Cruel hoax: Notre Dame claims Te'o was victim of online scam

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - The emotion choked Jack Swarbrick as he finally encountered a question that pushed him out of his measured, pragmatic flow.

"There's a lot of tragedy here," the Notre Dame athletic director said at a press conference Wednesday night, hastily called to tell the school's side of a bizarre twist in the story of the school's most celebrated football player in years, linebacker Manti Te'o.

"There's a lot of sorrow here," he continued. But the thing I am most sad of, sad about is ...

Swarbricks voice trailed off as he tried to gather himself.

"Sorry, that the single-most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life. That's an incredible tragedy."

Thirty-nine minutes and a singular source weren't nearly enough to connect all the dots in what is now being characterized as a hoax in which Notre Dame casts Te'o and his family as victims, and, which broke the story, paints the All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up as a likely co-conspirator.

What everyone can agree upon is that Lennay Kekua, whom Te'o considered his girlfriend, is not the real identity of the woman Te'o had been in touch with and that there was no tragic death from leukemia on Sept. 12, as Te'o said he believed.

Te'o's grandmother, Annette Santiago, did die on Sept. 11. The linebacker played through the tragedy of, and eventually took inspiration from, that very real passing and the one that was created in a dark corner of cyberspace.

"While we still don't know all of the dimensions of this and other than the perpetrators, I can assure you that no one knows all of the dimensions of this there are certain things that I feel confident we do know," Swarbrick said.

"The first is that this was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can't fully understand but had a certain cruelty at its core, based on the exchanges that we were able to see between some of the people who perpetrated it.

"Manti was the victim of that hoax. Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while.

"In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark, because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help that, as this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti and roped him more and more into the trap. He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help in engaging fully."

Swarbrick said Te'o who completed his degree work in December and is working out for the NFL Combine in Bradenton, Fla. was expected to add his voice to the story sometime today.

Perhaps that will provide the missing pieces to a sordid and confusing story.

Swarbrick said the relationship was confined to online and telephone conversations only. He reasoned that Te'o's father, Brian, must have misunderstood his son's characterizations when speaking about the relationship roughly a month after the alleged death of Kekua.

In a taped interview on Oct. 10 with Te'o's parents, Brian and Ottilia, Te'o's father said the initial meeting between Manti and Kekua came in person in late November 2009, when Notre Dame played Stanford in Palo, Alto, Calif.

The detail included the touching of hands and the fact Manti thought she was cute.

"They started out as just friends," Brian Teo added. "Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.

"And we came to the realization that she could be our daughter-in-law. Sadly, it won't happen now."

Calls and e-mails to Brian Te'o Wednesday night went unreturned.

The person posing as Kekua claimed at one point to have been in a serious auto accident, at which time her leukemia was diagnosed. She was then to have a bone marrow transplant and told the Te'o family that she had been released to come home on Sept. 10, two days before her faked death.

There was plenty of other contact between the woman and the Te'os, including a text message offering condolences at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12, hours after Annette Santiago died.

There was also contact with a person claiming to be Kekua's twin brother.

"He said he couldn't talk to anybody," Brian Teo said. "He said, Can I talk to you? We spent an incredible number of hours with the twin brother, trying to help him cope with his loss. It was through his story that he said she worked for the dad and (was) just a bright girl, spoke two languages, aside from English, and graduate, gifted musically.

"I'm thinking, Manti was a lucky puppy landing this girl and just hearing who she was was really incredible for us to listen to. Now I can see why the boy was having a difficult time."

Swarbrick said that Manti Te'o had no hint that the love, the leukemia, the death was anything but authentic until Dec. 6, when he received a text in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., while attending the Home Depot College Football Awards Show.

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 voice 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 will let him again talk about that and his reaction to it. But he maintained that secret vis--vis the members of the football family until he called the coaches on the morning of (Dec.) 26th.

"They promptly reached out to me to inform me of this shocking piece of news, and I arranged to meet Manti upon his return to campus and did so on the afternoon of the 27th."

Teo and Swarbrick went over every detail for the relationship during a one-hour-45-minute meeting on the 27th, then did it all over again on Dec. 28.

All the while, the only people associated with the team who knew about the alleged hoax were Swarbrick, head coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and a couple of teammates Te'o confided in, per Swarbrick.

After Swarbrick met with the ND administration, they decided to hire an independent investigative firm at ND's expense.

"We received a final report from them on January 4th," Swarbrick said. "I met with Brian and Ottilia Te'o in Miami on the 5th to share with them the essence of those findings.

"We left that meeting with an understanding that they would think about what they had heard, engaged Manti's future representation, which would be determined later in the week, in consultation as to how to best respond, and keep the university fully informed of their intentions and work in concert with us when they were ready to communicate the story.

"It was my understanding, is my understanding, that they were on a timetable to release the story themselves next week when today's story broke."

Swarbrick said the gap between when Te'o received the call in Lake Buena Vista and when he informed his coaches existed because Teo first wanted to talk to his parents face to face when he went home for Christmas break.

"We had no idea as to motive, and that was really significant to us," Swarbrick said. "We're in a unique business here. Was there somebody trying to create an NCAA violation at the core of this? Was there somebody trying to impact the outcome of football games by manipulating the emotions of a key player? Was there an extortion request coming?

"When you match the sort of lack of detail we still lacked until we got some help investigating it with the risk involved in some of these possible scenarios, it was clear to me that, until we knew more, we had to just continue to work to try to gather the facts."

Swarbrick said the investigators ultimately discovered online chatter among the perpetuators.

"That is sort of the ultimate proof of this," he said, "the joy they were taking, the sort of casualness with which among themselves they were referring to what they had accomplished and what they had done."

And Te'o?

"The pain was real," Swarbrick said. "The grief was real. The affection was real. And that's the nature of this sad, cruel game."

Staff writer Eric Hansen: