Sports website Deadspin on Wednesday published a massive expose reporting that the tragic, inspirational story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o's dead girlfriend was actually an elaborate hoax.
Not only did Te’o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, not die — according to Deadspin, she didn’t exist at all.
Described as one of the “defining story lines” of the 2012 college football season, Sports Illustrated and other outlets reported that the Heisman Trophy finalist learned of his grandmother’s death, and then the death of his girlfriend following her battle with leukemia, within a 24-hour span in September. Notre Dame went on to beat Michigan State 20-3 just days later, with Te’o saying Kekua’s death had inspired him to play better.
“That feeling of loss,” Te’o told CBS News in an interview aired Jan. 7. “Every letter she said remember, be humble, be gracious and always remember that I love you.”
The CBS News report featured a photo purported to be Kekua, and featured a direct quote attributed to her: “Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll stay there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play.”
But Deadspin reported it could find no record of Kekua whatsoever, and that her online persona was apparently created by 22-year-old Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, active in his father’s church in California, and an apparent acquaintance of Te’o's:
We spoke with friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who asserted that Ronaiah was the man behind Lennay. He created Lennay in 2008, one source said, and Te’o wasn’t the first person to have an online “relationship” with her. One mark—who had been “introduced” to Lennay by Tuiasosopo—lasted about a month before family members grew suspicious that Lennay could never be found on the telephone, and that wherever one expected Lennay to be, Ronaiah was there instead. Two sources discounted Ronaiah’s stunt as a prank that only metastasized because of Te’o's rise to national celebrity this past season.
Following publication of Deadspin’s story, Notre Dame released a statement saying Te’o had been the victim of the hoax.
“On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators,” the statement said.
At no point from Dec. 26 to the BCS National Championship between Notre Dame and Alabama on Jan. 7 did the university make public any reservations about Te’o's story, which was repeated in many media reports leading up to the game. Notre Dame’s statement following the Deadspin report Wednesday afternoon is the first acknowledgement from the university in regards to controversy surrounding Te’o's girlfriend.
In a statement Wednesday evening, Te’o said it was “incredibly embarrassing” and “painful and humiliating” to be the victim of “someone’s sick joke”:
“This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.”
But Deadspin’s report suggests Te’o was hardly a victim, and spoke to sources attesting to Te’o and Tuiasosopo’s closeness. One even said they were “80 percent sure” Te’o was “in on it”:
Te’o and Tuiasosopo definitely know each other. In May 2012, Te’o was retweeting Tuiasosopo, who had mentioned going to Hawaii. Wrote Te’o, “sole”—”bro,” in Samoan—”u gotta come down.” In June, Te’o wished Tuiasosopo a happy birthday. How they know each other isn’t clear. We spoke to a woman we’ll call Frieda, who had suggested on Twitter back in December that there was something fishy about Lennay Kekua. She was Facebook friends with Titus Tuiasosopo, so we asked her if she knew anything about Ronaiah.
“Manti and Ronaiah are family,” she said, “or at least family friends.” She told us that the Tuiasosopos had been on-field guests (of Te’o or someone else, she didn’t know) for the Nov. 24 Notre Dame-USC game in Los Angeles. USC was unable to confirm this, but a tweet from Tuiasosopo’s since-deleted account suggests he and Te’o did see each other on that West Coast trip. “Great night with my bro @MTeo_5! #Heisman #574L,” Ronaiah tweeted on Nov. 23, the night before the game.
A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was “80 percent sure” that Manti Te’o was “in on it,” and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind. According to the friend, there were numerous photos of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and Te’o together on Tuiasosopo’s now-deleted Instagram account.
Te’o is a devout Mormon who has spoken openly about prayer and whose decision to attend the famously Catholic Notre Dame came as a surprise to many.
He recounted learning of Kekua’s death in an interview with ESPN.
“Her older brother called me and he was just crying and crying and crying,” Te’o said. “And that’s when — I kind of knew but I was still in denial, you know, I was like ‘don’t tell me you’re crying because it’s just — what I’m thinking. And that’s when he just said, she’s gone.”
This post has been updated.
TheBlaze’s Christopher Santarelli contributed to this report.