On September 11, 2012, Te'o said that he suffered the loss of both his grandmother and girlfriend within the span of one day. Te'o told many media outlets that his girlfriend, Stanford University student Lennay Kekua, endured a car accident and died after battling leukemia. Te'o did not miss any football games for Notre Dame, saying that he had promised Kekua that he would play even if something had happened to her. Many sports media outlets reported on these tragedies during Te'o's strong 2012 season and emergence as a Heisman Trophy candidate. After receiving an anonymous email tip on January 11, 2013, reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey of the sports blog Deadspin conducted an investigation into the identity of Kekua. On January 16, they published an article that said they found no record of a woman named Lennay Kekua and that the story of her death was a hoax. According to the report, the pictures published in the media supposedly of Kekua were actually taken of Diane O'Meara an acquaintance of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Ronaiah has been described as a family friend or acquaintance of Te'o.
Notre Dame addressed the story on the same day as the report. The university said in a statement that "Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia." In a press conference, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick confirmed the university had hired private investigators to uncover the source of the hoax, and he clarified that Te'o's relationship with Kekua was "exclusively an online relationship". This conflicted with Te'o's father's previous account of their relationship, which said they had met after a football game and that she visited him in Hawaii. Te'o had told a Sports Illustrated interviewer that she had seen him at a USC game when he was a sophomore when they were just acquaintances. Swarbrick said that Te'o informed Notre Dame of the hoax on December 26 after receiving a call on December 6 from the woman he knew to be Kekua claiming she was still alive. Te'o mentioned Kekua's death in at least four separate interviews in the days following the phone call.
In response to the growing suspicions that he was involved in the hoax, Te'o agreed to a January 18 interview with Jeremy Schaap in which he maintained his innocence. Te'o explained that he had lied to his father and others about meeting her in person, because he thought he would be seen as "crazy" for having a serious relationship with a woman he had never met. Te'o said he was angered and confused by the December 6 phone call, and he continued to speak of Kekua because the situation was unclear to him. He explained that Tuiasosopo represented himself as the cousin of Lennay Kekua and that the two men had communicated online over the last several years and met once in person at the 2012 Notre Dame/USC game. Te'o also revealed that Tuiasosopo had confessed to him that he was the perpetrator of a hoax. On January 24, the New York Daily News reported that a lawyer for Tuiasosopo, Milton Grimes, told the newspaper that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was the voice of Lennay Kekua. Speaking on-camera for the first time about the hoax with Katie Couric on January 24, Te'o thought that the voice played on three voicemails from Kekua "sounds like a girl", and Couric agreed.An ESPN reporter also felt that the voice sounds feminine. It was later reported that relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo say that the voicemails were actually left by Ronaiah's female cousin, Tino Tuiasosopo.
Despite the revelation that Kekua as represented to Te'o did not exist, NFL player Reagan Maui'a claims to have met a woman who called herself Lennay Kekua in American Samoa in 2011. Maui'a told ESPN that he was introduced to Kekua by Tuiasosopo and he believes she was Tuiasosopo's cousin
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