Letourneau, Mary Kay (1962-2020)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 8/05/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5727

Mary Kay Letourneau, at one time a respected elementary school teacher in Burien, became a convicted sex offender whose illicit relationship with a student has repelled and fascinated people around the world since it was revealed in 1997. Letourneau was 34, married, and the mother of four when she began having sex with 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, a student in her sixth grade class, in June 1996. She was pregnant with the first of two children fathered by the boy when she was arrested in March 1997 on charges of second-degree child rape. After pleading guilty, she was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. All but six months of the sentence was suspended on condition that she enter a treatment program and have no further contact with Fualaau. Yet she continued what she called a love affair and what the legal system called a crime, conceiving a second child. An angry judge sent her to prison to complete her original sentence. Released on August 4, 2004, she remained unrepentant, saying she and Fualaau had "a beautiful relationship" and she regretted only that it had begun while she was still married. The couple was married in 2005, and then separated in 2017. Letourneau died of cancer in 2020 with Fualaau by her side. 

"I Do Love Her"

Hours after Letourneau, then 42, was freed from prison, an attorney representing Fualaau, then 21, filed a motion to vacate the sentencing order that barred any further contact between the two. "He is now an adult and, as an adult, is requesting that the court allow him to associated with other adults of his own choosing, specifically Mary K. Letourneau," the attorney argued (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2004). Fualaau himself was in New York, making the rounds of the national talk shows.

Gregg Olsen, author of a book about the case, said he was not surprised that Letourneau and Fualaau would seek to reunite. "She has a personal need to get back together with him to prove to the world this is a love story and not a crime story," he said. "Part of Mary Letourneau will never let go of this love" (Seattle P-I, 2004).

Fualaau, who dropped out of school at age 15, struggled with substance abuse and depression. In 2002, he and his mother (who had custody of the two children he fathered with Letourneau) failed to convince a jury that the school district and a local police department should be held liable for damages to him caused by the affair. As of 2004, he was unemployed, with little income other than payments received for telling his story to talk shows and tabloids. "I don't know what my feelings are right now," he told KING-TV, on the eve of Letourneau's release, while waiting for a plane to take him to New York. "But I know that I do love her."

California Girl

Mary Katherine Schmitz Letourneau, born on January 30, 1962, grew up as one of six children in a devout Catholic family in Orange County, California. Her father, John George Schmitz (1930-2001), was a conservative Republican state senator and one-term Congressman who led Southern California's right wing in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1972, he replaced George Wallace as the presidential candidate of the American Independent Party, after Wallace was paralyzed by a would-be assassin. Her mother, Mary, was a homemaker who was active in anti-feminist causes, including the campaign against the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Schmitz's political career came to an end in 1982, when it was revealed that he had fathered two out-of-wedlock children with a former student, a young woman he had met while teaching political science at Santa Ana College. It was a scandal that would receive fresh attention in the wake of his daughter's illicit relationship with her own student.

After completing high school in California, Mary Kay enrolled at Arizona State University in Tempe. Bright, pretty, and charming, she made friends easily. She met and began dating Steve Letourneau, a handsome fellow student from Alaska. They married in 1984, after she became pregnant with their first child. The couple moved to the Seattle area in the late 1980s. Steve Letourneau went to work as a cargo specialist for Alaska Airlines, and Mary Kay was hired as a teacher by the Highline School District.

School Days

By all accounts, Mary Kay Letourneau had an exemplary record with the Highline School District. She began teaching at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien in 1989. She had stellar references when she was hired, and she received glowing evaluations during her annual performance reviews. Parents raved about her ability to reach their children, and there was a steady waiting list of students for her class.

One of the students in Letourneau's second-grade class in the fall of 1991 was Vili Fualaau, a bright-eyed boy from a troubled American Samoan family in the White Center neighborhood. Letourneau developed a fondness for the boy, introducing him to the piano, buying him art supplies, and otherwise encouraging what she saw as his natural artistic abilities. She continued to mentor him for years after he left her classroom, even taking a community college art class with him one summer. "There was a respect, an insight, a spirit, an understanding between us that grew over time," she said. "There was a bonding that was pretty instantaneous" (The Seattle Times, 1997).

