BOSTON — Family, not football, dominated Aaron Hernandez's final hours as a lifer in prison.
As the hour of his death approached, the former NFL star chatted on the phone with his longtime fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez. Authorities say the pair stayed on the phone until the 8 p.m. lockdown at the maximum-security prison where he was serving a life sentence for murder.
Alone in his cell, the ex-New England Patriots tight end scribbled three notes. He laid them carefully next to a Bible.
Then he turned his bedsheet into a noose and hanged himself.
Those cryptic details emerged Thursday as authorities ruled Hernandez's death a suicide and turned his body over to a funeral home so his family could lay him to rest.
Investigators wouldn't say what Hernandez's handwritten notes said. But they said they were satisfied he died at his own hand, and they said his brain would be donated to sports concussion researchers, ending a brief public dispute over its custody.
Authorities said the medical examiner had ruled Hernandez's cause of death was asphyxia by hanging and investigators had found the notes and Bible in Hernandez's cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley. Authorities previously said Hernandez had not left a suicide note and he hadn't been on suicide watch.
"There were no signs of a struggle, and investigators determined that Mr. Hernandez was alone at the time of the hanging," the Worcester County district attorney's office said in a statement.
Hernandez had been locked into his cell at about 8 p.m. Wednesday, and no one entered the cell until a guard saw him just after 3 a.m. and forced his way in because cardboard had been jammed into the door track to impede entry, authorities said. Hernandez was found hanging from a bedsheet and was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour later.
Earlier Thursday, Hernandez's lawyer complained that state officials had turned over the 27-year-old's body but not his brain.
Attorney Jose Baez said the family had arranged for researchers at Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center to take custody of the brain. The center studies a progressive degenerative brain disease found in some athletes who have experienced repetitive brain trauma.
Hernandez's body is at a Boston-area funeral home, but services for the Bristol, Connecticut, native likely will be held elsewhere.
Baez said he retained Dr. Michael Baden, a former chief medical examiner for New York City, to perform an independent autopsy.
Baden, who didn't immediately comment, has performed autopsies in several high-profile cases, including the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Baez declined to say whether he or the family believed brain damage from Hernandez's playing days led him to kill himself.
"We're not suggesting anything," he said. "You go where the evidence takes you. We need to examine every aspect of this case."
Hernandez was diagnosed with only one concussion during his time with the Patriots, according to the injury reports teams file each week. He missed parts of practice during the week before the AFC championship following the 2011 season but played in the game, catching seven passes and running the ball three times in the Patriots' 23-20 victory over Baltimore.
CTE has been linked to concussions and repeated blows to the head in athletes, members of the military and others who have experienced repeated head trauma. It can only be diagnosed posthumously. The Boston University CTE Center is one of the leading research efforts to diagnose and understand the disease, which can result in violent mood swings, memory loss and other cognitive difficulties.