Harvard sophomore Gary Gerbrandt, a reporter for the school’s weekly Independent, got the call late last Friday. A friend of his at the rival Crimson said the paper was sitting on a story about a 27-year-old man who’d posed as a young student and spent the entire semester couch-surfing through the school’s freshman dorms.
Crimson staffers were frustrated that senior editors had, not for the first time that week, decided to delay publishing the report. The rumor was that Abe Liu, the alleged impostor, had called the Crimson’s offices and dissuaded the paper’s president from going ahead with its story.
By Monday, Gerbrandt had fused details leaked by Crimson staff members with research he’d done over the weekend. His startling account went live the next day. The stark headline asked, “Who is Abe Liu?”
The answer: A man almost 10 years older than most of his “classmates,” who had been living on-and-off in their dorm, pretending to be a freshman, and in the process becoming one of the class’s best-known “students,” posting frequently to its Facebook page and even starring in the Crimson’s Fifteen Minutes magazine feature on campus style.
“Abe Liu ’15 Conservative,” it says underneath a picture of the mystery man, seen smiling broadly and pointing out some distant treasure. “Blazers and tie J. Crew, Banana Republic, Brook [sic]Brothers, Burberry (if I can afford it).”
“I tried to get put in touch with Liu,” Gerbrandt told ABC News. “I contacted his alleged roommate,” but it was all dead ends.
“His friends were all trying to defend him. None of them would talk.”
Students who were concerned, or convinced that Liu was a fraud, were afraid to speak on the record, Gerbrandt said. They expressed concern about backlash from the man and his friends.
Gerbrandt pushed ahead, determined to address what had become something of an open secret on campus. What he eventually describes is a man sunk by a kind of social media Ponzi scheme:
“Liu wove (and repeatedly re-wove) an elaborate fiction about himself to tell his new friends. At first, he was 22, a freshman who had taken a few years off; then, when his friends began to realize that he was not listed in the [school's internal online] Facebook at some point in October, Liu revealed that he was an Extension School student, but one who had graduated from Vanderbilt and claimed to be taking myriad advanced classes at the Medical School while drawing perfectly-construed mathematical models on the whiteboard in Weld Common Room; later, he claimed to be a former Olympian who had played in Beijing for the United States (or China, depending on who he told).”
Courtesy of Internet lost treasure hunter the Wayback Machine, the Independent found and posted an archived version of Liu’s old website, abeliu.com. On it, Liu claims to have, among other things, “Completed NSCC SEAL Team Training … Graduated from OAR SEAL Training Academy … Classed into Texas A&M SEAL Platoon.”
Under the “personal” tab, Liu says he was born in 1984 and grew up in Raleigh, N.C. Those statements appear to be backed up by a YouTube video, also discovered by the Independent, that shows Liu, in a North Carolina State University hooded sweatshirt, and friends loading the same site sometime in 2005.
Gerbrandt’s report dovetailed with the Crimson’s long-awaited interview. They had gotten Liu to speak on the record, although neither Elias Groll, the paper’s managing editor, nor Naveen Srivatsa, its president, would tell ABC News when those conversations took place. Groll said the paper wouldn’t respond to anything Gerbrandt said. Both men insisted that the Crimson only ran its story when it was confident in all the reporting.
Liu told staff writers Amy Friedman and Justin Worland that he was enrolled at Harvard’s Extension School, a program for continuing adult education, but that after befriending multiple students on the Class of 2015 Facebook page, he decided “to put a face to their ‘Internet identities.’” And change his own.
The situation escalated quickly and soon, as Liu admitted to the Crimson, he lost control of his narrative.
“You get so deep, you don’t know how to stop it,” he said.
He said that although he was untruthful, he never had any malicious intent.
“At the end of the day, all I wanted to do was to be friends,” he said. “The people that met me, the people that knew me, know that I never asked them for anything. I never coerced them into anything.”
Liu could not be reached by ABC News. The cellphone from which he called Gerbrandt after the original story was published has been disconnected. During that last call, he excitedly denied the Indepdendent’s report, Gerbrandt said, but refused to speak on the record. Gerbrandt said he hung up.
Reader comments immediately after the Independent’s story hit the Web were occasionally dismissive, some even accusing Gerbrandt, a former child actor, of fabricating parts of his account. But even with so much left to answer, Liu’s identity is no longer in doubt. Campus police have told the Crimson that while “[Liu] was invited into the [campus dorms], he was not a college affiliate and college officials determined that he was no longer welcome.”
That determination was made last Thursday. A week later, no one seems to know where Abe Liu is.
Meanwhile, the Harvard papers have spent the week firing spitballs at each other. Gerbrandt seems to think the Crimson was deliberately suppressing the story. Crimson senior staff refuse to talk on the record about their rival.
“In a written statement, [Crimson president] Naveen Srivatsa told me that it was his decision to wait for enough facts, and thought that Wednesday morning they had enough facts, suddenly, to go to print, ” Gerbrandt told ABC News via Twitter late Wednesday.
(Update: Srivatsa denies that he personally held the story, saying it was “a collective decision on the part of Crimson senior staff.”)
So what changed for Srivatsa, whose paper had the story days before Gerbrandt beat them to the presses?
When asked just that, he paused, then answered that his editors had been “evaluating and re-evaluating” the newsworthiness of Liu’s actions, and that over the course of this time, “We came to understand a greater level of concern that existed about the scope of the alleged action and its perception in the community.”
Abe Liu is gone from the Harvard dorms now.
“I made a mistake,” he told the Crimson as the caravansary began to crumble last week. “My mistake was being lonely.”
On “the Yard,” the fight over the telling of his story plods on. Gerbrandt, updating his story once again this morning, has promised “new interviews” to come.