Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Kay Letourneau: The Romance That was a Crime

The Politician's Family

John Schmitz with his family
John Schmitz with his family
Mary Katherine Schmitz was born on January 30, 1962.  She was the fourth child and first daughter of college professor John Schmitz and homemaker Mary Schmitz, both devout Roman Catholics.  Her dark-haired father was so thin he was almost bony. But he was handsome, and with his mustache he looked like movie actor David Niven.  Her mother also had black hair and was pretty and slim.

At the time of Mary Katherine's birth, the Schmitz family lived in sunny southern California in a one-story house in the Orange County community of Tustin.  The family attended mass regularly and Mary called their station wagon "our Catholic Cadillac."  John enjoyed children and possessed a good sense of humor as well as a flair for the dramatic.  He took a part-time job at Disneyland as a "Cobblestone Cop."

Soon after Mary Katherine's birth, her family began calling her "Mary Kay."  John nicknamed her "Cake."  No one else ever called her that.  It was the special name from her Daddy.  Cake was a daddy's girl, always closer to him than to her mother.  "My first memories of my father," Mary Kay would later recall, "were of him always lying on the couch with a book.  And he always had his pipe." The pretty little brown-eyed blonde girl liked to sit on the other end of the couch.

When Mary Kay was two years old, John began a political career. He ran for a seat in the state legislature. He was very conservative, as were most people in his district, and was a member of the John Birch Society. At campaign appearances, John and Mary made a striking couple.

John won easily.  The family moved to Sacramento. 

The family continued to grow.  Mary Kay's sister Terry was born in 1965.  Her sister Elizabeth was born, then baby brother Philip.  When Mary Kay was 7, she had a sexual encounter with one of her older brothers. She saw his penis, and he began fondling her.  Later, Mary Kay would downplay the importance of these incidents.   "I was not forced into anything," she recalled, "but when I decided it was wrong, I said no.  And guess what?  It stopped."

In 1970, John ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and won.  The family moved to Washington, D. C.  John sometimes took his lovely "Cake" to Congress with him and proudly showed off the well-behaved and bubbly young girl.

Reporters found that John Schmitz spoke his mind without reservation and often without concern for whose feelings he might hurt.  He was unabashedly homophobic.  "They like to be called gays," he said.  "I prefer to call them queers."

His wife was getting increasingly involved in conservative political causes.  She campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment and became known as the "West Coast Phyllis Schlafly."  When the ERA went down to defeat, Mary put up a cardboard tombstone for it on her lawn.

John Schmitz became the 1972 Presidential candidate of the extremely right-wing American Independent Party.  No one expected him to win or even to garner as many votes as its previous standard bearer, the far better known Governor George Wallace. However, about one million Americans voted for him, adding up to about 1% of the popular vote.

After this loss, the family moved back to California but not to Tustin or Sacramento.  They bought a far larger and more impressive home, complete with a sparkling swimming pool, in the exclusive Spyglass Hill area of Corona del Mar.

On August 11, 1973, the family and some friends had a little get together in their backyard.  Mary Kay, then 11, was supposed to be watching her 3-year-old brother Philip. 

Suddenly Mary Kay asked, "Where's Philip?" and a panicked family began looking for the baby.  They found him unconscious at the bottom of the pool. He was dead.

A police officer who was first on the scene would recall that Mary Schmitz kept repeating, "I only left him for a minute.  Just a minute."

When asked about this tragedy, Mary Kay would say that it was just an accident and that "nobody" was blamed for Philip's death.  Others close to her would say that Mary felt her parents blamed her.

As she grew up, Mary Kay turned into a very attractive teenager. She made the cheerleading squad at her Roman Catholic high school. Schoolwork was not terribly important to Mary Kay so she tended to let her grades slide.  Her best friend was Michelle Rheinhart (now Rheinhart-Jarvis), another pretty, high-spirited blonde who enjoyed a good time.  They were drawn together because they both liked parties and boys and traveling. 

According to Michelle, the friends had a private saying of their own, "It just doesn't matter," that they would chant when throwing caution to the wind.  They drove to Mexico for the weekend and went to frat parties at a nearby university.

While her oldest daughter was enjoying her youth, Mary Schmitz got a position on a television political commentary program called Free For All, in which she would debate with several other people on various issues of the day.  Mary made a good impression as she spoke out for her strongly conservative viewpoint.  Always well groomed, she came off as intelligent, aggressive, logical, and articulate.

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