By Matt Stevens, Kate Mather and Ann Simmons Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES—For the last two weeks, the story of Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend has unraveled one layer at a time.
The Notre Dame linebacker spoke, then a Long Beach woman whose pictures were used in the ruse came forward. But the biggest questions could be answered only by a 22-year-old man from Palmdale—the man Te’o and the woman alleged was the mastermind behind the hoax.
Now Ronaiah Tuiasosopo has broken his silence publicly, saying he fell “deeply, romantically in love” with the Heisman Trophy runner-up in an interview with Dr. Phil McGraw set to air later this week.
“Here we have a young man that fell deeply, romantically in love,” McGraw told the “Today” show Wednesday. “I asked him straight up, ‘Was this a romantic relationship with you?’ And he says, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Are you then, therefore, gay?’ And he said, ‘Well, when you put it that way, yes.’ And then he caught himself and said, ‘I am confused.’”
The new revelations come a day after Tuiasosopo’s attorney, Milton Grimes, told the Los Angeles Times his client “feels as though he needs therapy and part of that therapy is to come out of the closet, so to speak, and tell the truth.” Grimes said Tuiasosopo is seeing a medical professional.
“His point is that he wants to heal,” Grimes said. “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.”
The comments add another twist to a story so bizarre, reporters from across the country bombarded Tuiasosopo’s family and friends after Deadspin.com revealed earlier this month that Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, did not exist.
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.
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 stories of the college football season 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.
Grimes confirmed his client pretended to be Kekua, insisting it was possible that Tuiasosopo disguised his voice to sound like a woman, similar to role-playing or method-acting techniques.
“I don’t think it’s so unusual that a person could imitate that voice of a person of a different sex,” Grimes said.
Grimes offered no explanation as to why his client hatched the plan but said he never wanted to hurt Te’o.
“He did not intend to harm him in any way,” Grimes said. “It was just a matter of trying to have a communication with someone.”
Those who know Tuiasosopo said they were baffled when they 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,” said Jon Fleming, Tuiasosopo’s former football coach at Antelope Valley High. “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?”
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.
In a short clip of the TV interview obtained by The Times, McGraw asks Tuiasosopo why he ended his relationship with Te’o.
“For many reasons,” Tuiasosopo said. “There were many times where Manti and Lennay had broken up before…. 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.”