Deadspin called mortuaries and funeral homes in Carson, California, where Kekua was reportedly buried -- but came up empty.
The website sought out the person whose picture had been presented as that of Kekua and tracked her down.
She was alive, didn't have leukemia and had never met Te'o.
"That sort of opened everything up," Burke said.
The revelation prompted the Notre Dame athletics director to call a news conference Wednesday. There was no way for Te'o to know the relationship was a hoax because it had been conducted strictly online and on the phone, said director Jack Swarbrick.
The pair had set up several meetings, including in Hawaii, where Te'o grew up -- but Kekua never showed, Swarbrick said.
The university said it did not know how many people were in on the ruse.
According to Swarbrick, Te'o received a call from a woman claiming to be his girlfriend on December 6, telling him she was not dead. Those calls continued, but Te'o did not answer, he said.
The Heisman Trophy was awarded two days later, and Te'o made comments about losing relatives to cancer before he finished second in the award voting to quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A & M.
The Stanford University registrar's office told CNN that it has never had a student registered in Kekua's name or using an alternate spelling.
"Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there's no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed," Deadspin contends. "There was no Lennay Kekua."
Her 'soulful eyes'
So, how did the two fall in love?
According to the South Bend Tribune in Indiana -- the newspaper of Notre Dame's hometown, the two met -- yes, met -- after a football game in Palo Alto, California, in 2009.
"Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te'o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes," the paper gushed. "They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te'o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009."
The article went on to say: "Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago."
Te'o's father, Brian, was quoted in the article: "They started out as just friends. Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple."
The newspaper said Wednesday it based Teo's story on information from the linebacker, his family members and coaches -- and moved the story to its archives.
But as Thamel reported Thursday, Te'o said they met through a cousin.
"The only time he didn't speak with confidence was when I asked how they met," he wrote. I didn't press him, as it was clearly something he didn't want to share. I suspected they may have met online, understood he wouldn't have wanted that public and moved on."
Media reports indicate the parents never met Kekua.
Te'o was in Florida training for the NFL Scouting Combine, where draft prospects showcase their abilities for teams. He didn't meet with reporters or answer phone calls to his room on Thursday.
He tried to clear things up with a statement Wednesday saying he "developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online."
"We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her," he said in the statement.
"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," the statement continued. "It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother's death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life."