Mary Kay Letourneau
Marie Claire, Jul 2006
He was a 12 year old schoolboy, she was his 34 year old teacher. When they fell in love, she was jailed for 7.5 years. A year after Mary Kay Letourneau’s release, the couple share their bizarre love story exclusively with Sanjiv Bhattacharya.
(Photographs by Mark Greenberg)
“It all started with a bet,” says Vili Fualaau, walking along the pebble beach outside his Seattle home. “When I told my cousin that every girl I asked out said yes he challenged me – he said, ‘I’ll give you $20 if you date your teacher.'”
It was to become one of the most controversial relationships the world has ever seen. At the time, Vili was 12, and his teacher, Mary was 34, married and a mother of four. Within two years, she was pregnant with their second child and serving a seven-year sentence for statutory rape. Now, ten years on, the two are married – Vili and his convicted abuser – and living with their children in a cosy waterfront house.
“Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if he never made that bet,” says Vili, crunching through the shells. “I liked Mary but I never would have actually pursued her without that $20 on the table.”
Flashback to September 1995, the start of the school year, at the nearby Shorewood Elementary School, where Mary taught Vili reading, spelling, geography and history.
“I could tell immediately from the way he was looking at me,” says Mary. “Straight through my clothes with his penetrating eyes. It was a bit intimidating. I’d look around the class to see if they understood what I was teaching, but I’d get to him and think ‘Woah, you’re thinking about something else entirely.'”
Pretty and soft-spoken, Mary, 44, joins Vili, 23, on the sofa in their somewhat disheveled living room. As she recalls their first encounters, she looks to him for reassurance, but Vili just sits silently at her side.
“One time he put a tape recorder on my desk, pressed play and walked out. This sexy song came on ‘Hey lady, I want to be your man.’ Another time he asked me, ‘Would you ever have an affair?’ I was shocked. I thought it was quite rude. So I said, ‘If a person is in a loving relationship, then an affair would never be in the picture.’ I didn’t want to let on that I knew he was talking about me.” (At the time, Mary was still technically married to Steve Letourneau, though it was a chilly union. She dismisses it as “an arranged marriage, a Catholic thing. We separated in October, but we still lived in the same house. We just slept in different rooms.”)
But Vili was relentless. “Every night after that bet I tried to figure out what to do next, how to get her to say yes,” he says. “It was like homework for me.” At times, he would disrupt her class to get her attention, even bringing her to tears. Sometimes he made lewd comments. “Remember when I said, ‘I’ve got a present for you. It’s in my pocket’?” he says.
But Vili also showed a romantic side. A skilled artist, he drew her pictures and left poems on her desk. Mary was charmed. “I love how romantic Vili is,” she says. “That was the first thing that attracted me to him.”
As his teacher, she got to know him. “He was an extraordinarily gifted artist and his spiritual side showed through. Even then, parents and teachers were buying up his paintings. The more we talked, the more we clicked.”
Naturally submissive, Mary was also feeling vulnerable. “My dad was dying, and I’d just separated from my husband,” she says, her eyes fixed on Vili. “He could just tell. He’s so observant. When my husband came to the school to see me, he noticed the tension between us. He said, ‘Don’t worry, things will get better.’ Vili used to brighten up my day.”
Vili also had a difficult home life. With an absent father, his mother and sister took charge and ruled with an iron fist. “In the end I was just being beaten like a wild pig,” he says. “With a stick, a broom, cable wires. There’s really no sunshine in my childhood. The only sunshine I had back then was Mary.”
One day at school Vili could contain himself no longer. He told her, “You know I’m in love with someone.” Mary replied, “Does she know?” and he said, “I think so.”
Playing along, Mary questioned him: “Is she with someone else? Yes. Does she love this person? No. Then I asked him, ‘Do you think she loves you?’ and Vili looked right at me and said, ‘I don’t know, does she?’ I just panicked, but I wanted him to know I cared. So I said, “Do you think you can wait?” For me, that was the point that we crossed the line.”
A couple of days later, Vili asked Mary how old she thought she would be when she died. “I said ‘Oh probably 100, because my grandmother’s 100 and she’s so active and still playing the piano,’ and Vili just cut me off. He said, ‘Then I’m not going to live past 80 because I won’t live a day on this earth without you.’ I almost cried. It was the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me.”
When school broke for the summer of 1996, both Vili and Mary vowed to stay in touch. “We were really good friends,” she says. “But I wasn’t thinking about a relationship. I had so much to get through over the next couple of years, what with my divorce.”
So she enrolled him into a community art class and he insisted she join him. That summer they were inseparable. Free from the student-teacher boundaries, their relationship blossomed. “I felt I could share things with Vili – about my broken marriage and about my father being sick. He professed his love for me in this very serious, mature way, but I remember telling him in tears – ‘I’m 20 years older than you, I’m a mother, I love you but you don’t need to be this serious in your life right now. Go and play.’ But he just held my face in his hands and said ‘recess is over’.”
