In 1997, Mary Kay Letourneau pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau — but their story didn't end there.
Like countless others, Mary Kay Letourneau’s relationship with her future husband Vili Fualaau started with a kiss. Unlike other couples, however, Letourneau was 34 and Fualaau was her 12-year-old student.
Their story became tabloid fodder when it went public in 1997, especially since the married Washington teacher and the adolescent student seemed determined to stay together. As Letourneau went in and out of prison, serving over seven years for child rape, the pair had two daughters together. In 2005, they married when Fualaau was 21 and Letourneau was 43, and they stayed married until their separation in 2019.
Though Letourneau died in 2020 — with Fualaau at her side — her story remains controversial to this day. What Mary Kay Letourneau described as a love affair, most other people would describe as statutory rape.
Who Is Mary Kay Letourneau?
Born on January 30, 1962, in Orange County, California, as Mary Katherine Schmitz, Mary Kay Letourneau grew up in a conservative household. Her father ran for president in 1972 as a candidate in the far-right American Independent Party, and her mother was strictly Catholic.
Hoping to follow her father into politics, Letourneau attended Arizona State University with the plan to move to Washington, D.C. after graduation. But she started going out with a classmate, Steve Letourneau, and became pregnant during their relationship. After the pair got married in 1985, Mary Kay Letourneau and her new husband moved to Anchorage, Alaska, and then to Seattle, Washington.
There, Letourneau had three more children. And she started to work as a teacher at Shorewood Elementary School in the town of Burien, just outside Seattle, where Letourneau was well-liked by her students and peers.
“The teachers and principals all gave her high marks,” Shirley Hodgson, then the director of human resources for the Highline School District, told the Seattle Times in 1997 after Letourneau and Fualaau’s inappropriate relationship became public. Hodgson added, “They all thought — and still think — she is a good teacher, a good person.”
While teaching second grade, Letourneau got to know an eight-year-old student named Vili Fualaau. A few years later, when Letourneau taught the boy’s sixth grade class, they would grow even closer.
Inside The Relationship Between Mary Kay Letourneau And Vili Fualaau
As Mary Kay Letourneau told Larry King in 2004, Vili Fualaau caught her attention as a sixth-grader. Then, even though he was disruptive in class, Letourneau started to feel close with the 12-year-old.
“[It was] a million moments that just kept building something very beautiful and scary at the same time,” she said. “[W]e just became very close. It seemed — we had a really compatible sense of humor.”
For Vili Fualaau, his crush on his sixth-grade teacher started as a game before it grew more serious. He made a bet with his cousin to “get her.”
“I remember I used to like plan the next day, like ‘What I was gonna do, what was I gonna say, what I was gonna, like, what surprise I was gonna leave on her desk,'” Fualaau recalled years later. He eventually added: “Mary and I became really close, and I kinda forgot about the bet.”
When they both took an art class at a nearby community college that summer, they grew even closer. Letourneau encouraged the boy’s artistic talents, and the 34-year-old and her student started to spend more and more time together. Then, one night, shortly before Vili Fualaau’s 13th birthday, Letourneau crossed a line, changing things forever.
“The incident was a late night that it didn’t stop with a kiss,” Letourneau told ABC News. “And I thought that it would and it didn’t.”
Mary Kay Letourneau had begun an inappropriate sexual relationship with Vili Fualaau, which, given the boy’s young age, could not be considered consensual. But by the end of the summer, things between them grew even more serious when Letourneau became pregnant with his child.
In February 1997, Letourneau’s husband discovered the abuse. Biography reports that he found love letters that his wife had written to her student. He told a relative, who promptly notified officials at Shorewood Elementary. Mary Kay Letourneau was arrested for statutory rape on March 4, 1997.
“I have no sympathy for her,” Florence Wolfe, then the co-director of Northwest Treatment Associates, which counsels sex offenders, told The Seattle Times after Letourneau’s arrest. “When we hear it here — the proclamation of love — it is a rationalization. Did she care about his welfare, about what could happen to him by becoming a father at 13? I don’t see where she’s acted in [the boy’s] best interest. That’s not love.”
The Sex Abuse Scandal That Shocked The Nation
As news of the sex abuse scandal quickly spread across Washington State and beyond, Mary Kay Letourneau gave birth to her and Vili Fualaau’s daughter, Audrey, on May 29, 1997. Just three months later, she pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape.
“Your honor, I did something that I had no right to do, morally or legally,” Letourneau told the judge. “It was wrong. And I am sorry. I give you my word that it will not happen again. Please, please help me. Help us, help us all.”
