The more players that emerge in the Manti Te’o hoax , the more questions pile up, leaving the truth tangled in a web of faux tweets, stolen pics, phantom phone calls and a string of victims — Notre Dame linebacker Manti seemingly being the biggest.
In fact, even those involved are having a difficult time figuring out how they all fit in. “I don’t know why [the Catfish] used my image. I don’t know how I fit into this story,” Donna Tei, one of the self-proclaimed victims of the hoax, told the star of MTV’s “Catfish,” Nev Schulman, over the phone last week.
Nev, along with his “Catfish” collaborator Max Joseph, contributed to this reporting (Joseph shot the embedded video). For his part, Shulman told MTV News that he never foresaw becoming part of one of the biggest national sports stories of 2012. But once he was unwittingly written into the headlines, the filmmaker saw the opportunity to help shed some light on this “hurtful and deceptive behavior.”
“As the victim of an online relationship hoax, I know firsthand how complex and unpredictable the motives of a ‘Catfish’ can be,” Nev said on Monday (January 21). “It is both humiliating and confusing to deal with the discovery that you have had your very real, very personal emotions toyed with, and I wish it on no one.
“I had no intention of being involved in the Manti Te’o story. I was included as a result of both the Deadspin.com article, as well as the [Notre Dame] athletic director’s mention of ‘Catfish.’ Only after the release of the story did I discover that both J.R. Voasa and Donna Tei had separately reached out to me in the beginning of December. Having spoken to both of them, I offer up parts of my conversation with Donna Tei, in the hope that it might shine some light on this dark and confusing situation.
“I’ve been wrong before, and maintain only one position through all of this: There are people who choose to fill their lives with lies and deception, both online and off.
It is difficult to understand what drives such a person to do such things, and I recognize that I do not have the formal education to presume anything. I have lived through it, however, and have made it my intention to identify and open a dialogue with these people in the hopes that they may recognize and stop their hurtful and deceptive behavior.
Nev, concluded, “This story will remain incomplete without the confession of the ‘Catfish.’”
Trying to make sense of the dizzying “he said, she said” is no doubt confusing, but here’s what we do know: Lennay Kekua — the Notre Dame star’s late girlfriend, whom he was said to have met after a football game and carried on a relationship with via Twitter and telephone calls — never existed. Neither did her grieving sister U’ilani Rae Kekua, who only lived by the Twitter handle @uilanirae, an account Te’o encouraged his digital flock to follow after Lennay’s supposed death.
The pictures that used to populate Lennay’s online profile, @lennaykay, are said to be of a woman from Torrance, California, who was identified as “Reba” in the original Deadspin article. “Reba” is not the woman’s real name, just an alias assigned to her by the site’s writers to protect her identity. According to the caller claiming to be Donna Tei, U’ilani’s fictitious Twitter account used pics of her.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a former college athlete who sings in his father’s Lancaster, California, church, is allegedly behind the fake Lennay and U’ilani Twitter accounts and the mastermind of this twisted online affair. On Friday night (January 18), Manti Te’o broke his silence in an interview with ESPN and put the blame on Tuiasosopo and two other unidentified people, claiming that Ronaiah confessed to him with a direct message via Twitter. He then said he had also spoken to Tuiasosopo on the phone on Wednesday.
It’s a subject Nev Schulman knows all too well. Schulman was once the victim of a similar scheme, when he fell in love with a young woman online only to find out he was chatting with a married mom in her 40′s. Schulman turned his experience into the “Catfish” documentary in 2010 and his follow-up “Catfish: The TV Show,” which premiered on MTV in November.
A woman claiming to be Donna Tei called Schulman late last week because she heard he was investigating her for an upcoming episode of “Catfish.” MTV News can confirm that Tei was not previously under consideration for the television series. Schulman only spoke to her on the phone and never saw the woman’s face, but TMZ posted a video featuring Tei on Friday (January 18), and the voice of the woman on the phone with Nev sounded the same. In that phone call, she broke down her claims of how Tuiasosopo duped not only her, but Manti Te’o.
“I don’t know why he used my image. I don’t know how I fit into this story,” she told Nev over speakerphone while he was in London promoting “Catfish.” “All those pictures are from my sister’s, my little 17-year old sister’s Facebook,” she said of the photos that were used for U’ilani’s account.
In the video, the woman on the phone explained to Nev that she met Tuiasosopo at the funeral for her late fiancé, former USC lineman Fred Matua. Tuiasosopo’s dad was a pastor at Matua’s August funeral, she said, and afterward, she and Ronaiah bonded during bible study.
According to Schulman’s conversation with Donna, Tuiasosopo pulled her aside during bible study and told her his friend Lennay Kekua recently passed away and then tried to set her up with Manti Te’o because, as Tuiasosopo explained, she and Te’o were both grieving over the loss of loved ones. “He was like, ‘Oh, girl, you need to look it up, it’s everywhere, and they’re trying to publicize it. [Lennay's] exactly like you, you know, like, she’s really pretty,’ ” Donna recalled. “And then he was like, ‘I really want you to talk to Manti so you can be some of his support.’ ”
Donna told Schulman that she quickly shot down Tuiasosopo’s urging and admitted that she was “weirded out” by the exchange. “Ronaiah, he’s actually come clean to my fiancé’s sister, saying that, ‘You know what, it was me. It was all made up,’ ” she claimed. “The truth of the matter is, I am not U’ilani. That girl, Lennay Kay, I don’t know if she exists.”
She does not.
There was speculation that Manti himself was involved in the hoax. After all, he had told his father he met Lennay, which was impossible and continued to speak about her in the media even after he grew suspicious of her existence. Te’o admitted to ESPN Friday night that he kept up the facade to save himself the embarrassment of having to tell his family and the world that he fell in love with a woman he had never met. When ESPN asked Manti if he was at all involved in the hoax, he answered clearly and concisely:
“No. Never. I wasn’t faking it. I wasn’t part of this.”
Still, questions linger. Why would Ronaiah, the alleged puppet master who created Lennay, “kill her off” on September 12, only to resurrect her on December 6 by having someone call Manti claiming Lennay was still alive? Why toy with Manti’s emotions and, by extension, his family and the world? Why go to such lengths?
Until the “Catfish” speaks, we may never know.