By Scott Malone
ATTLEBORO, Massachusetts (Reuters) - National Football League player Aaron Hernandez was charged with the execution-style murder of a friend and fired by the New England Patriots on Wednesday, a rapid fall for the rising star who was signed to a $41 million contract with one of the league's top teams.
The charges capped a day of furious developments in which Hernandez, 23, was removed from his home in handcuffs and paraded into court to face accusations that he gunned down semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd. Lloyd's body was found on June 17 in an industrial park near Hernandez's house.
Michael Fee, a lawyer for Hernandez, entered a plea of not guilty and called the prosecution's case circumstantial. As prosecutor Bill McCauley described the killing, Hernandez stood impassively in court, handcuffed and still in the white T-shirt he was wearing when he was arrested.
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.
In addition to murder, the criminal counts against Hernandez included five weapons charges related to the possession of unlicensed firearms. He was ordered held without bail.
McCauley told the court that Hernandez had soured on Lloyd a few nights before the killing after they had been at a Boston night club where Lloyd spoke to people with whom Hernandez said he "had trouble."
Hernandez, accompanied by two friends, drove to Lloyd's home in Boston the night of the killing and picked him up in a rented silver Nissan Altima, McCauley said. As they drove back to North Attleborough, where Hernandez lived, they stopped at a gas station where Hernandez bought fuel, gum and rolling papers for cigarettes.
In a minute-by-minute reconstruction developed from cell phone records and security video, including a 14-camera system Hernandez had at his house, prosecutors detailed what they said was an early morning killing.
McCauley said that shortly before his death, Lloyd had sent text messages to his sister, first asking if she had seen the people with whom he had gone out and later following up with, "NFL." His final message read, "Just so you know," McCauley said.
The four men drove to an industrial park near Hernandez's home, where he shot Lloyd five times, at least once while Lloyd was waving his arm trying to protect himself and twice standing over Lloyd while he lay on the ground, McCauley said. The bullets went straight through Lloyd's body.
"He orchestrated the execution. And that was just what it was," McCauley told the court.
Security video from Hernandez's home showed him returning after the killing, carrying a weapon that he brought to the basement of the house, McCauley said.
Investigators have not recovered that weapon, a 45-caliber handgun they believe Hernandez used on the attack.
Two women from Hernandez' family left the courtroom in tears while prosecutors were describing the shooting.
McCauley said Hernandez later tried to interfere with the investigation by not answering his door when police first arrived at his home and telling his sister not to speak with authorities.
The case has attracted intense interest in Boston, with media camped out around the spacious home where Hernandez has lived for the past week with his fiancée and their eight-month-old child. The judge agreed to issue an order that had been requested by Hernandez's attorney to prevent lawyers on either side from discussing the substance of the case with the media.
"Aaron is fine," Fee told reporters as he left the court. Hernandez was driven away in a white police van.
CUT FROM TEAM
The New England Patriots said in a statement soon after the arrest that Hernandez had been cut from the team.
"At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do," it said.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement that Hernandez's arrest was "deeply troubling" and he "will have his day in court."
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. In April, footwear and apparel company Puma announced a two-year endorsement deal with him. On Wednesday, Puma spokeswoman Katie Sheptyck declined to comment.
Hernandez played at the University of Florida before being drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Toni Reinhold)