Ronaiah Tuiasosopo: The Mastermind of the Manti Te'o Hoax — and Much More

The case of the Notre Dame star's fake girlfriend is unfolding quickly, and it's now looking like Manti Te'o wasn't the only one duped by the non-existent Lennay Kekua. An online identity scam addiction of sorts, involving multiple people and multiple victims, now centers on one man. Who is he? And how can we be so sure?

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The case of the Notre Dame star's fake girlfriend is unfolding quickly just two days after it blind-sided the nation, and it's looking like Manti Te'o wasn't the only one duped by the non-existent Lennay Kekua. ESPN's Shelley Smith seems to have uncovered an online identity scam addiction of sorts, centering on Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the California man whose football career "went nowhere" and was implicated by Deadspin as a potential mastermind who convinced Te'o he had a girlfriend who never existed, never had leukemia, and never died. The links between Tuiasosopo and Te'o — and between Tuiasosopo and another man — appear to be adding up so fast that maybe Te'o was the victim after all.

Earlier on Friday afternoon, Smith's report cited a "friend" of Tuiasosopo who claimed that Tuiasosopo had confessed to the Te'o hoax:

"He (Ronaiah) told me that Manti was not involved at all, he was a victim. … The girlfriend was a lie, the accident was a lie, the leukemia was a lie," said the woman. "He was crying, he was literally crying, he's like 'I know, I know what I have to do.'

"It's not only Manti, but he was telling me that it's a lot of other people they had done this to."

The friend also said Tuiasosopo admitted to having his female cousin speak to Te'o on the phone, which would seem to line up with two explanations that had been in question: how Te'o says he found out he was being duped over the phone, and that Notre Dame cited multiple perpetrators.

And then Smith dropped the bomb that Tuiasosopo had pulled off a similar dupe, according to a man and a woman who said their cousin "had the same online hoax pulled on them" four years ago. Smith went on:

J.R. Vaosa, 28, of Torrance, Calif., and Celeste Tuioti-Mariner, 21, of Whittier, Calif., said that in 2008 their cousin began an online romance with a woman who portrayed herself as a model. Vaosa said the cousin showed Vaosa a picture on MySpace of a woman from a Victoria's Secret catalog that he said was Kekua. Vaosa said that the online Kekua would agree to meet his cousin at certain places. Vaosa said he went with the cousin to meet her.

While there's no indication of criminal fraud charges just yet, that may show a pattern of online hoaxing perpetrated by Tuiasosopo — and this latest one was very public.

What else do we know about Tuiasosopo and his duplicitous behavior? We know that he has been pretty much implicated since the story broke. While Deadspin's Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey pieced together much of their Tuiasosopo biography from the account of a former high-school classmate we now know as Diane O'Meara (aka the face of fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua), they also spoke to those close to him in their original report:

We spoke with friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who asserted that Ronaiah was the man behind Lennay. He created Lennay in 2008, one source said, and Te'o wasn't the first person to have an online "relationship" with her.

It's unclear whether or not ESPN's mystery friend comes from the same pool of people Deadspin spoke to, but they seem to be saying the same things, including the assertion that Te'o wasn't the first man who Tuiasosopo had tricked with a fake account. From Deadspin:

One mark—who had been "introduced" to Lennay by Tuiasosopo—lasted about a month before family members grew suspicious that Lennay could never be found on the telephone, and that wherever one expected Lennay to be, Ronaiah was there instead.

And ESPN's source seems to indicate a pattern of online identity rigging:

"It's not only Manti, but he was telling me that it's a lot of other people they had done this to."

And while Deadspin is now questioning the timing of who knew what when, and what that may say about how Te'o kept the story going and why Notre Dame may not have acted fast enough, more details are emerging that seem to connect Tuiasosopo to Te'o, and seem to unravel the confusing story, putting Tuiasosopo behind the hoax:

  • O'Meara, the woman whose image came to stand for Lennay Kekua, went to high school with Tuiasosopo.
  • Tuiasosopo told producers of NBC's The Voice that he was in a car crash; Kekau was said to have been in one as well.
  • After being touched by the death of Kekua, a woman who wanted to meet Lennay Kekua's "sister" made plans to meet said sister at a Notre Dame game on November 24. And guess who showed, up? Tuiasosopo, according to TMZ.
  • As Buzzfeed's Jack Moore pointed out, someone, two weeks before Notre Dame says it was notified, hinted that Tuiasosopo was behind the fake Twitter account and referenced Tuiasosopo's father, a pastor at a Southern California church:
  • Tuiasosopo's father, Titus, has since released a weirdly happy statement on Facebook thanking people for all the support (the full version is here) which included this line: "There are not enough words in the dictionary to describe the overwhelming love & support me & my Aiga have received today. Feels like I've been drinking from a fire hydrant. lol." And this one (sic, and emphasis ours): "It my hope & prayer that we allow the truth to take its course, wherever that may lead."

The extent to which Te'o gave in to the hoax — or whether he knew Tuiasosopo — remains unclear. Deadspin quoted an anonymous source who said that "Manti and Ronaiah are family... or at least family friends." And Deadspin, by way of Twitter, noticed that Te'o was very much aware of Tuiasosopo:

Te'o and Tuiasosopo definitely know each other. In May 2012, Te'o was retweeting Tuiasosopo, who had mentioned going to Hawaii. Wrote Te'o, "sole"—"bro," in Samoan—"u gotta come down." In June, Te'o wished Tuiasosopo a happy birthday.

There remains a swirling rumor that the two could be in a homosexual relationship, but Te'o and Tuiasosopo have yet to speak publicly since the story broke Wednesday. The plot thickens, indeed.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.