Author James Patterson on writing a book about the ‘big, complex tragedy’ of Aaron Hernandez

Author James Patterson and former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In his new book, All-American Murder, best-selling author James Patterson explores “a big, complex tragedy” that wouldn’t look out of place in one of his novels: the life and death of Aaron Hernandez. The former New England Patriots’ star had it all — millions of dollars and limitless talent —  but his story ended in a prison cell on April 19, 2017. Hernandez was serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, and had just been acquitted of a separate double murder, when he was found dead in his cell.

After his death, Hernandez was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in numerous ex-NFL players which can cause depression, aggression, and violent mood swings. Patterson’s book was released Monday by Little, Brown, and Company, and a companion 48 Hours special aired on CBS last Saturday night.

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Here’s what Patterson had to say about Hernandez’s life and death, his own writing process, and how it felt to learn Hernandez was a fan of his books:

You’ve said that Aaron Hernandez’s fall from grace is the story of our times, even bigger than O.J. What is it about this case that you think fascinates people?

“Well, part of it is just that fall from grace. It’s just amazing, and when we did the 48 Hours piece, which was on Saturday, I became even more aware of it: Striking looking guy, Hollywood smile and dimples, $40 million contract, McMansion, opportunity or promise to be one of the best professional football players ever. Beautiful fiancee, they’d been together since high school. Baby girl. And for it all to go up in a puff of smoke is amazing. That all caught me up. Also, from my point of view in terms of this story, when I was a teenager, my family moved up to outside of Boston so I followed the Patriots and the Red Sox and the Celtics. So I was into it. My first reaction when his name came up associated with the crime I’m like, ‘Oh my god that can’t be,’ because I loved the idea of him and [Rob] Gronkowski. The fact of two of them playing together which was very powerful and then as the story continued, versus O.J. You know the O.J. story, if it happened in Buffalo where he played his pro ball it wouldn’t have been nearly as big. It would have been a terrible incident and then it would have slackened off, but because of Hollywood and L.A., all of a sudden people got the dream team involved and it became a much bigger story. But the Hernandez story, I mean it’s just so complex, from his days in Connecticut, which the book gets into, and not that much was known about that before the book, down to Florida, where I had a lot of good people to talk to down there at the University of Florida. And then three or four murders that he may or may not have been responsible for. So it’s just a big, complex tragedy.”

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You’re primarily a fiction writer. What drew you to this story and was that shift, from fiction to non-fiction, a challenge?

“I did a non-fiction last year, too, Filthy Rich, which is about Jeffrey Epstein down in Florida, a billionaire who was suspected of having sex with 40 or more underage girls. That story to me is more salacious and spectacular than Harvey Weinstein. I mean it’s just a big, nasty story. So I did that one and then this story just seemed kind of irresistible to me. While I was writing it, the court case in Boston happened, where he was judged not guilty, and then the suicide, which was a huge shock. My lawyer called up, he said, ‘You won’t believe what’s happened,’ I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Aaron Hernandez hung himself in jail.’”

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That seemed to be, well the entire story seemed to be intrinsically linked to CTE.

“Well, that’s certainly a piece of it. My own inclination, having spoken to so many people about it, from my point of view there were definitely psychopathic tendencies that he had. I mean there are a number of people who have had brain damage or CTE, and we’re not aware of any that had gone on murder sprees. So this is a little different. Pretty substantial drug use, PCP, coke, a lot of weed, and then of course CTE. As the story moved on, as he got older, CTE seemed to be a bigger factor.”

Was there anything you learned in the course of researching the facts of his life that surprised you or changed the way you looked at the case?

“Well I think part of it was just how impressive he was on so many levels, and not just the football. I think I also got a better appreciation for how incredibly good of a football player he was. [Florida football coach] Urban Meyer said, and he told this to Bill Belichick when the Patriots contacted him, he said he felt that Hernandez was the best player he’d ever had, and he’s had some great players in Florida. But he also said you have to stay on top of him. And that gets back to when Hernandez was in Connecticut, when he was 16 years old, his father went in for a hernia operation and died at a very young age. His father had been a big star at the University of Connecticut, he was very well known and loved in the town that they lived in. He sort of watched over and kept a lid on Aaron, we all think, and when that supervision was gone Aaron started hanging out with a lot of people that I don’t think his father would have let him hang out with, and I think the drug use probably started then. He certainly was seeing some violence and that continued, to some extent, when he was at the University of Florida. But the big, bad influence seems to have been from his hometown in Connecticut.”