But “it” would happen again. And very soon. Letourneau served only six months of her 89-month sentence before she was released on parole in January 1998. Just a month later, though she was ordered to stay away from Vili Fualaau, Letourneau was caught with the young teen in her car. Police found the car full of baby clothing, groceries, personal documents, $6,200 in cash, and, damningly, Letourneau’s passport.
It appeared that the two were planning to run away together. Letourneau was promptly arrested and a judge called the violations of her parole “extraordinarily egregious and profoundly disturbing.” In addition, Letourneau had also stopped taking her medication for her bipolar disorder and abandoned her required treatment program for sex offenders. Letourneau was ordered to go back to prison to fulfill her original sentence. By then, she was already pregnant with her and Vili Fualaau’s second daughter.
Letourneau’s husband divorced her and took their four children to Alaska. Meanwhile, Letourneau reported to prison, where she’d give birth to her daughter, Georgia, in October. And her inappropriate relationship with Vili Fualaau continued. They were able to exchange clandestine messages, even as Fualaau and his mother sued the school district and the police for failing to stop the relationship (a jury ruled against them in 2002).
Ultimately, Mary Kay Letourneau served seven and a half years in prison total for child rape. But as her release date approached in 2004, both she and Vili Fualaau signaled an openness to reuniting once again.
“I don’t know what my feelings are right now,” Fualaau told Seattle’s KING 5 News just before Letourneau’s release. Fualaau added that he was “kind of nervous. But I know that I do love her.”
Mary Kay Letourneau’s Marriage, Death, And Controversial Legacy
After her release from prison in August 2004, Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau were not supposed to have any contact. But a judge lifted the order when both of them petitioned the court. Just a couple months later, they were engaged. And in May 2005, the 43-year-old Letourneau and the 21-year-old Fualaau got married. Their two young daughters (who had previously been in the care of Fualaau’s mother) served as flower girls.
“Everything that happened in that, sacred spot, where we were doing our vows. It just was kind of like slow motion, but magical,” Letourneau told Dateline a year later. Fualaau added: “The best part is — I liked was when — they announced us husband and wife.”
Over the next decade, Letourneau and Fualaau flitted in and out of the headlines. They stayed near Seattle, where they rented a home on the waterfront and focused on raising their daughters. In 2015, they celebrated their 10-year anniversary with an interview with Barbara Walters. Fualaau often chafed at being described as a victim (though he did admit to struggling with depression and alcohol abuse). Letourneau also demonstrated little regret for how things had turned out.
“Am I sorry he’s the father of my children, and that we’re married and this is the man of my life? No, I am not,” Letourneau said in a 2018 interview.
Indeed, Letourneau and Fualaau sometimes leaned into their notoriety. In 2009, Fualaau, then working as a DJ, hosted a number of “Hot for Teacher” events at a Seattle bar (Letourneau was in attendance and often helped him host). By then, they’d also described their relationship in the book Un Seul Crime, L’Amour (Only One Crime, Love) and their story was portrayed in the TV movie Mary Kay Letourneau: All American Girl. More recently, the 2023 film May December was loosely based on the controversial relationship.
That said, their married life together wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. The couple separated in 2017 and divorced in 2019, which their friends say was simply because their love had gradually faded over time. Shortly thereafter, Mary Kay Letourneau became very sick with cancer.
Though Fualaau had moved from Seattle to California by that point, he returned to be near his ex-wife. The New York Times reports that when she died at the age of 58 on July 6, 2020, Fualaau was by her side.
“[F]or the last two months of Mary’s life, he stood by her 24/7 taking care of her,” Letourneau’s lawyer, David Gehrke, told TODAY.
“So yes, they were divorced and they had their spats, but they were always in love with each other… [Fualaau] knew that this was Mary’s end coming, fast moving, and for her sake and the family’s sake, and for his sake, he came back up and was with her, and it meant the world to her. And I know it meant the world to Vili, as painful as it was.”
Today, Mary Kay Letourneau’s story remains mired in controversy. Though her relationship with Fualaau ultimately lasted over 20 years, it’s impossible to ignore how it began: She was 34 and he was just a middle schooler. Ironically, Fualaau once remarked that he wouldn’t want his own daughters to follow in his footsteps and date someone much older than them.
“I don’t support younger kids being married or having a relationship with someone older,” he said in 2015, when he was 32, just two years younger than Letourneau when their relationship began. “I don’t support it.”
After reading about the controversial story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, see how teacher Jennifer Caswell was ordered to pay $1 million to the family of a 15-year-old student who she raped. Or, discover the disturbing story of Phil Chism, the 14-year-old who killed his teacher.