Psychologists would later say that Fualaau was a confused and emotionally needy child. His home life was chaotic and sometimes violent. He and his three older siblings were being raised by his mother, Soona Fualaau, who worked long hours in a bakery. He scarcely knew his father, Luaiva, a former auto mechanic, occasional preacher, and regular prison inmate -- a man who fathered 18 children with five women. Vili remembered watching pornographic movies with his great-grandfather. "It was how we lived," he testified -- and it stood as a stark contrast to Letourneau's calm, middle-class, educated world (The Seattle Times, 2002).

The relationship deepened when Fualaau returned to her classroom as a sixth grader in 1996. By that point, Letourneau's marriage was faltering, she had recently suffered a miscarriage, and her father was ill with cancer. Twelve-year-old Fualaau came to occupy more and more of her attention and energy. He routinely stayed late with her in her classroom. She bought him dinner, often invited him to spend the night at her house, and once took him on a trip to Alaska with her family. She became increasingly flirtatious, the boy would later testify, once offering to strip off an article of clothing for every answer he got right on a history test.

Deeply infatuated, one day the boy gave his teacher a sterling-silver ring that he had found on the street and asked her to marry him. "She took her husband's ring off and put mine on," he said during a 2002 civil trial, in which he and his mother unsuccessfully sued the school district for not preventing the relationship. "She wore it every day at school [except] when her husband would come around." Another time, he asked "when I would get a kiss from her. She said I would get one on the last day of school" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2002).

In June 1996, the flirtation escalated to sex. Fualaau later told police that the two had their first sexual encounter shortly before his 13th birthday, in Letourneau's home, after her husband had left for work and while her four children were asleep. On June 19, Des Moines police officers discovered Fualaau and Letourneau in the back of her minivan, parked late at night at the Des Moines Marina. The officers questioned the two; both insisted there was no improper conduct. The police then called Fualaau's mother, who was working the graveyard shift at a bakery. She told them to let Mary take her son home. By September, when Fualaau entered the seventh grade at Cascade Middle School in the Highline School District, Letourneau was pregnant with his first child.

"School Teacher Temptress"

Steve Letourneau apparently did not become aware of the sexual relationship between his wife and her student until February 1997, when he discovered some love letters she had written to the boy. He confided in a family member, who eventually notified Child Protective Services and Highline School District officials. On March 4, police arrested Mary Kay Letourneau on charges of second-degree child rape. She remained free on bail, awaiting the birth of her baby. Her four older children, ages 3 to 12, were sent to live temporarily with relatives in Washington D.C., to protect them from the media glare. The baby, named Audrey Lokelani ("Lokelani" meaning "Rose of Heaven" in Samoan) was born on May 23 in Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

On August 7, 1997, a somber Letourneau pled guilty in King County Superior Court to two counts of child rape, although she also depicted her relationship with Fualaau as "romantic" and consensual rather than predatory. The case made international headlines, with tabloids shouldering each other in the race for the latest on the "Scandalous Sexcapades" involving the "School Teacher Temptress" (a.k.a. "Cradle-Rob Teacher") and her "Jail-Bait Beau."

More than 100 reporters and photographers from national and international news organizations covered Letourneau's sentencing hearing, held before Superior Court Judge Linda Lau on November 14.The case blended the universal intoxicants of sex and crime with the novelty of gender. "Obviously, this is a story because she is a 35-year-old woman," said one television producer. "If this was a 35-year-old man who impregnated a 13-year-old girl, he'd be in jail and there'd be no national story" (The Seattle Times, 1998).

Letourneau became a media magnet partly because she did not fit the stereotype of a sex offender. She was an attractive blond, slight and delicate-looking, with a girlish voice and a demure manner. She frequently bowed her head and clasped her hands while in the courtroom. "If you looked up the definition of purity and innocence in the dictionary," another television producer said, "Mary K.'s picture would have come up" (The Seattle Times, 1998).

"Help Us All"

Among those who spoke during the hearing was Fualaau's mother, Soona. In a prepared statement, she said she had forgiven Letourneau and hoped others would do the same. "Mary is not a bad person," she said. "She is just a human being who made a terrible mistake." She asked the court to order treatment rather than jail time for the woman who had made her a grandmother. "I feel Mary has been punished enough for her mistake," she said. "I plead on behalf of my granddaughter that to send Mary to jail would not benefit anyone." She also spoke of the effect on her son, "who will carry this guilt with him as long as she is in jail" (The Seattle Times, 1997).