They first kissed one night after art class in the car park of a nearby restaurant. Vili, now 13, instigated it, Mary succumbed. And it wasn’t long before they were having sex. Vili was a virgin, but undaunted by the prospect of a woman 20 years her senior being his first. “It felt completely natural. And it felt good,” he grins. “It became like an addiction, I wanted it all the time.”
Both knew their affair would be frowned on, but neither imagined how it would rip their lives apart. Or that it would blow up into one of the biggest media scandals of the decade. Back then, all Vili was afraid of was a “whupping from my mom” and Mary just wanted to shield her children, who were already dealing with their parents’ separation.
“We never had to rent hotel rooms,” says Mary. “We always found our little places. Whether it was at my house or in the backyard. My husband still lived there – even though we were separated – but in the day the kids had their activities and he was at work, so Vili and I had the place to ourselves. Luckily, his mother didn’t mind him staying over. She knew we were best friends so she was like, ‘Oh, you can have him’. Which we loved!”
Vili loved their clandestine trysts – “sneaking around made it more sexy” he says. But Mary found it sad – “we were so in love that it hurt not being able to be open.” In any case, their cover would soon be blown. By September, Mary was pregnant. “I just felt this enormous sense of relief,” she says. “For my whole marriage I had been thinking, ‘How am I ever going to get a divorce?’ Being pregnant, the decision was made for me.”
At the start, a quick divorce seemed possible. She had been separated from her husband, Steve, for almost a year, but when his new relationship ended, he wanted her back again. His attitude was ‘You’re still legally my wife, I’m demanding sex so why aren’t you giving it to me?’ When I kept pushing him off me, he started looking for evidence of something going on between me and Vili.”
Eventually he confronted Vili who admitted their affair. With Mary’s bump becoming more obvious, Steve took revenge. Being upped by a 14-year-old had stung his ego. “Since I wouldn’t get an abortion, he tried to force an abortion in his own way,” says Mary. “He kicked me to the ground and crushed my tailbone. That was a dark time.”
Little did she know her nightmare had only just begun. She claims she had no idea that sex with Vili was a crime. When her husband first told her she’d committed a felony, she assumed it was a sick lie. “I thought he was just trying to manipulate me into getting an abortion,” she says. “The only person I thought might get in trouble was Vili, because I was the one saying no, and he was pretty aggressive. If this person is pursuing me sexually and I’m trying to fight him off – how can I be in trouble? I really thought those rules just applied to men.”
But when the police appeared at her school in February 1997 it set in motion a chain of events that would cost Mary her career, her reputation and her freedom. Already almost seven months pregnant, she was led into a police car while the teachers and pupils watched in amazement.
Disgusted by the affair, one of Mary ex-husband’s relatives had gone to the police. Within hours an almighty scandal erupted with blaring headlines painting her as a depraved sexual predator and Vili as the hapless victim. Doubly shocking was that a teacher could abuse her authority – a charge she strongly denies.
“Nothing happened while he was my student, I was very careful about that,” she says. “The relationship only began after the school year ended and we were co-students at the community art class. And Vili had finished at Shorewood. After the summer, he was going to start a new school. Our student-teacher relationship was completely over. Anyway if anyone was in authority it was Vili, not me. I’m not one of those new women who likes to have control – I like a dominant man. And he is – personality-wise and sexually. And I like that.”
But isn’t it odd for a woman to want sex with a 13-year-old boy? Especially considering Vili was only 18 months older than Mary’s eldest son, Steve Jnr?
“Superficially you can say that, but people start developing into adulthood, physically at different ages,” she says. “Vili looked like a man when he was 10. My son didn’t until he was 15. Vili was just miles beyond my son in maturity. Even his mother describes him as an old soul in a young body. She wasn’t surprised that Vili could have such a strong connection with someone my age.”
But the authorities didn’t agree. Mary was charged with second degree child-rape and a court hearing was set for August 7th 1997. With Mary dubbed as a sex offender, her four children were sent to her parents and her ex-husband returned to his home in Alaska. That left Mary and Vili together in her home, defying a strict no-contact order. Separated from her family, a terrified Mary clung to Vili more than ever. When her contractions began, it was Vili who drove her to hospital – at the age of 14. But they would only have a six months together with baby Audrey before Mary was sent to jail.
In court, her attorney advised her to plead guilty rather than go through a trial – a decision she immediately regretted. Desperate to avoid prison and be reunited with her children, Mary agreed to undergo sex-offender treatment in return for a suspended sentence that required she spend only 80 days in jail. But the plan backfired.
“The man in charge of my treatment sat there behind the glass in the jail and said, ‘You’re not allowed any contact whatsoever with your children – not a birthday card, not even a message through your own mother. Nothing. Just like all the other men in my sex-offender programme.’
Even the fact that she’d just given birth made no difference. “I said, ‘How many of those men just delivered a new-born baby?’ My only chance, he said, was if ‘you admit you molested that little boy’. At that moment I decided to go to prison and fight my case. I didn’t molest anyone. And no one was going to tell me I couldn’t see my kids. At least in prison I could see them – when their birthdays came up or when they lost a tooth, we could either talk on the phone or they could visit.”
