As the scandal surrounding Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o continues to unfold in the media – specifically, the story of how the Mormon linebacker reportedly got lured into an Internet relationship with a dying woman named Lennay Kekua who it's now known never actually existed – sources with knowledge of the situation are pinning the hoax almost entirely on an acquaintance of Te’o’s named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Some of the first reports to come out about the hoax, including Deadspin’s in-depth investigation, seemed to suggest that Te’o might have been a willing participant, engaging in the hoax all along, or at least for a portion of the time, to generate hype for himself. But since then, numerous sources, including the Twitter accounts of people who claimed to know that Kekua wasn’t real, have pinned the fraud on Tuiasosopo.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged hoaxer (or at the very least, one of several hoaxers) behind the Lennay Kekua scam, is described by Deadspin as “a star high school quarterback turned religious musician.” The site reports that Tuiasosopo, 22, has a background in the football through his family; his father Titus was formerly an assistant high school football coach and is now a pastor at the Oasis Christian Church in Antelope Valley, Calif., where Ronaiah leads the band in gospel music.
Several people who follow the church’s Facebook page have already demanded an explanation from Ronaiah.
“Please good sir, Have your son make a public confession -- complete and honest -- the truth; all and nothing but the truth,” Facebook user Emme Fierra wrote in a comment. “Those men and women who VOTE in the Heisman contest will want to know if they may have been 'played' and they will be able to find out. A full Christian confession is the Christ like way to move forward.”
According to a source who spoke to Deadspin reporters, Ronaiah is a family friend of Te’o’s, and some of his friends and family have confirmed that he was the orchestrator of Kekua’s online persona. He was also a high school classmate of the woman, identified by Deadspin as “Reba,” whose photos were used to make a convincing online profile for Kekua.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Te’o addressed the scandal, portraying himself as the victim of the hoax.
"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. 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,” Te’o said. "To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."
At a following press conference later that night, Notre Dame’s athletic director Jack Swarbick addressed many of the questions surrounding the story and backing up Te’o’s version of the story. Swarbick confirmed that although Kekua and Te’o had arranged to meet several times, including in Hawaii, Lennay failed to ever show up and that the two had only ever communicated over the phone and Internet.
"On the morning of Dec. 26, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua," Swarbrick said. "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."
"I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota," Swarbick added.
The Notre Dame AD also stressed that the hoax was an elaborate one in which Ronaiah presumably involved several more people to pose as Kekua’s family members.
The sports blog SB Nation also tracked the Twitter posts of users @ceeweezy51 and @jayRahz, two people who had suspiciously spoken about Kekua over Twitter before the media unmasked her, and who some media outlets suggested might have been co-conspirators along with Ronaiah.
“Okay this is getting way out of hand.. everybody is tweeting that i had something to do with this scandal.. thats so far from the truth!,” @jayRahz tweeted on Wednesday. “My fam & I have an idea who the guy is behind the @LennayKay profile & hes up there leading a worship band at his dad's church! SMFH”
“i didnt even know Manti Teo's "girlfriend"'s name til way after she supposedly died.. when i found out it was Lennay.. i tweeted about it!,” he wrote in another tweet.
“EVERY TWEET @jayrahz and I had about Lennay Kekua were all jokes. We knew from the beginning she was fake!” @ceeweezy51, chiming in.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo has yet to publicly comment on the scandal.