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(Adds Inside Edition identifying woman whose photograph was said to be Kekua, background on Notre Dame controversies)
By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO, Jan 17 (Reuters) - The tip that led to the revelation that one of the most widely recounted U.S. sports narratives of the past year was a hoax came to the editors of an online sports blog as many of their news tips do: an unsolicited email.
That email led Deadspin.com assignment editor Timothy Burke on the hunt of a story that exposed the heart-wrenching tale of standout Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend as a fabrication, Burke said on CNN on Thursday.
Te'o sprang to national prominence last fall when the senior co-captain was seen heroically leading the Fighting Irish to an underdog victory against the Michigan State Spartans within days of learning his grandmother had died. Moreover, it was widely reported, Te'o's girlfriend had died of leukemia just hours after his grandmother's death.
From that point, Te'o's narrative was a prominent feature in coverage of the team, which has a dedicated following and whose games are televised nationally each week.
Notre Dame went on to an undefeated regular season, culminating in a berth in the national championship game, which the Fighting Irish lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide on Jan. 7.
"We got an email last week at Deadspin.com that said 'Hey, there's something real weird about Lennay Kekua, Manti Te'o's allegedly dead girlfriend. You guys should check it out,'" Burke said.
The email prompted Burke and co-author Jack Dickey to begin searching online for background on Kekua. "So we start Googling the name Lennay Kekua. We can't find any evidence of this person that wasn't attached to stories about her being Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend."
Their investigation led about a week later to a 4,000-word expose, published Wednesday under the headline "Blarney," that painstakingly debunked the story of Kekua's existence. The story went viral online.
Within hours of its publication, officials at Notre Dame, one of the most powerful institutions in college football and U.S. collegiate athletics overall, held a hastily organized press conference to assert that Te'o had been duped in a hoax perpetrated by a friend of his.
The girlfriend, who called herself Kekua and claimed to be a Stanford University graduate, was merely an online persona who "ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia," university spokesman Dennis Brown said in a statement.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said the university learned of the hoax from Te'o on Dec. 26. Te'o answered questions forthrightly and private investigators uncovered several things that pointed to Te'o being a victim in the case, Swarbrick said.
Deadspin's Burke said he remains skeptical of this being a hoax perpetrated on Te'o rather than by Te'o.
"Ask yourself why and what incentive a person would have to execute such a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive con that would involve multiple people and essentially consume his entire life just to screw around with a guy that he knows?" Burke said on CNN.
Deadspin.com said the woman whose photograph was frequently shown on TV and in news reports about Kekua was actually a young California woman who had never met or communicated with Te'o. The website declined to identify her by name.
On Thursday, TV newsmagazine "Inside Edition" said the woman in the photograph was a 23-year-old marketing professional in Los Angeles named Diane O'Meara. Inside Edition, which is syndicated by CBS Television Distribution, said O'Meara was a former classmate of one of Te'o's friends. It Aredid not give the friend's name.
In the expose published Wednesday, Deadspin.com said a friend of Te'o's named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was "the man behind" the hoax.
Outside Tuiasosopo's home in Palmdale, California on Thursday, a member of his family who did not identify himself told reporters, "Please, we have no comment. Please respect that."
The Te'o hoax is the latest black eye Notre Dame's legendary football program has suffered in recent years.
In 2011, the school was fined $42,000 by an Indiana agency over the death of football videographer Declan Sullivan, 20, who died in October 2010 after a hydraulic lift he was using to record practice toppled over in high winds.
In 2010, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg, a freshman at nearby St. Mary's College, killed herself ten days after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual battery. Her family began questioning the campus police department's reluctance to gather evidence and a 15-day delay in interviewing the accused.
After a federal investigation into the matter, the school agreed to revise its policies on sexual misconduct. (Additional reporting by Dan Burns, Dana Feldman, David Bailey and Mary Wisniewski.; Editing by Vicki Allen, Greg McCune and Andrew Hay)