Intent on prison, she deliberately broke the rules of her sentence. She kept in contact with Vili and her children, and ignored her treatment programme. “They wanted to put me in a room with 12 other men, all sex-offenders. No way! I thought they would be forced to send me to prison when I didn’t show up.”
As it turned out, she was caught in a car with Vili two days before her treatment appointment, and only a month after her release. Armed with her passport and $6200 in cash, the media had a field-day. The inveterate sex-offender had returned to her victim! Was she going to flee the country with him? Why else the cash and the passport?
“I had the cash because I took it out of the bank so that my husband wouldn’t take it – our divorce hadn’t gone through yet,” she explains. “And my passport was just one of all the important possessions I was going to put into storage in case I went to prison. Why would I leave the country when all I wanted was to see my children?”
This time, however, the courts made a public example of her. Describing her violation as “extraordinarily egregious” the judge gave her seven and a half years. But the drama was far from over. During the four weeks that she had been out, she managed to conceive another child with Vili. So eight months after she began her sentence in March 1998, she gave birth to her second child, Georgia – behind prison walls.
Going from a comfortable middle-class life as a teacher, to the confines of the Washington Correctional Center for Women, took its toll on Mary. And this time, there was no Vili to turn to. Still reeling from the trauma of having her baby Georgia snatched away straight after her birth, Mary also witnessed two suicides, both of them inmates she knew well.
Though the wardens had no sympathy for her, finding any excuse to stop her seeing her children, the public did and the letters flooded in – once 60 in one day. Throughout her seven-year incarceration, Mary was banned from contacting Vili or his family, who were raising their daughter, Audrey at the time. But still, that didn’t stop her.
“I used to put secret messages on the packets of breast milk that I sent out. We had a coding system – ‘104’ was ‘I love you’. We’ve got a whole list – song titles too, like ‘Oh Happy Day’ and ‘Let’s Get It On’.”
Left to face the outside world, Vili plunged into despair. “When Mary went to prison it hit me hard,” he says. “I went into a deep depression which the counselors said that Mary gave me, but I kept telling them – no, you did this to me. You took Mary away. They said that Mary had just manipulated my feelings because that’s what sex offenders do. But they didn’t know Mary, they’d never met her.”
With no one else to confide in, Vili went off the rails. “I got into drugs. I dropped out of school. Everywhere I went, everyone knew who I was – I felt naked whenever I went out. It was horrible. And at home, I couldn’t raise Audrey the way I wanted – my mother took over. I was so angry and frustrated, I didn’t trust anyone.”
A symptom of Vili’s confusion was his attempt, in 2002, to sue the school for not protecting him from Mary. Under pressure from his mother to get a million dollar payout, he stood up in court and disavowed his love for Mary. But the jury didn’t buy it and neither did Mary.
“I always knew he loved me,” she says. “The kids would tell me when they visited – ‘Daddy loves you mommy’. Just before I left, they sang me a song – they said they’d promised daddy they would. The chorus went ‘Will you marry me?’ I just sat there, tears rolling down my face.”
By the time she was released in August 4th 2004, Vili was 21 and Mary was 42. Two days later, the courts lifted the no-contact order and on Valentine’s Day 2005, they got engaged – a registered sex offender and her ‘victim’.
Their wedding in May was a lavish ceremony at a Seattle winery with over 250 guests. Her oldest children from her first marriage came and her two daughters with Vili were flower girls. It was televised on the primetime US TV show Entertainment Tonight, one of many media offers the now-notorious couple receive, the largest of which topped $600,000.
Now living off this TV payout and slowly piecing together their lives as a family. Georgia and Audrey are now eight and nine. After a seven-year separation, Mary two eldest children, Steve Jnr and Mary Claire, from her first marriage have finally moved back in with them. At first, Vili was wary. “I didn’t know what they thought of me,” he says. “Maybe they blamed me for their mum going to prison. Especially with Steve Jr [now 19]. I didn’t really know my place.” But he insists these teething troubles have passed.
So they found their happy ending? “It’s wonderful how everyone is getting along,” says Mary, welling up. “Vili’s such a great father, it’s a joy to see him with the kids.”
Meanwhile, Vili hopes to find work as a tattoo artist. He was recently convicted of drunk driving, but dismisses it as just a foolish mistake. “It was Christmas, I’d had a couple of drinks and I was giving my brother a ride home,” he shrugs. “I wasn’t impaired. I was careless.”
Mary has other concerns – first she wants to remove her status as a sex offender. “There’s a way to do it if you appeal,” she says, brightly. And after that? She gazes out of her window at a gorgeous sunset. “I’m working on a book about what I’ve been through. Then maybe I’ll return to teaching. But most important of all Vili and I want the experience of actually raising a baby together.” She beams. “So we’re trying for number seven!”