The supposed architect of the Manti Te’o dead girlfriend hoax reportedly admitted to fabricating it without the former Notre Dame star’s collusion, and a source confirmed to the Chicago Tribune that the fictitious girlfriend told Te’o she faked her demise to avoid drug dealers.
Such are the absurd, cross-eyed episodes in a controversy Te’o finally addressed Friday night during an off-camera interview with ESPN. How anyone could be ensnared by such a mind-bending narrative is one of the central unanswered questions in the ordeal.
Levi Te’o, born five days before his cousin Manti, offered this explanation Friday: An innate trusting, open and caring nature ultimately betrayed his relative.
“I completely vouch for him because I know that’s how Manti is,” Levi Te’o told the Tribune in a phone interview. “I know that he’s really trustworthy. It may take a little bit for you to gain his trust, but when you do, it’s pretty strong. He’s a very strong personality kind of guy. He loves everybody. It’s just sad to see someone take advantage of him like that, knowing that he was like that.
“If you go to Hawaii, a lot of people, they’re open to you. If they ask you about Polynesians, you’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, they invited me in, we ate, we had fun, we laughed, we had a good time.’ That’s part of Manti, that’s part of his culture, how he was raised. To be open and love everybody and not really have a closed personality.”
That’s what Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, allegedly preyed upon in creating a bogus woman named Lennay Kekua who began an online- and telephone-only relationship with Te’o, only to die in September of leukemia and create a personal back story that propelled Te’o to national renown but ultimately crumbled this week.
ESPN reported Friday that Tuiasosopo called a friend from church in early December and admitted he duped Te’o, without the Notre Dame linebacker playing a part in the deception. Deadspin.com, which broke the hoax story Wednesday, reported that Te’o might have played a role in the fraud.
The network cited an anonymous female source who claimed Tuiasosopo tearfully conceded that Te’o was not involved and that Kekua and her alleged car accident and subsequent battle with leukemia were all fabrications.
What remains unclear is the motive behind the Kekua character resurfacing Dec. 6 in a call to Te’o. In its timeline of the matter, Notre Dame said there was “persistent” contact from the person claiming to be Kekua well after that initial re-introduction.
To explain her prolonged silence and apparent rising from the grave, a duly preposterous explanation was concocted: Kekua had faked her death to avoid drug dealers, she told Te’o.
That story was first reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and confirmed to the Tribune by a source with knowledge of the situation. The source also confirmed that Te’o asked for time-stamped, photographic proof of Kekua’s apparently renewed existence, which he received. Notre Dame said Te’o reported the situation to coaches Dec. 26.
Why he didn’t sniff out a prank earlier, or why a star athlete carried on any level of relationship with a woman he never met face-to-face, are among the questions Te’o will face when he decides to present his story. For now, his cousin deemed it a costly misjudgment.
“I’m not sure if he would just be like a basket, just letting anyone in,” Levi Te’o said. “I know he’s smart. He’s a very intelligent man. I know he thinks things through. It’s just — not everyone’s perfect. Sometimes we make mistakes. On the flip side, it doesn’t filter everything out. You get some crumbs here and there. This was just one of those crumbs that fell through the filter.”
Levi Te’o, who is listed as a student at Southern Utah, said his conversations with his cousin never delved too deeply into Manti’s personal life. But Levi did say Kekua contacted him once.
“Whenever we would talk about Lennay, or the time we did, he just told me, ‘Yeah, she’s feeling sick,’ or something like that,” Levi Te’o said. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll pray for her.’ She tweeted me like, ‘Just keep me in your prayers,’ or whatever. I was like, ‘OK, sounds good.’ “
The Te’o family otherwise has been silent since Wednesday, and Levi Te’o described the faith-driven clan’s guiding premise as what one might expect: That this is part of God’s plan, and they must endure it together.
What bothers him is the characterization of his cousin as a publicity hound.
“Even if the girlfriend was fake, he was still going through a hard time because of his (deceased) grandma,” Levi Te’o said. “They’re just like, ‘Oh, he just tried to make a scene.’ Well, no, his grandma actually did die, it was really hard for him and he did work through it, with the help of his family and friends.”
Levi Te’o said he was eager for his cousin to present his side. Manti Te’o and his camp eventually decided on the late-night off-camera interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap that was monitored by the player’s legal counsel. It was the conversation Notre Dame had been encouraging, even if athletic director Jack Swarbrick knew skepticism would follow.
“I don’t feel any sort of ill will toward that position,” Swarbrick said in a Notre Dame podcast published early Friday. “If I were on the outside of this, presented with the only facts I have at this point — and importantly, as of the time we’re recording this, Manti has yet to speak publicly — I think that skepticism is easy to understand.
“I just ask those people to apply the same skepticism to everything about this. I have no doubt the perpetrators have a story they will yet spin about everything that went on here.”