The man who says he tricked Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o into falling for a fake woman he created online claims the hoax had “everything to do” with escaping from real life because he had been molested as a child.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo spoke publicly for the first time in an interview with Dr. Phil McGraw for the “Dr. Phil Show,” the second part of which aired Friday.
The 22-year-old Tuiasosopo told McGraw he was repeatedly molested, beginning at age 12, by someone who was close to his father, a church pastor and youth minister.
“I felt that I couldn’t do things, accomplish things, pursue things, live out as Ronaiah,” Tuiasosopo said. “And I felt the need to create this. It has everything to do with what I went through as a child.”
Tuiasosopo did not identify his alleged attacker by name and did not say whether he had told police about his claim.
His father, Titus Tuiasosopo, said it was difficult to hear the details of the abuse his son suffered.
“When he told me the location, the time, I could go back and vividly remember those trips, the times that these guys came over,” he said. “That part, right there, was kind of gut wrenching for me.”
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo said he built the online persona of Lennay Kekua, a nonexistent woman who Te’o said he fell in love with despite never meeting in person. Tuiasosopo then killed off the character last September.
He said creating Kekua — who met Te’o online during the player’s freshman year at Notre Dame — allowed him to live in an alternate reality, and helped validate that he was a good person.
“When I looked at Lennay through Manti’s eyes, I got a glimpse of who I was as far as my heart,” said Tuisasosopo, who told McGraw that he fell in love with Te’o.
When Deadspin.com exposed the hoax in a story on Jan. 16, the report raised questions about whether Te’o was in on it. But Te’o denied he was involved and Tuiasosopo also said the All-American had nothing to do with the scam.
Kekua “died” the same day in September that Te’o’s real grandmother passed away, and the story of the linebacker playing through the double tragedy became an often-told tale as Notre Dame went 12-0 last season and earned a spot in the BCS championship. Te’o failed at the time to make clear that he had only known Kekua online and through phone calls, which caused confusion later.
Te’o won seven national awards for his play and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. A couple of days before that award was presented, the linebacker had a call from the Kekua character saying she was alive.
Te’o, who has said he was deeply confused by that conversation, ultimately told his parents and coaches about the situation. Notre Dame said an investigation of Te’o’s claims backed up his story and pointed to Tuiasosopo as the person behind the hoax. When asked by Katie Couric in an interview broadcast last week, Te’o said he is not gay.
Te’o and his family had no immediate comment on Friday.
In the McGraw interview, Tuiasosopo said he was the voice of Kekua, and provided samples to McGraw and a producer. One of those samples, McGraw said, was compared by three separate laboratories to recorded voice mails sent by Kekua to Te’o. They were a match, he said.
Tuiasosopo apologized to Te’o, Notre Dame, his own family and everyone else affected by the hoax during the interview.
“People say, ‘Well, does he even have any feeling toward this?’” Tuiasosopo said. “The truth is, I hurt every day from the decisions that I made.”