Manti Te'o: Woman whose photo was used in hoax claims identity theft
A Deadspin.com report Wednesday linked a Palmdale man to the incident that fooled media outlets across the nation. The man allegedly was involved in creating a fake Twitter account for a woman who never existed and linked her with the Heisman Trophy runner-up, who spoke repeatedly to the media about her, her illness and supposed death.
The extent of the woman's connection to the hoax -- and whether she was a participant or if someone was using her photo -- remains unclear.
The woman has declined to comment to reporters who have sought interviews. Friends say she lives in Palmdale and attended Cal State Long Beach.
The woman's former boss, Diane Merrick, said she can't believe her employee was part of any prank.
“I would get on a stack of Bibles and vouch for her,” said Merrick, who owns a clothing store on Beverly Boulevard. “She was always on time. She had the most fabulous energy. She was one of those incredible people that you just wish you had for the rest of your life."
“She’s not that type of person,” added former neighbor Joanne Shaw.
Merrick said the woman reached out to her by email last week and asked if Merrick knew of an attorney who could help. Someone had stolen her identity, the woman had said.
“Now all this stuff is happening -- and it’s so bizarre to me,” Merrick said. “I’ve been in business 42 years. I’ve had some creepy employees, and I’ve had some employees that are really fabulous. And she’s one of the most fabulous.
One relative of the man linked to the hoax told the Long Beach Press-Telegram on Thursday that the ordeal has been a "nightmare" and said he didn't believe that his relative would perpetrate such a ruse.
"This is all still new to me," Ed Lalau told the newspaper. "I just pray that we get over this. It's been a nightmare for everyone."
The suspected hoaxer's father posted a message on Facebook in which he spoke about the frenzy of media attention.
"I know so much has been splattered all over the media about my son & my family. I also know that many who were born in a manger in Bethlehem & continue to walk on water will undoubtedly express their opinions," he wrote. "Those of you who know us the best still love us the most. It my hope & prayer that we allow the truth to take its course, wherever that may lead."
He described Te'o as "an amazing role model for our youth and Samoan community."That man's family was asking for privacy. A woman who answered the door at their house smiled and said, "No thank you, no comment" to a Times reporter who identified himself.
"I would appreciate if you gave us some privacy, please," she said.
On Dec. 26, Te'o told Notre Dame officials that the woman, linked to him as his girlfriend, did not exist and that he was a victim of an elaborate Internet hoax, the school said Wednesday.
"In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark," Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said, "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, it roped him more and more into the trap."
Swarbrick outlined a bizarre story in which Te'o learned, more than three months after her reported death, that his "girlfriend" never existed. The player received a phone call Dec. 6, while at an awards show, from what he believed was the old cellphone number of the supposed girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. The woman on the other end -- in a voice he recognized as Kekua's -- told him that she wasn't dead. She later tried to rekindle the relationship, Swarbrick said.
"Every single thing about this, until that day in the first week of December, was real to Manti," Swarbrick said. "There was no suspicion it wasn't. No belief it might not be. The pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. That's the nature of this sad, cruel game."
Swarbrick likened the hoax to the movie "Catfish," in which a person creates a fake persona with someone else's picture and then dupes another person into a romantic relationship. The film spurred a popular MTV show by the same name that investigates online relationships to see if the participants are real.
Te'o notified his coaches of the situation after discussing it with his parents over the Christmas break. Swarbrick said he met with the player twice and found his story about the exclusively online-and-telephone relationship to be consistent. Te'o and Kekua never met face to face, Swarbrick said.
-- Matt Stevens in Palmdale and Richard Winton, Kate Mather and Andrew Blankstein in Los Angeles
Photo: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o pauses during an interview with ESPN on Friday. Credit: Ryan Jones / ESPN Images