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Fake Girlfriend Hoax: How a Star Athlete Got Duped

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Bishop Jim Carrier, head of a Mormon church near Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., got to know Manti Te’o better last April, when the football star’s long-distance girlfriend Lennay Kekua was in a car crash that left her in a coma. “He was looking for guidance,” says Carrier. “We talked about his responsibility and his role.”

Te’o, then a college junior, stepped up: He called the hospital often, and his girlfriend’s siblings let him know that his voice on the phone quickened Kekua’s breathing. Then, a miracle: She woke up. After that, “all my focus went … to her,” Te’o told ESPN Jan. 18. But soon she was diagnosed with leukemia, and on Sept. 12-within 24 hours of Te’o’s grandmother’s death-Kekua died. Only recently, after several media outlets told his tragic story, did Te’o learn something else about his love: She never existed.

The Heisman trophy finalist, 22, stood at the center of one of the most befuddling stories in sports history. At first it seemed Te’o was in on the scam; both before and after Kekua had died, Te’o, his friends and family had given accounts that suggested he met her in person. But in a tell-all interview Jan. 18 with ESPN, Te’o came clean, admitting he had been in an exclusively online relationship with a woman he’d believed was a religious, family-oriented person with Polynesian roots like himself. Instead she’d allegedly been made up by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a California man who posed as Kekua’s cousin, and possibly two accomplices. Confirming details in a Jan. 16 report by the blog Deadspin, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Te’o was the victim of a “sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can’t fully understand.”

In other words he’d been “catfished,” an alarming trend in online fraud that’s the subject of an MTV reality series. Catfishers often aren’t seeking money; “they just chat back and forth,” says L.A. County Sheriff’s department captain Mike Parker. “In the old days, if you wanted to pull a prank, you’d make a random phone call, laugh and hang up.”

But for today’s tricksters, Te’o was “the perfect mark,” said Swarbrick. “He’s a trusting person,” says Carrier. “He was so hurt,” adds Alexandra del Pilar, 21, who dated him from November to early January. “He definitely [loved her].”

How could a star athlete with a 3.2 GPA have been so naive? For one, Te’o was convinced he’d met the love of his life. Friends since connecting on Facebook in 2010, the pair bonded over scripture, even discussing it with his parents. That he never met her in person didn’t raise “red flags,” Te’o told ESPN, because they only dated seriously since last April. According to Te’o, when they tried to meet, she couldn’t borrow a car; during video chats, she would say she could see him-couldn’t he see her? “She referenced names of relatives and family members and other aspects of her life in such detail,” Te’o’s parents told People in a Jan. 21 statement, “that there was no reason to doubt her.”

When she died, Te’o was shattered. Then on Dec. 6 he got a phone call that shook him to his core. “She said, ‘It’s Lennay,'” he told ESPN. “I said …, ‘My Lennay died on Sept. 12. I don’t know who you are.'”

Private investigators hired by Notre Dame found Kekua had been invented by “two guys and a girl,” Te’o told ESPN, allegedly led by Tuiasosopo, of Lancaster, Calif. A keyboardist at his pastor dad Titus Tuiasosopo’s church, “he was a funny guy,” a classmate recalled, with a penchant for practical jokes. “If I know him,” he says, “this was a prank that got out of hand.”

The Te’o family spokesman confirms that Tuiasosopo confessed to Te’o during a Jan. 16 conversation and apologized via Twitter. Tuiasosopo’s uncle Peter Navy tells People that the situation will be “cleared up” after the family receives legal counsel. Though Te’o hasn’t indicated he’ll take legal action-“I think embarrassment is big enough,” he told ESPN-according to California state law, Tuiasosopo could face identity-theft charges. At services at Tuiasosopo’s Oasis Christian Church in Lancaster Jan. 20, his dad wept. Te’o’s family too is “distraught,” Te’o’s uncle Alema Te’o told a radio station Jan. 17. Healing, admits Te’o, will take time. As he told ESPN, “I was fully committed to someone who is not real.”