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Te’o controversy moves forward

Andrew Owens | Monday, January 21, 2013

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared on ndsmcobserver.com early Saturday morning. It has been updated with facts that have emerged since then.

A tumultuous 48 hours of questions, rumors and speculation temporarily halted early Saturday morning when former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o ended his silence and denied any involvement in concocting the fake life of Lennay Kekua in an interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap.

“No, never,” Te’o told Schaap when asked if he was involved in the hoax. “Never, not ever.”

In fact, Te’o told Schaap he was not fully convinced he had been hoaxed until Roniah Tuiasosopo, the man accused of perpetrating the scheme, contacted him to admit his involvement in the scheme Wednesday, the same day a report from Deadspin.com broke the story.

Schaap said Te’o showed him Twitter messages from Tuiasosopo from two days ago in which he apologized.

While he maintained his full innocence in the interview, Te’o did admit he made mistakes along the way, including lying to his parents about meeting Kekua.

When the story of Kekua’s death unfolded in the midst of an undefeated Notre Dame season and Heisman Trophy campaign for Te’o, the linebacker said he “kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away.”

“That goes back to what I did with my dad,” Te’o said. “I knew that – I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody I didn’t meet.”

“When [Te'o] described her as the love of his life, he meant it 100 percent, although they had never met,” Schaap said. “He did mislead people by saying he met her. He did so because he knew how crazy it would sound that he felt this deeply about someone he had never met.”

Te’o told Schaap the relationship allegedly started on Facebook during Te’o’s sophomore year at Notre Dame, but that it was not until around the Oct. 1, 2011 Purdue game that it grew. He said the relationship started to become more intense in late April 2012, when Te’o was told Kekua was in a car accident.

Te’o told Schaap that he began to sleep with the phone on the line with who he believed to be Kekua once she was in the hospital recovering from the fake car accident and leukemia.

ESPN also reported Te’o supposedly had attempted to video-chat with Kekua multiple times before she purportedly passed, but each time had been unable to see her face in the chat.

Additionally, Te’o told Schaap about a four-way text message conversation before Kekua’s death involving Scripture messages between himself, his parents and the person he believed to have been Kekua. Schaap reported Te’o even showed him the messages during their interview.

Te’o said he never doubted Kekua’s existence or death until early December, nearly three months after he believed she had died.

Corroborating the statements made by Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick on Wednesday, Te’o said he received communication from the woman whom he believed to be Kekua on Dec. 6, but was not initially convinced it was a hoax.

“After he gets this phone call on Dec. 6 … he’s utterly confused,” Schaap said. “He doesn’t know whether to believe this person or not. She tells some story about how she’s been hiding from drug dealers.”

Te’o told Schaap he asked the person purporting to be Te’o to provide a photo with a date stamp, but even after receiving that, continued to be suspicious of the conversation. In addition, Te’o said people associated with Tuiasosopo showed up at Notre Dame’s team hotel during preparations for the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game. Notre Dame did not arrive in South Florida until Jan. 2.

Schaap said Te’o “wanted to get his story out there because he did know what people say to some extent” after a 48-hour period during which he was criticized for his silence.

“He disputed the theory out there that he was completely naive about romantic relationships,” Schaap said. “He said he got sucked into this because he thought he was talking to someone who he shared a lot with. Background, Samoan background, she understood the culture, she understood the language, spoke it better than he did. … It was an intense relationship over a couple months.”

ESPN publicist Mike Humes said on his Twitter account that ESPN “had no parameters on questions. While no TV cameras were permitted and use of audio was limited, we can use anything from the interview across our outlets.”

Schaap said he thought the no-camera setting made Te’o more comfortable, and the arrangement was at the linebacker’s request.

On Friday, ESPN’s Shelley Smith published a report in which an unidentified woman close to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged mastermind of the operation, claimed Tuiasosopo told her that Te’o is a victim of the hoax.

In the report, Smith talked to two California residents who claim Tuiasosopo duped their cousin in 2008. The two claim Tuiasosopo supposedly used the same name and photos in that hoax.

Late Friday, USA Today reported that three elements of Kekua’s story parallel that of the Tuiasosopo family: a case of leukemia, a car accident and a quote from Tuiasosopo’s father’s Facebook page that Te’o told the team Kekua said prior to the faked death.

The two-and-a-half-hour off-camera interview with Schaap took place in Bradenton, Fla., where Te’o is currently training in anticipation for the NFL Draft.

This week, Katie Couric will conduct the first on-camera interview of Te’o, who will be accompanied by his parents. Segments will be shown during Couric’s syndicated television show Thursday.

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu