By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) – Aaron Hernandez, a 23-year-old rising football star with the New England Patriots, was charged with murder and fired by the team on Wednesday, another blot on the National Football League’s tightly protected image.
Hernandez was charged in a Massachusetts court with one count of murder and five weapons violations in the shooting death of a 27-year-old man. Michael Fee, a lawyer for the New England Patriots tight end, entered a plea of not guilty.
Hernandez had been questioned by investigators and his house searched since the body of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player for the Boston Bandits, was discovered on June 17 in an industrial park less than a mile from Hernandez’s house.
In court, prosecutors said that Lloyd was shot five times and that two passed through his body while he lay on the ground.
Shortly before his death, Lloyd sent his last two text messages to his sister. One read ” NFL” and the last read, “just so you know,” prosecutors said.
The charges were a setback for the NFL. Over the years, despite efforts to protect itself from controversy, the league has been dragged into a string of scandals by players stretching from O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in 1995 to more recent cases involving dog fighting, injury bounties, spying and gambling.
Wearing a white T-shirt and orange shorts, Hernandez was escorted out of his mansion in North Attleborough, Massachusetts and placed in the back of a police cruiser on Wednesday morning, according to video aired by WBZ, a CBS affiliate.
He made his initial court appearance later in the day.
A police officer familiar with the investigation said late last week that authorities had issued an arrest warrant for Hernandez on charges of obstruction of justice. The allegations were that Hernandez destroyed his cellphone and video surveillance system and had his home professionally cleaned the day Lloyd’s body was found.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement that Hernandez’s arrest was “deeply troubling” and he “will have his day in court.”
The New England Patriots said in a statement soon after the arrest that Hernandez had been cut from the team.
“We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do,” the statement said.
In a separate case, Hernandez has been sued by a Connecticut man, Alexander Bradley, who said Hernandez shot him in the face after the two left a Miami strip club in February, causing him to lose an eye. A Florida police official said last week that law enforcement had investigated the shooting, but abandoned the case after Bradley refused to cooperate.
Hernandez had emerged as a potent weapon in one of the best tight-end tandems in the NFL, earning him a $4 million-per-year contract.
All-Pro quarterback Tom Brady frequently used Hernandez and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski to slice through opponent defenses – one reason the Patriots have been perennial favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
In 2011, Hernandez and Gronkowski combined for more than 2,000 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns.
Gronkowski is better known, but Hernandez has put up big numbers in big games.
He caught a team-high nine passes in the AFC Championship game in January, Hernandez’s last appearance on the field, when the Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens, the eventual Super Bowl champions.
In April, footwear and apparel company Puma announced a two-year endorsement deal with Hernandez. Katie Sheptyck, a Puma spokeswoman, declined to comment on Hernandez on Wednesday.
He played at the University of Florida before being drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft. He slipped in the draft because some teams had concerns about his off-field activities.
The Boston Globe, quoting a NFL scout it did not identify, said one team’s pre-draft file on Hernandez indicated he might be prone to flashes of temper.
In a surprise move on June 11, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick signed Tim Tebow, a quarterback whom he has not ruled out using as a tight end. Tebow spent much of the last season on the bench of a Patriots conference rival, the New York Jets.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Grant McCool)