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Obviously the drug use didn’t stop when he reached the NFL.

“No, I don’t think it stopped.”

Do you think that’s part of what fascinates people about the story, that contrast between the squeaky clean ‘Patriot Way’ image and what eventually happened to Aaron?

“Well, one of the problems that I had with this is I couldn’t get the NFL or the Patriots to talk to me, as much as I tried. And I sort of understand that, because of all the lawsuits from Aaron Hernandez’s family, lawsuits from some of the victims’ families, and also obviously the CTE epidemic.”

What was your writing process like for this book, and how long did it take?

“It moved pretty quickly, I think it finished six or seven months from when I started, I’m not exactly sure. I was writing while we were gathering research. We wanted to get the book out as quickly as we could, figuring that there would be other books. I think the fact that we announced this book probably headed off some of the books.”

Were you able to talk to [Aaron Hernandez’s fiancee]?

“The family, for obvious reasons, didn’t want to talk to us. We talked to a lot of people in Connecticut but we couldn’t get to the family. And then there were a lot of other people who said they’d talk to us but they wanted money. That also happened with 48 Hours, but 48 Hours never pays for their interviews. But we had plenty. The only time we would have considered it is if we felt somebody really had something to say. We considered the possibility of paying one or two of the guys who were in the car with him when Odin Lloyd was murdered, but we never quite got to that point. Actually, with Carlos Ortiz, we went up to the prison. He had agreed to talk, and then at the last minute, we were all there, and he sent word to us that he couldn’t talk. He was afraid and he was shaking and we never got to the bottom of that but he wound up not giving us an interview. Had he come out and said, ‘Here’s exactly what happened’, that would have been a great interview to have. But that murder goes to the state of, the chaos of [Hernandez’s] mind. Whether it’s CTE, drugs, or both, a combination, he murders a friend of his less than a mile from his house, which is insane. For no reason. He had planned all night to be with the guy. So a mile from his house, then he leaves four shells right next to the body, leaves a cell phone in Odin Lloyd’s pocket that had his number and recent numbers to him on it. Leaves car keys in Odin’s pocket that were for a rental car that he rented for him. Leaving the area, he shot out the side, leaving a bullet in the car, a shell. Something was going on there. It certainly was not a professional hit man or any sort of murder that you would expect to get away with. So he was either very confused or high or both.”

One of the things that’s always said is, “He threw it all away. He had it all and he threw it all away.” Do you think that was something he was conscious of in the moment?

“I don’t know. I don’t think he was as conscious as we are looking at it. I mean, I talked to [Bristol County] Sheriff [Thomas] Hodgson, who was the warden in the prison he was held in previous to the trial and during the trial. He talked to Aaron a lot, I think he became the next father figure to Aaron. He said that Aaron almost never talked about what he had lost, never really talked about his fiancee and daughter. He just wasn’t going to deal with that apparently.”

Did [Sheriff Hodgson] shed any light on why he eventually committed suicide?

“No, I don’t think anybody knows for sure. I think one of the interesting aspects of the suicide was the Bible message to John (‘John 3:16’) that he put on his forehead. I think it’s possible that in his confused state he really believed that if you believed in Jesus, and he claimed to believe in Jesus, that you would be saved. So I think that may have been a piece of the chaos of his mind. And then he also knew that if he died while there was an appeal on his case he would then be not guilty in the eyes of Massachusetts and it might free up money for his fiancee and his baby.”

Hernandez was a fan of your Alex Cross books. How did you feel when you heard that?

“Shocked. At one of the jails, he was in his cell 22 and a half hours a day, so he read a lot. The library there, they suggested good authors, and his favorite authors were one, James Patterson, two, John Grisham and three, Michael Connelly. So that was eerie. Spooky.”

By the end, was he still denying that he was involved?

“Yea, I don’t think he ever admitted it. He kept talking about that he was going to resume his career, that he’d be back playing football again.”

That seems to be even more of a sign of not a well-functioning mind.

“No, it clearly wasn’t a well-functioning mind. There’s a lot of anger there. Considering that he was in his cell as much as he was, he really got into a lot of trouble in prison.”