At the center of the sensational Aaron Hernandez trials – amidst the seemingly endless outrageous twists, turns and testimonies – there has always been one woman: Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, his high school sweetheart, fiancé and mother of his only child.
Soft spoken and impeccably turned out, the pretty 27-year-old unfailingly supported the ex-NFL superstar, for reasons that confounded many following the case – and to the detriment of almost all else.
She sacrificed her relationship with her younger sister, whose boyfriend was the man Hernandez killed in 2013. Shayanna took Hernandez’s last name, despite the fact they never married. She gave vague and nearly laughable testimony, as prosecutors threatened to charge her for perjury.
And, as he faced a second murder conviction last week, she continued to support him with her presence in court, even bringing along their four-year-old daughter, Avielle. Hernandez blew the child kisses and – following the not guilty verdict – mouthed ‘I love you’ to Shayanna.
Now, following the ex-NFL star’s suicide, Shayanna has lost even that last tenuous link with the man serving a lifetime prison sentence. The implementation of an ancient and rarely-used law could leave Hernandez’s fortune to her daughter, but it’s very possible that there isn’t much left. His $40million contract extension with the Patriots was voided years ago. His millions were spent on legal fees. His $1.5million house in the Boston suburbs is on the market, but everything is currently in limbo; Shayanna and Avielle left the mansion in 2015 and now reside in Rhode Island.
It’s a sad end to a relationship that, initially, had the ring of local kids done good. Just as Hernandez rose to hero status only to fall spectacularly, Shayanna’s life and relationships – which once held such promise – now lie in tatters. Everything imploded in a whirlwind of violence, lies and betrayal.
There was no response at the town house on the Louisquisset Golf Course in North Providence, Rhode Island, where Shayanna now lives with her four-year-old daughter.
She rented the 32-year-old two-bed, two-bath condo overlooking the third fairway of the nine-hole course soon after her fiancé was found guilty of Odin Lloyd’s murder. It is listed in Hernandez’s name in public records.
Similar homes on the course rent for around $1,400.
She and her younger sister, Shaneah, had known the Hernandez family since elementary school in Bristol, Connecticut; their families lived around the corner from each other in the town where Hernandez’s father worked as a custodian and Shayanna and her sister were raised by their single mother. Shayanna, a talented track star herself, shared notes and flirtations with Hernandez beginning in middle school; they continued their off-and-on romance as his profile began to rise in basketball and football – and with it, his popularity with other women.
Shayanna told jurors in Hernandez’s 2015 murder trial that the couple hit a rough patch in high school.
‘He was the star,’ she said. ‘There were a lot of girls trying to get his attention. We had some issues we had to work through throughout high school.’
Still, they maintained contact when he was recruited by the University of Florida and she attended community college back home in Connecticut. When he returned to New England to play for the Patriots – signing for $40million – Shayanna moved in with him in Massachusetts. They shared a townhouse and then a dream $1.5million mansion – and in 2012 found out they would become parents. Hernandez proposed in October 2012, on the same day as Shayanna’s baby shower, and they planned to marry in 2014.
Their relationship, however, had been through more than just a rough patch in high school. Shayanna had discovered photos of other women on Hernandez’ phone; when they were living in Hermosa Beach, California, while the NFL star was recovering from an injury, she also called 911 when they got into a fight and Hernandez smashed his fist through a window. It wasn’t the only time police were called to the rented residence; neighbors had also reported noise and domestic disturbances. Despite the tumult, it was also in Hermosa Beach that the couple each got parts of the same quote tattooed on them (though Shayanna would claim in court that she could not remember the words tattooed on her own body.)
Other testimony given by Shayanna in court – during both the Lloyd murder trial and Hernandez’s second trial for double murder two years later – painted a grim picture of their domestic life.
‘I made a decision that if I was going to move back in with Aaron, I was going to have to kind of compromise on his behavior and that included infidelity and everything that came along with it,’ she said of the NFL star’s cheating.
She gave birth to Avielle on November 6, 2012 – and the NFL star swore that he would tame his wild ways after becoming a father.
Just days after Avielle’s arrival, he called the birth ‘life-changing’ and referred to his daughter as ‘the best birthday gift you could have.’
He told NESN: ‘Every time I come [from] the stadium, I can’t wait to go see her, and she’s a cutie. And basically I can’t wait to go back and look at my daughter.
‘One thing I know is that it definitely changed my life. I’m going to look at things differently, and I may be the young and wild. But I’m not.’
He added: ‘I’m engaged now, and I have a baby. So, it’s just gonna make me think of life a lot differently and doing things the right way.
‘Now, another one is looking up to me. I can’t just be young and reckless Aaron no more. I’m gonna try to do the right things, become a good father and [ensure Avielle] be raised like I was raised.’
Smiling, he said: ‘I honestly couldn’t ask for my life to be better at this point.’
Sadly for Shayanna, those words were empty promises. Aaron continued his partying lifestyle of drugs and women, maintaining a separate apartment – and the violence in which he was involved escalated. She said she found a gun in the kitchen drunk drawer just a few months after Avielle’s birth; she said she gave her fiancé a ‘stern look’ because she didn’t tolerate guns and wanted it out of the house.
