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Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend was born and died on social media

The hoax about the death of the famous football player's girlfriend was wholly constructed on the Internet, but it was those same online tools that left a trail that also revealed the truth.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read
Manti Te'o
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. Screenshot by CNET

Manti Te'o's tale was a portrait of a heartbroken football player overcoming adversity -- triumphing over the tragic death of his girlfriend.

The devout Mormon, Notre Dame linebacker, and runner up to the 2012 Heisman Trophy first suffered the loss of his grandmother, then his girlfriend to leukemia. On the day she died, he had one of the best games of his college career, logging 12 tackles.

The only problem is that she didn't die...because she apparently never existed.

In an exhaustive investigation, Deadspin's Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey detail how Te'o started dating a virtual woman and how his relationship flourished on social media -- and, by the same token, how the truth was sleuthed out via those same online avenues.

According to various news stories gathered by Deadspin, Te'o apparently met his fake 22-year-old girlfriend Lennay Kekua after a Stanford vs. Notre Dame football game in November 2009. After talking on the phone, e-mailing, and meeting up in Hawaii, they decided to become a couple in early 2012. After recovering from a car accident in the summer, she was hospitalized for leukemia -- and didn't survive.

Kekua's last words to Te'o were "I love you," according to a "College GameDay" interview with the football player. And, a "CBS This Morning" profile on Te'o's will to overcome loss, showed a photo of Kekua along with quote from her that said, "Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you'll stay there and you'll play and you'll honor me through the way you play."

However, Deadspin discovered that there are no accounts of Kekua's birth, death, or school records. The woman whose pictures graced national newspapers and TV shows as Te'o's deceased girlfriend is actually someone who lives in Torrance, Calif., who has never met the star athlete and does not suffer from leukemia. This woman's identity has been kept anonymous to protect her privacy.

In an interview this evening on CNN's Anderson Cooper, Burke said that Deadspin's investigation began a week ago with an anonymous e-mail. They did a Google search for "Lennay Kekua," but that only turned up links to stories about her death -- nothing from before then.

Calls to Stanford and Southern California mortuaries turned up nothing, he said. The key turned up when they found the photos that represented Kekua and were able to track them back to the actual person in the images. "That sort of opened everything up," he said.

Looking back on social media, Deadspin was able to retrace Te'o and Kekua's virtual relationship, which commenced on Twitter in October 2011. Throughout the course of their courtship, Kekua's Twitter name went from @lovalovaloveYOU to @LoveMSMK to @LennayKay.

All photos associated with Kekua's social media accounts were of the woman who lives in Torrance. Apparently she knew a friend of Te'o's named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who is believed to have nabbed her photos and helped the football player construct his virtual girlfriend.

While Te'o gave interviews about his relationship with Kekua and her loss, along with details on how they met at Stanford and talked for hours on the phone, he is currently denying any involvement in this hoax.

Notre Dame's spokesman and assistant vice president Dennis Brown told Deadspin that Te'o "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."

Meanwhile, in his own statement Te'o said, "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. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."

Even though Kekua never existed, Te'o's grandmother Annette Santiago did pass away on September 11, 2012.

Currently, Te'o's Twitter profile is headed by a quote from Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo," a well-known novel about a man of many identities. "Life is a storm...You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes."