The most compelling true crime stories aren’t just forensic conundrums — they’re mysteries about people. And since the death of former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez in 2017, his story has only gotten more mysterious and multilayered.
Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder in 2015 and then found not guilty two years later of a double murder in a drive-by shooting outside a nightclub. Yet despite two lengthy trials, the question of motive was always elusive. Hernandez’s crimes appeared to have no clear impetus beyond a dangerous mixture of paranoia and toxic masculinity. And the Hernandez saga might have been forgotten by now if the mystery of his identity — more specifically, his sexuality — hadn’t become central to the story right before his death. He was outed as gay on a radio show soon after the 2017 “not guilty” verdict; two days after that, he killed himself in prison, taking his secrets to the grave.
Since then, the story of Hernandez’s downfall has become big business for the true crime industrial complex as the subject of memoirs, books, podcasts, documentaries, and investigative series. Now comes a three-part Netflix doc, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, which premieres Jan. 15.
Killer Inside is supposed to be an “objective” unspooling of the entire Hernandez story as it played out in the media. But it provides surprisingly intimate stories and insight into his relationship to his sexuality, which was completely ignored in other accounts. Killer Inside adds important (and not sensationalist) context to the role his queerness and denial might have played in his now-well-documented life, death, and crimes.
Killer Inside is part of a big wave of bingeable true crime content produced by Netflix. One of the limitations of these documentaries is that it’s hard to provide new information or interpretations when they focus on already famous stories. And, in fact, there are no original interviews with most of the major players in the Hernandez story, like his brother, mother, fiancé, or coaches.
But thanks to the filmmakers’ access to Hernandez’s recorded conversations while in prison, interviews with some of his lovers and teammates, and a willingness to grapple frankly with his sexuality, the episodes offer new insight into the kind of trauma and denial that permeated his life.
Hernandez’s father, Dennis, was originally positioned as a defining figure in his trajectory, credited with instilling the discipline and drive that turned his son into a promising Connecticut high school football prodigy. Killer Inside presents a different angle on Hernandez’s boyhood, showing that his father wasn’t just providing structure but taught him a model of masculinity built on anti-gay prejudice.
Hernandez’s brother, D.J., points out (in clips from a Dr. Oz interview) that the would-be-NFL player had wanted to be a cheerleader — inspired by his cousins — and their father, who felt there was a “feminine way” about Aaron, put a stop to it right away. Dennis SanSoucie, a classmate and football teammate, said he was the kind of dad who “would slap the faggot out of you.”
“Girls didn't hang out with the boys after school, so me and Aaron experimented,” SanSoucie says, adding that the experimentation started in seventh grade and continued until their junior year. SanSoucie is interviewed at length (at some points alongside his own father) and talks about how their relationship was only “a small piece” of Hernandez’s sexual activity with other young men.
“It was like, ‘Did someone catch us? Did someone know?’ If we get caught, our parents are gonna disown us.”
He says they didn’t consider themselves “homos,” like the students who were openly gay, and they kept their relationship behind closed doors because of how unquestioned anti-gay prejudice was at the time. “Yes, we were in a relationship back then, but at the time you don't look at it like that,” SanSoucie explains. “After doing it, it was like, ‘Did someone catch us? Did someone know?’ If we get caught, our parents are gonna disown us.”
The documentary covers all the major benchmarks of Hernandez’s life before the murders. The death of his father in 2006, right before he went off to college, only added to his dissociation from his feelings; SanSoucie remembers that Hernandez was completely unemotional at the funeral. After he was recruited to play for the University of Florida Gators, his football stardom insulated him from the consequences of his violent acting-out, like when he ruptured the eardrum of a bar manager in a fight. It’s especially striking to hear Hernandez himself thinking out loud about that period of his life in recorded prison phone conversations with friends and family; he sounds quite retrospectively self-aware.
In one conversation, he complains to his mother about how she failed to support him after his father’s death, which was when he really started unraveling. “I was the happiest fucking little kid in the world, but you fucked me up. And I just lost my father, and I had to go to college, and I had nobody! What the fuck did you think I was gonna do? Become a perfect angel?” Hernandez gets worked up as he remembers all this and adds, “Oh my god, if I was with you right now I would've probably beat the shit out of you. I don't even know why you bring me to this level.”
In some ways, those conversations provide the most insight into the kind of demons and anger Hernandez was constantly wrestling with. They highlight the dichotomy that has made him such a complicated, divisive figure for the public to figure out: crushing vulnerability right alongside a frightening rage and threat of violence that could erupt at any moment.
Hernandez was drafted to play as a tight end for the Patriots in 2010; in Killer Inside, one of the more compelling insights about that (somewhat rocky) transition into the NFL comes from former Patriots player Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out as gay in 2017. He points out that football is an almost perfect hiding place for many gay men. “My beard was football,” he says. “I relied on all the stereotypes of a football player — a lot of testosterone and the aggressiveness, hitting each other, things you assume middle America wouldn't think of as gay men.”
Playing for the Patriots “was the best possible situation I could have ended up in,” says O’Callaghan, because "there's no distraction. There's just an extreme focus on winning and nothing else really flies there — and for a closeted guy, that's great."
Hernandez excelled on the field but stayed away from building relationships with other Patriots players off the field. (Even in the later conversations in prison included in the documentary, he only talks to former University of Florida teammates.) Killer Inside — like the prosecutors at Hernandez’s murder trials — can’t answer exactly what prompted his crimes after he joined the Patriots, or why they escalated from bar fights to deadly shootings. He was high all the time, he later confessed to a prison officer; his weed dealer, Alexander Bradley, testified during Hernandez’s second trial in 2017 that he was becoming more and more paranoid.
He acted “like a tough guy all the time,” Bradley said in court. “He didn’t like people staring at him because he felt they were trying to test him.” He added that that paranoia caused the first Boston murders, in which Hernandez was charged with shooting shot two men from his car after he felt they had been challenging him at a bar.
The documentary can’t explain the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, who was Hernandez’s fiancé’s sister’s boyfriend. Like the prosecutors, the film relies on surveillance footage and court testimony that showed Hernandez getting angry during an outing at a bar. But no one interviewed can offer a specific reason as to why he got angry, or what prompted Lloyd’s murder, which was the most intentional and planned of the crimes; Lloyd was shot after being taken to an abandoned field.
Through O’Callaghan, the documentary seems to speculatively connect Hernandez’s paranoia to his unwillingness to admit his sexuality. “I can't imagine if I had actually acted on my natural urges to get with other guys. If I'd actually done that, the paranoia that would've been in my mind to make sure that I would cover my tracks,” O’Callaghan explains.
Importantly, we learn that during the second trial, the prosecutors intended to call someone who would testify about Hernandez’s sexuality to give context about why he was angry all the time. His attorney George Leontire says that "as a gay man myself, I argued against this really discredited approach," which could have massively prejudiced the jury against Hernandez. The judge ruled in his favor, and the information never came out at trial.
Killer Inside poignantly chronicles Hernandez’s self-awareness of how much he never revealed about himself.
It’s true that, historically, queer sexualities have been problematically linked with “deviant” behavior and used by the criminal justice system in punitive ways. (For example, the 2004 documentary The Staircase, a foundational component of Netflix’s ongoing true crime boom, is partly about the prosecution’s attempt to use defendant Michael Peterson’s bisexuality as an explanation for his crime.) But Killer Inside sidesteps that kind of reductive logic, exploring Hernandez’s unacknowledged queerness as just one aspect of a complicated life.
“I felt really sad for the guy,” says Leontire, recalling some of their jailhouse conversations after he had been outed to the defense. “Aaron asked me if I felt or believed that someone was born gay; I said I do believe that.” Hernandez says that he had been molested by a male babysitter, and Leontire explains that he “had a belief that his abuse as a child impacted his sexuality; that was one of the things that he held onto as to why he, in his mind, has this ‘aberrant’ behavior.”
Clearly, Hernandez never reconciled himself to his sexuality. In the recorded phone conversations with his mother and his fiancé, Shayanna Jenkins, he gets particularly worked up and complains about the “flamboyant” queer and trans inmates. (He says everyone at the prison calls trans inmates “things” and expresses disgust with them; Jenkins tells him to stop following and be “a leader.”)
Though Hernandez’s sexuality never came out at the trials, a reporter leaked the information in a radio interview not long after his acquittal in 2017. The documentary reminds us that Hernandez killed himself in his jail cell just two days after the information became public knowledge. It’s impossible not to think about what impact it might have had on his state of mind. But as with many such stories, we’ll never know for sure.
Killer Inside does include some nuance that other recent true crime series have lacked. The filmmakers try to flesh out the lives of the murder victims at the center of the trials — especially Odin Lloyd — which are often overlooked in true crime narratives, although the attempt comes off as half-hearted (and somewhat random) in a documentary subtitled The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. And the documentary doesn’t really pin blame for his crimes on one particular thing. Academics interviewed talk about the sports industrial complex, speculating about the pressures student-athletes are under; some of Hernandez’s fellow teammates say that neither football nor head trauma and CTE are at fault for his crimes.
But the documentary’s attempts to speak to the broader cultural currents running through the story pale in comparison to the portrait it paints of Hernandez himself, especially regarding his sexuality. Despite the sensationalist title, the film is strongest when it focuses on Hernandez’s inner conflicts.
Sexuality functions in culture as the metaphor for secrets about identity, and Killer Inside poignantly chronicles Hernandez’s self-awareness of how much he never revealed about himself. At one point he says to his mother: “There’s so many things I would like to talk to you about so you could know me as a person — but I never could tell you, and you’re gonna die without even knowing your son. That’s the craziest thing about it.” ●
The creators of Making a Murderer were not involved with Killer Inside. A previous version of this post mischaracterized the connection between the two series.