Police in Florida quietly cleared former NFL star Aaron Hernandez of involvement in a 2007 double shooting in which one witness initially described a shooter matching the description of the then-17-year-old Hernandez, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The 2007 shooting was one of nearly half a dozen shooting incidents connected to Hernandez, a former New England Patriots tight end who killed himself in his prison cell on Wednesday. Hernandez, 27, had been convicted of - and was serving a life prison term for - the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd; he had been charged with but was later acquitted of the 2012 murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in Boston; and he faced a civil lawsuit from his former friend Alexander Bradley, who accused Hernandez of shooting him in the face.
After Lloyd was murdered in Massachusetts in 2013, authorities and the media began searching Hernandez's past, prompting ESPN's Outside the Lines to uncover a police report that showed that at least one witness to the nonfatal shooting of Corey Smith and Justin Glass in Gainesville had described a shooter who matched Hernandez's description.
Discovery of the 2007 incident, for which Hernandez was questioned but never named a suspect, raised the possibility that the one-time Pro Bowl standout had been the gunman in a violent shooting before ever playing a down of college football at the University of Florida.
At the time, Gainesville police said that Hernandez was not a suspect, but in August 2013 they reopened an investigation into the 2007 shooting. The detective assigned to reinvestigate the shooting concluded last month that Hernandez was not the triggerman.
"In August 2013, after Hernandez's arrest up north, even though he was never a suspect in our investigation . . . we took a deep official dive into the case to be sure of that," Officer Ben Tobias, a spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said Wednesday. "That case was closed without suspect ID or arrest. Hernandez was never a suspect."
The shooting occurred at about 2:20 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2007, as Glass, Smith and a third man named Randall Cason drove home after a night out at The Venue, which at the time was a popular nightclub near the University of Florida. Earlier in the night, Cason had gotten into an altercation with several University of Florida football players, including Reggie Nelson, twin brothers Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, and Hernandez. According to police interview notes, one of the players might have attempted to steal a gold chain from Cason's neck as retaliation for Cason's brother stealing a chain from one of the Pouncey brothers at the same nightclub the weekend prior.
In his statement the night of the shooting, Cason said that his group met up with the football players after the club closed and talked out their dispute, describing the resolution as "all smiles." But as Cason, Smith and Glass drove away in a Ford Crown Victoria, two men approached their vehicle and one of those men opened fire. Smith was struck in the back of the head, while Glass was shot in his right arm. Both men survived.
The shooter, Cason said at the time, matched the description of Hernandez and he identified the other man as Nelson.
But multiple other witnesses described a shooter who did not look like Hernandez, saying it was a black male, possibly with cornrows and wearing a green shirt. When Cason was interviewed a second time by detectives, he rescinded his identifications of Nelson and Hernandez as the two men involved in the shooting.
In a supplemental report filed on March 2, 2017, Detective Tom Mullins wrote that when he re-interviewed Cason for the second investigation the man admitted that he never saw Nelson or Hernandez at the scene of the shooting.
"Regarding the actual shooting there is no evidence that indicates Aaron Hernandez participated or was involved in any way with the shooting," Mullins wrote. "Witnesses clearly indicated that the suspect was a black male with dreadlock style hair. Randall Cason, the only person to mention seeing Aaron Hernandez at the time of the shooting, recanted his statement and admitted that he never actually saw the shooter and just made an assumption when he told officers that Hernandez was the shooter because they had words earlier at the club."
State Attorney William P. Cervone, who oversees prosecutions in Gainesville, said that police never brought him a suspect in the case and that the available evidence does not implicate Hernandez.
"The evidence as developed indicates he was not the shooter," Cervone said, noting that police "never really developed any probable cause to bring charges against anybody. Whether there is any realistic chance that anyone will be identified as the shooter and brought to justice is a real question mark."