Dr. Julia Moore, a psychiatrist, said that Letourneau suffered from bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), a condition that contributed to her reckless behavior. The psychiatrist concluded, and the judge agreed, that with medication, Letourneau would be a good candidate for sex-offender treatment. Lau said she was persuaded by the expert testimony and by the wishes of the victim and his family that community-based treatment was appropriate. She sentenced Letourneau to seven and a half years in prison but suspended all but six months of it, with credit for time already served, on condition that Letourneau enter a rigorous treatment program, take prescribed medication for bipolar disorder, and meet numerous other requirements, including, above all, not having any contact with Fualaau.

Judge Lau told Letourneau that whether she remained free was up to her. "It will not be easy," she said. "You will not simply be released into the community to resume your former life. From the moment you are released and for the next few years, your life will not be your own." A tearful Letourneau promised the judge she would have nothing more to do with the boy. "I did something I had no right to do," she said. "Morally or legally, it was wrong. I give you my word that it wouldn't happen again ... Please help me. ... help us all" (The Seattle Times, 1997).

Letourneau served another 80 days in jail, at the Regional Justice Center in Kent, and was released on January 6, 1998. She faced a difficult future. She had lost her job, her marriage, her home, and the custody of her children. Her four older children were living with their father in Alaska. As a convicted sex offender, she would never be allowed to teach again, and until she completed three years of treatment, she would not be permitted unsupervised contact with any minors, including her own children.

She registered, as required, as a sex offender, and moved in with a friend in Seattle's Seward Park neighborhood. She began seeing Fualaau again, almost immediately, defying the judge's orders and the expectations of the many people who had spoken in her defense. Less than a month after her conditional release, police found her with the boy (by that point age 14), at 2:40 a.m., in a car with steamed up windows, parked a block from the home where she was staying. She was arrested and sent back to jail.

Media Mayhem, Part Two

More than 125 journalists were on hand on February 6, 1998, when Letourneau stood before Judge Linda Lau for the second time in three months. This time, the judge was not inclined toward leniency. She noted that in searching the car, police had found a box with $6,500 in cash, baby clothes, and a passport, indicating that Letourneau planned to leave town with her teenage lover and their 9-month-old baby. Both the prosecutor and the probation officer depicted Letourneau as a manipulator who didn't believe she needed treatment because she didn't believe she had done anything wrong.

Letourneau's attorney at the time, David Gehrke, made a plea for mercy, saying "Society does not need to be protected from Mary Kay Letourneau. The person that really needs to be protected from Mary Kay Letourneau is Mary Kay Letourneau." Letourneau wept as her attorney spoke. When he finished, the judge told her ''This case is not about a flawed system. It is about an opportunity you foolishly squandered'' (The New York Times, 1998). Then she sent her off to the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Gig Harbor, to complete her original seven-and-a-half-year prison term.

Letourneau was already pregnant with Fualaau's second child, another daughter. The baby, named Georgia Alexis, was born October 16, 1998, in a Tacoma hospital. Hours after the birth, Letourneau was returned to prison. Fualaau was now a father of two, at age 15. His mother was given custody of both children.

Love or Rape?

Letourneau's re-arrest generated a national debate about the nature of her relationship with Fualaau: Was it love (as she and, at times, the boy claimed), or rape (as the prosecutor, judge, and any number of mental health experts put it)?

In statements issued through her various lawyers and in a book titled Un Seul Crime, L'Amour (Only One Crime, Love, published in France in 1998), Letourneau described Fualaau as a "soulmate" -- her "companion for life" -- and emotionally mature for his age. Lucy Berliner, research director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle, was among the many treatment experts who said sex offenders typically make such arguments, as a way of rationalizing and justifying their behavior.

Ordinary people, too, weighed in with opinions about the case. By the end of February 1998, only President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was prompting more letters to the editors of Seattle newspapers. The Seattle Times put the tally for the month at 197 letters on Clinton and 93 on Letourneau. "Mary Kay is of no harm to anyone," one writer argued, saying she and the boy should be allowed to marry. "What she has done may not be right, but obviously there is such a strong bond between these two, even though we may not comprehend it." Another writer strongly begged to differ: "The woman is a sexual predator, a rapist, and should never have been let out of jail in the first place" (The Seattle Times, 1998).

