In Bristol, Hernandez Arrest Brings Sadness, Disappointment

The Hartford Courant

Residents reacted to hometown hero Aaron Hernandez's arrest on murder charges with sadness and disappointment Wednesday.

George Torres, 36, said he's saddened by the news. A Bristol resident and barber at Boss House Cutz & Styles on West Street, Torres said many in town have been talking about the case.

"A lot of people know him here, a lot of my clients know him. They're in shock," Torres said.

Hernandez was a star at Bristol Central High School before attending the University of Florida. He was released Wednesday by the New England Patriots after his arrest. He is charged with murder in relation to the June 17 shooting death of the boyfriend of his girlfriend's sister.

Students from area schools and colleges come to Torres for haircuts, he said, including football players from Bristol Central.

"I cut the whole football team; they all come together and they all talk about him," Torres said. After Hernandez signed with the Patriots, "They were saying, 'Wow, a guy from Bristol made it.'"

"Not too many Puerto Ricans make it to the NFL, he's one of the few," Torres said. "As a Puerto Rican, I'm disappointed."

Hernandez signed a $40 million, five-year contract extension with the Patriots in August 2012. Torres, who grew up playing football himself and saw friends struggle to overcome racial prejudice in their quest to play professional football, said Hernandez should have used his wealth and influence to set an example for young players, instead of continuing to frequent strip clubs and associate with criminals.

"He made it, he did, come on man, give to the community, help your race out," Torres said. He listed several local services organizations that need help, and gestured up the street to a sign announcing the future home of the Bristol Boys and Girls Club.

"Why didn't he go to the Boys and Girls Club and help the kids?" Torres said. "Just a person who made it from this type of environment, to be successful. … Get yourself involved in the community, do things positive, say, 'I made it, you can make it too.'"

Torres acknowledged that Hernandez is still a young man, "but once you make it to a certain status people are going to try to bring you down. You're under scrutiny. … You've got to live your life right."

"He had a chance to do more positive things and he just blew an opportunity," Torres said. "If you make it out of here, you need to do things different, change your life."

At another Bristol barbershop, several people who had gathered to watch Hernandez's arraignment expressed shock and sadness as the prosecutor detailed the case against him. The group declined to give their names, saying they are too close to Hernandez's family and know many of his acquaintances. But several said they are surprised and disappointed and that the state's evidence appears to be damning.

Another Bristol resident who declined to give his name said he went to school with Hernandez and was in the same gym class with him.

"Some people change, some people don't," he said. "It's a shame; it's a waste of talent."

James Stamatopoulos, owner of LJ's Pizza on Federal Hill, called Wednesday "A sad day for Bristol and a sad day for the Hernandez family."

Before he signed with the Patriots, Hernandez showed up at the shop, Stamatopoulos recalled.

"He picked up a couple pizzas. I didn't recognize him, but he had a credit card that said Aaron Hernandez and then I knew. I didn't say anything – I'm not for bothering celebrities."

Stamatopoulos recalled going to a local bar with a friend to celebrate Hernandez signing with the Patriots.

"Brent raised a toast 'to Bristol's latest millionaire,' and we were all proud and wanted good for him," he said. "Now, I hope he didn't do it, I hope he's acquitted, but …."

A group of four 14- and 15-year-old boys walking on Queen Street in the area where Hernandez's girlfriend once lived said Hernandez still has a reputation at Bristol Central.

"He was popular," one teen said. While Hernandez's name does not come up often at the school these days, "Everybody's talking about him now," he added. "He's blowing up on Twitter."

Another teen said he was surprised at the details of the case against Hernandez, including surveillance video showing him returning to his home carrying a gun.

"I don't know why he would do it in front of his house when he knows he got cameras," the teen said. "It just doesn't make sense to me."

One thing the group agreed on was that regardless of the outcome of the case against him, it's unlikely Hernandez will return to professional football.

"His career's probably over," one teen said.

Ellen Zoppo, who has known members of the Hernandez family for years, said the impact on local people has been tough.

"Bristol may be a city by most people's standards, but there are small town connections everywhere," she said. "The various members of the extended Hernandez family I have been acquainted with over the years are invested in Bristol, and have volunteered and contributed in so many aspects of the community.

"I think one of the reasons that people are struggling so much with this is that the pieces just don't fit," Zoppo added. "The combination of natural talent, family support, and community support does not point to this type of tragedy. It's just hard to comprehend, and even harder to explain to kids."

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