A US college football star says he was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose "death" from leukaemia was faked by perpetrators of an elaborate hoax.
The death had been part of a dramatic series of events as young Manti Te'o led his Notre Dame team to the national championship game. Before a game last year, word spread that Te'o had lost his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other. His inspired play afterwards became a stirring story line.
But in a shocking announcement last night, Notre Dame said the girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed. The goal of the scam was not clear, though Notre Dame said it used an investigative firm to dig into the details after Te'o disclosed them three weeks ago.
The hoax was disclosed hours after Deadspin.com posted a lengthy story, saying it could find no record that Kekua ever existed. The story suggests a friend of Te'o may have carried out the hoax and that the football player may have been in on it.
"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 in a statement. "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."
However, he stopped short of saying he had ever met her in person or correcting reports that said he had, though he did on numerous occasions talk about how special the relationship was to him. "To realise that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," he said. "In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious."
Word of the hoax raised questions about whether the school somehow played a role in pushing the tale. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said at a news conference that Te'o told coaches on December 26 that he had received a call from Kekua's phone number while at an awards ceremony during the first week of December.
"When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine," Swarbrick said.
Swarbrick said the school hired investigators, and their report indicated those behind the hoax were in contact with each other. 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.
Te'o asked the woman he thought was his girlfriend to converse via Skype, where he could see her online, but she always found an excuse not to, Swarbrick said. "As part of the hoax, several meetings were set up where Lennay never showed, including some in Hawaii," he said . For Te'o "the pain was real."