The debate was kept alive by the publication of four books, including Gregg Olsen's If Loving You Is Wrong: The Shocking True Story of Mary Kay Letourneau (published in 1999, reissued in 2004, and translated into at least 11 languages); the release of two made-for-television films ("The Mary Kay Letourneau Story: All American Girl," produced for cable TV's USA Network in 2000, and "Mary Kay Letourneau -- Out of Bounds," for A E Biography in 2001); several websites, including "The Authorized Internet Home of Mary Kay Letourneau" (www.marykayletourneau.com) and numerous court cases (including one in which Letourneau successfully argued that she should be able to profit from her story).


Letourneau left prison under the same spotlight that shone on her when she arrived. Representatives of the "Today" show, "Oprah," "Primetime," "Inside Edition," and news organizations in Great Britain, France, and Germany were among those on stakeout when she was released from the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor on August 4, 2004. Her exit, however, was carefully orchestrated, and she slipped away before being caught on camera. Cynics said she wanted time to make sure she looked her best before appearing on film again.

While in prison, Letourneau tutored her fellow inmates, recorded books for the blind, sang in the choir, and regularly attended mass. She also violated the terms of her sentence by continuing to have contact with Fualaau. She sent him more than 20 letters, including one in which she threatened to have him castrated if had anything to do with any other women (she later said she was just "joking"). She was punished as a result, spending 18 of her first 24 months in solitary confinement. Fualaau sold some of the letters to tabloids.

She had occasional contact with her older children, and was able to see her younger two children about twice a month. Her friends and lawyers said one of her main goals was to reconnect with each of her children, and perhaps to fight for custody of the younger ones. "I think she'll try hard to make a statement that she is not a bad person," said one college friend. "I wouldn't be surprised if she went to law school or did something in defense of women's rights. She's bright, talented, still young and pretty" (People, 54).

Both she and Fualaau also intended to take advantage of their notoriety. She was planning to write a book and he had reportedly hired an agent. "To see somebody fall so far is an interesting story," said Gregg Olsen, explaining the continuing fascination on the part of the public and the media. "People can't take their eyes off a train wreck like that" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2004).

Marriage, and a Final Separation

Letourneau and Fualaau were married in 2005 and raised their daughters together until 2017, when Fualaau filed for legal separation. He was living in California when Letourneau became ill with colon cancer in 2020. She died at her Des Moines home on July 6, 2020, with Fualaau and other family members by her side. Her attorney David Gehrke told The Seattle Times that Letourneau had beend diagnosed four to six months before her death, and that Fualaau had spent the past two months taking care of her. "They were together since the mid-90s, when he first met her, and they've been in love since the late-90s," Gehrke said. "That's 20 years of love -- and they never fell out of love. They had their differences like couples do, but they deeply loved each other through the end" ("Mary Kay Letourneau, Teacher Who ..."). 


Gregg Olsen, If Loving You Is Wrong: The Shocking True Story of Mary Key Letourneau (New York: St. Martin's, 1999); Rebecca Cook, Associated Press, "Letourneau Freed from Prison; Fualaau Moves for Contact," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 4, 2004; Linda Byron, "King 5 Exclusive Interview: Vili Fualaau," KING-TV, broadcast August 3, 2004; "Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress" accessed August 2, 2004 (http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=S000133); Ronald K. Fitten, "Burien Teacher's Sex With Student Leaves Lives And Trust Shattered," The Seattle Times, July 25, 1997, p. A-1; Kay Mcfadden and Melanie Mcfarland, "National Media Followed Letourneau Closely," The Seattle Times, February 6, 1998; Ronald K. Fitten, "Teacher Won't Go To Prison for Rape," The Seattle Times, November 14, 1997; Timothy Egan, "Contact With Young Lover Lands Ex-Teacher in Prison," The New York Times, February. 7, 1998, p. A-11; Betty Anderson, "February Letters -- Sexual-Misconduct Charges on National, Local Scenes Overshadow Threat of War," The Seattle Times, March 15, 1998; Letters to the Editor, The Seattle Times, March 28, 1998; State v. Letourneau, 100 Wn. App. 424, 997 P.2d 436 (2000); Richard Jerome, "Together Again?" People, July 26, 2004; Tracy Johnson, "Mary K. Letourneau is a Free Woman Tomorrow," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 3, 2004, p. A-1; Elise Takahama, "Mary Kay Letourneau, Teacher Jailed For Raping Student, Had Died, Report Says," The Seattle Times, July 7, 2020 (seattletimes.com). Note: This essay was updated on July 13, 2020. 

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