But she later told the court, when asked whether she ever put her foot down: ‘Honestly, he’s a grown man. I can’t tell a grown man what to do – that’s decisions that he has to make. I accepted the fact that he would grow up and mature within time.’
When it came to prying into her fiance’s life, however – even if it meant asking him about some of the violent crimes he allegedly committed, such as shooting a friend in the face – she claimed she let him operate freely and rarely pressed him.
‘I learned to keep my mouth shut in certain situations,’ she said. ‘I played my role – meaning I cleaned and I did everything else. There was no reason for me to ask any questions.’
She also said in court evidence: ‘I pick and choose my battles. There are some things worth arguing about and some things that are not … I had other things to worry about.’
Throughout most of her tumultuous relationship with Hernandez, however, she had one constant support: her sister, Shaneah. She helped Shaneah get a job at a Comfort Suites because she had worked there, and the women – who had once shared an apartment – often spent time together. The sisters, in fact, even made the ill-fated introduction between Hernandez and Odin Lloyd.
Shaneah was dating the semi-professional football player, and the couples would sometimes go out together. The men first met in August 2012, when Hernandez got a skybox for Shaneah’s birthday for a Patriots game at Gillette Stadium. After that, Shaneah would stay with her sister and Hernandez when she went to visit Lloyd, who also lived in Massachusetts. The women would often hang out upstairs, go shopping or get their nails done while the two male athletes would retire to Hernandez’s basement ‘man cave’ and smoke marijuana. The couples would sometimes party in clubs together; it was at a club that Lloyd allegedly made the fatal mistake of talking to the wrong people and angering Hernandez.
Shaneah graduated from college in May 2013 and planned to move to Boston with Lloyd to get a law degree from the New England School of Law. But the following month, her boyfriend was dead – and within hours of the killing, police wanted to question Hernandez. Shayanna drove her fiancé to the police station with their daughter in the back of the car; after dropping him off, he told her to go meet two of his acquaintances – who would also be charged in the murder – to give them money in the middle of the night. She drove to an ATM, withdrew $500, and then met Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz to hand over the cash, with her infant daughter still in the car. (Wallace was later acquitted and Ortiz pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact).
Despite all of this strange and suspicious behaviour surrounding the night of the murder, however, Shayanna says she only once queried her fiancé what was going on, directly asking whether he had murdered Lloyd. He said no, and that was apparently enough for her.
And it was at the mansion Shayanna shared with Hernandez that Shaneah initially sought refuge. Her first phone call, following news of his death, was to her mother; her second was to her older sister. Shaneah drove with an uncle to the NFL star’s home and was comforted by a long embrace from Shayanna – which was captured on video and later played in court. Soon, however, Shayanna received phone calls from Hernandez; he instructed her to go retrieve a box from the basement and dispose of it. He didn’t tell her what was in it, she claims, and she didn’t carefully look. Instead, she covered the box with baby clothes, put it in a bag and borrowed her sister’s car, ostensibly to get baby supplies and money to pay the cleaning lady.
Shaneah testified she saw her sister carry a garbage bag to the basement; Shayanna was seen on her own home surveillance cameras carrying a box from her basement and borrowing her sister’s car to take it away.
Shayanna testified that she drove around for a while looking for a place to dispose of the box, eventually finding a dumpster – but she could not remember where that dumpster was. Prosecutors wanted her testimony to convince jurors that the box contained the murder weapon, which has never been found.
Shaneah – presumably agreeing with the prosecution’s version of events – sobbed during her sister’s testimony and left the court for a time. Shayanna herself brushed away tears when video footage was played for the court of her hugging Shaneah following Lloyd’s murder.
Shayanna attended just one day of her sister’s testimony and the sisters avoided eye contact.
Soon after she took the stand, the prosecutor asked if she saw her sister in the courtroom. Shaneah at first said no, until Shayanna craned her neck to make sure she was seen. Hernandez had been in the way.
Despite the rift with her sister, however – especially in the wake of such emotional turmoil and trying times – Shayanna remained steadfast in her support of Hernandez. Even after his conviction, as his legal team prepared for a second murder trial this month in the shooting of two men-allegedly in retaliation for a drink being spilled over Hernandez – Shayanna proudly continued using his last name (the two never married.) She continued attending his court dates and testified again in Hernandez’s trial this year for the fatal shooting of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in July 2012.
In testimony that, again, was remarkably vague, Shayanna admitted receiving a 17-second phone call from her fiancé just minutes after the killings – but said she could not remember what was said in the conversation.
‘My phone was [on] 24 hours,’ she said. ‘If he wanted to call at 4 o’clock in the morning, he could.’
Despite her unwavering loyalty to the father of her child, however, there will be no more phone calls; she has yet to comment on his suicide. It remains to be seen what legal avenues Hernandez’s lawyers – or her own – will pursue, and what the future holds for the woman who stood, against all odds, by the side of a fallen hero.