Questions mount after football star's 'dead' girlfriend revealed as hoax
Published Thursday, January 17, 2013 12:52PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, January 17, 2013 9:02PM EST
It was a story repeated on the sports pages of various U.S. publications: Manti Te’o, the star college football player, lost his grandmother and girlfriend in a span of just a few days, but still went out on the field and led his team to victory.
It turns out that only half of that heartbreaking story is true. The Notre Dame player’s grandmother did die last September just before an important game, but his girlfriend didn’t.
She never even existed.
An investigation by sports website Deadspin revealed Wednesday that the girlfriend Te’o spoke of so lovingly to sports journalists, including a Sports Illustrated writer, was a hoax.
Lennay Kekua, who supposedly died of leukemia, appears to be a fabricated character whose Twitter profile bore the photo of another, unassuming girl. Deadspin’s story suggests that one of Te’o’s friends created the fake girlfriend and that Te’o may have been in on it.
In a statement Wednesday, Te’o said he was nothing but a victim of an elaborate scheme.
"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," Te'o said. "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.”
But many were quick to point out that Te’o continued to talk about Kekua and her death in interviews even after he supposedly found out that she wasn’t real.
Notre Dame University said Wednesday that Te’o found out about the hoax on Dec. 6. But The Associated Press reviewed news coverage and found that Te’o talked about Kekua in interviews on Dec. 8 and Dec. 11.
Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, said the school hired investigators to look into Te’o situation.
The investigators "were able to discover online chatter among the perpetrators that was certainly the ultimate proof of this, the joy they were taking," Swarbrick said.
He said the perpetrators of the hoax “didn't limit themselves to Manti in the targets.”
"There are a remarkable number of characters involved. We don't know how many people they represent. There are male and female characters, brothers, cousins, mother, and we don't know if it's two people playing multiple characters or multiple people. But, again, it goes to the sophistication of this, that there are all these sort of independent pieces that reinforce elements of the story all the way through,” he said without offering more details.
But there are growing questions about what Te’o knew and why he didn’t immediately set the record straight when he realized he had been duped.
Deadspin could find no record of Kekua, or the car accident she had reportedly been in before she was diagnosed with leukemia. Te’o said the girl attended Stanford University, but the school has no record of her. There is also no death certificate for a Lennay Kekua.
Some of the newspapers and magazines that published stories about Te’o devastating loss said they were shocked to find out that the doomed romance wasn’t real.
The South Bend Tribune, which published a story in October that included details of how Te’o and Kekua met in 2009, released a statement saying it is “as stunned by these revelations as everyone else."
Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel told Deadspin he noticed some “red flags” when he was interviewing Te’o – he also couldn’t find a record of Kekua – but wrote the story anyway because everyone at Notre Dame took the girlfriend as a given.
Comparisons are now being drawn between Te’o’s bizarre story and the documentary film “Catfish,” in which a young man begins an online relationship with a woman he’d met through Facebook, only to realize that someone else was portraying her.
The maker of the documentary, Nev Schulman, offered his support to Te’o over Twitter, writing: “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. Let’s talk.”
As of Thursday night, Te’o has not responded.
With files from The Associated Press