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Man behind Manti Te'o hoax wants to 'heal'

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo says he perpetrated the ruse to have a relationship with the Notre Dame star. TV's Dr. Phil McGraw describes Tuiasosopo as a 'young man that fell deeply' in love with Te'o.

January 31, 2013|By Matt Stevens, Ann M. Simmons and Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times
  • TV talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw, left, interviews Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the Antelope Valley man who says he impersonated a woman to get close to Notre Dame star Manti Te'o.
TV talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw, left, interviews Ronaiah Tuiasosopo,… (Associated Press )

The 22-year-old Palmdale man who created Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend broke his silence for the first time, saying he perpetrated the elaborate hoax to build a relationship with the football star.

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo pretended to be Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, for months, communicating on the phone and through social media. Tuiasosopo went so far as to disguise his voice to sound like a woman's when he spoke to Te'o on the phone, his attorney, Milton Grimes, said in an interview with The Times.

Grimes said his client decided to come clean about the hoax in an attempt to "heal."

"He knows that if he doesn't come out and tell the truth, it will interfere with him getting out of this place that he is in," Grimes said.

TV talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw, who spoke with Tuiasosopo for an interview set to air this week, described the 22-year-old as "a young man that fell deeply, romantically in love" with Te'o. McGraw, speaking on the "Today" show, said he asked Tuiasosopo about his sexuality, and Tuiasosopo said he was "confused."

In a short clip of the "Dr. Phil" interview, Tuiasosopo told McGraw that he wanted to end his relationship with Te'o because he "finally realized that I just had to move on with my life."

"There were many times where Manti and Lennay had broken up before," Tuiasosopo said. "They would break up, and then something would bring them back together, whether it was something going on in his life or in Lennay's life — in this case, in my life."

Tuiasosopo's comments add another twist to a story so bizarre that reporters from across the country have converged on Tuiasosopo's home in the Antelope Valley. News of the hoax was first reported earlier this month on the website

Tuiasosopo, the report said, was the mastermind behind the hoax and used photos from an old high school classmate and social media to connect Kekua with Te'o.

During the college football season, Te'o repeatedly spoke to the media, including The Times, about his girlfriend, the car accident that left her seriously injured and the leukemia that led to her September death. The tale became one of the most well-known sports stories of the year as Te'o led his team to an undefeated season and championship berth.

Te'o has denied any role in the ruse, saying he spent hours on the phone with a woman he thought was Kekua.

Those who know Tuiasosopo said they were baffled when they first learned of his involvement in the hoax. Neighbors and former high school coaches described him as popular, faith-driven and family-oriented.

"I've done a lot of thinking about it," Jon Fleming, Tuiasosopo's former football coach at Antelope Valley High, said in the days after the ruse was revealed. "It's all speculation. He's goofy just like any other kid. The question that comes up in my mind is: 'What could he possibly gain from doing something like this?' It would really surprise me. What would he gain?"

Te'o said in an interview with ESPN that Tuiasosopo called to apologize for the hoax.

"I hope he learns," Te'o said. "I hope he understands what he's done. I don't wish an ill thing to somebody. I just hope he learns. I think embarrassment is big enough."

Diane O'Meara, the Long Beach woman whose photos were used to represent the fake girlfriend, said in an interview with The Times that Tuiasosopo was a high school classmate.

She said he repeatedly asked her for photos and videos of herself.

O'Meara, 23, said that during a six-day period in December, Tuiasosopo contacted her through social media, texting and phone calls about 10 times, asking her to send a photo of herself. Then, after she sent the photo, in part to "get this guy off my back," she said Tuiasosopo messaged her asking for a video clip or another photo.

By that time, his requests were "kind of annoying, kind of pestering," O'Meara said.

Tuiasosopo is seeing a medical professional and "feels as though he needs therapy," Grimes said.

"Part of that therapy is to … tell the truth," he added. "He did not intend to harm [Te'o] in any way. It was just a matter of trying to have a communication with someone."

Grimes said he warned his client that he could face legal consequences for admitting that he falsified his identity on the Internet. But Tuiasosopo insisted that going public was something he had to do.

"This is part of my public healing," Grimes quoted Tuiasosopo as saying.

Times staff writers Kevin Baxter and Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.

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