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Manti Te'o perpetuated story after discovering girlfriend hoax

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football star Manti Te'o talks to ESPN on Oct. 2, 2012.
January 17, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
After Notre Dame All-American linebacker Manti Te'o discovered the hoax about his online girlfriend, according to The Associated Press, Te'o perpetuated the story about her death.

Last season, the public watched as Notre Dame's star linebacker played through the loss of that girlfriend he met online to leukemia. The death came on the same day as his grandmother.

"Six hours ago, I just found out my grandma passed away, and you take the love of my life," Te'o said in an ESPN interview on Oct. 2.

The love of his life was identified as Lennay Kekua, the woman Te'o called his girlfriend even though he never met her in person. Friends and school officials say the linebacker's grief was real when he made those statements.

But now it's known that the girlfriend was a fake, thanks to reporting from Deadspin.com after a tip. Te'o says on Dec. 6, he received a phone call from his supposedly dead girlfriend telling him she was not in fact dead. But he talked about his girlfriend in a Web interview two days later on Dec. 8 and also in a newspaper interview on Dec. 10.

"I mean, I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I've really tried to go to children's hospitals and see, you know, children," he said on Dec. 8 to WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station.

He never corrected the record and didn't even tell his coach until Dec. 26.

Deadspin.com cites friends and relatives of Roniah Tuiasosopo who say he created the fake Kekua profile. The website reported that photos of Kekua are from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old woman from Torrance, Diane O'Meara. Tuiasosopo allegedly knew the woman from high school. At this point, it appears that this woman is an innocent victim in the hoax.

"They told us that he's been doing the Lennay Kekua fake online profile for several years and that he's caught other people in its trap, but they caught on way earlier than Manti Te'o did," said Tim Burke of Deadspin.com.

Tuiasosopo is now pursuing a gospel singing career. He once played high school football in the Antelope Valley, where his father is now a pastor at the Oasis Christian Church. Tuiasosopo's family was seen leaving their home on Thursday without making a comment.

As Te'o prepares for the NFL draft, the question now is whether he was in on the hoax, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman.

"We looked up the mortuaries and funeral homes in Carson, California. Nobody by that name had been buried there," said Burke. "Why would somebody go to such great lengths to hoax him like this?"

According to ESPN, a teammate says there were suspicions over Kekua's existence within the locker room. As the condolences for Te'o poured in, he "played along" because he enjoyed the attention, the teammate said.

Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel said the case has "left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a na?ve football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion."

But Te'o does have supporters, including Notre Dame.

"This was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax," said Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director.

Now, Nev Schulman, the man behind the MTV show and documentary "Catfish" about Internet dating hoaxes, wants to help. Schulman tweeted, "I know how you feel. It happened 2 me. I want 2 help tell ur story & prevent this from happening to others in the future. Lets talk."

Te'o has not spoken publicly Thursday, and his team says he has no plans to.

The "Catfish" Phenomenon

The hoax is bringing new focus on the phenomenon known as "catfishing," in which people start fake identities online in an effort to hurt other people.

Schulman says he fell for Megan from Michigan only to discover she was really a middle-aged mom named Angela.

"Some people do it as a joke, some people do it as a scam, some people do it for the challenge of it, some people start with the most innocent reasons, and then they can't figure out how to get out of it," said Karen North, a social media expert at USC.

Anna Lam of Los Angeles says it happened to one of her friends.

"My friend did meet someone like that, and that person didn't exist. It was pretty shocking," Lam said.

Is this illegal? In this case, so far, there doesn't appear to be fraud, but investigators are looking to see if any laws were broken.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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