Ortiz’s public defender, Alfonzo Sirica, declined to comment about the case.
Massachusetts state police said Thursday night they were seeking another man, Ernest Wallace, in connection with Lloyd’s killing. They issued an alert and wanted poster for Wallace, saying he was considered armed and dangerous, and sought the public’s help in tracking down a silver or gray 2012 Chrysler 300 with Rhode Island license plates he was seen driving.
In Connecticut, Bristol is known to many as the home of ESPN, Otis Elevator and the Hernandez family.
Aaron and his brother each earned honors as the state’s Gatorade high school player of the year, although they played several years apart at Bristol Central. Aaron would often visit his brother at UConn, and at one point verbally committed to follow D.J. and play for UConn himself. But Aaron became too big a star for the state school and signed instead to play at the University of Florida, a national powerhouse where he was an All-American.
Ragali recalled seeing Hernandez again, years after high school, at a Hartford bar. He described him as quieter, with more tattoos. But said he was very nice, asked about his family and took pictures with his girlfriend.
It was after his father’s death that Hernandez began smoking marijuana and hanging out with a rough crowd, Hernandez’s mother, Terri, told USA Today in 2009.
“The shock of losing his dad, there was so much anger,” she said at the time.
Hernandez’s mother works in the office at the local South Side elementary school, and other family members still live in Bristol.
“All I can say is that he will be cleared of all these charges in the end,” she told the Bristol Press outside her home Wednesday. “Just let it play out until the end.”
On Wednesday night, police searched a Bristol home and garage owned by Andres Valderrama, whom WFSB-TV identified as an uncle. A message was left at the home Thursday seeking comment.
The Patriots, who cut Hernandez following his arrest Wednesday, drafted him in 2010 and signed him last summer to five-year contract worth $40 million.
During the draft, one team said it wouldn’t take him under any circumstances, and he was passed over by one club after another before New England picked him in the fourth round. Afterward, Hernandez said he had failed a drug test in college — reportedly for marijuana — and was up front with teams about it.
A Florida man filed a lawsuit last week claiming Hernandez shot him in the face after they argued at a strip club in February.
Hernandez became a father on Nov. 6 and said he intended to change his ways: “Now, another one is looking up to me. I can’t just be young and reckless Aaron no more.”
Hernandez could face life in prison if convicted.
Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith in Fall River, Mass., contributed to this report.