Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Kay Letourneau: The Romance That was a Crime

A Boy and
His Teacher

Kids at the elementary school liked Mrs. Letourneau and wanted to get into her class.  The pretty, energetic, soft-spoken, nicely-dressed teacher radiated caring and interest in children.  She had an instant rapport with youngsters and knew how to nurture them.  "Before students left," she said, "I made sure I gave them a choice of a high-five, handshake, or a hug.  H.H.H.  I got it from a teacher at Seattle U. and I did it every day with every student since my first second-grade class.  It was a way of touching base, ensuring contact."

Colleagues considered her a good instructor.  However, she always had a problem disciplining her charges.  She did not seem to want to set down rules and, as a result, a certain amount of chaos often ensued in her classroom.

Like so many other women, Mary Kay struggled to meet the demands of her family while holding down a job outside the home.  She was chronically late to work and other appointments.  When asked about this, she said that Steve wanted the kids kept up until he got home so she often had little time to prepare lesson plans unless she herself stayed up late at night.  The result was that she had punctuality problems the next day.

The Letourneau marriage was in increasing trouble. The Letourneaus fought frequently over money as well as Steve's infidelities.  Mary Kay did her best to keep up appearances, outfitting herself and her growing young children in good clothes even when the family had their phone cut off and fell behind on many bills.

As a teacher, Mary Kay often took a special interest in children she considered especially gifted.  A boy in her second grade class was talented in art and Mary Kay made an extra effort to encourage him to develop this talent.  That child, whose name would someday be famously linked to hers, was Vili Fualaau.  His father was in prison for armed robbery and his mother, Soona Fualaau, was working in a bakery as she struggled to support her family.  The Fualaau father was the type of man who bragged that he had fathered 18 children by different women.

The Fualaau family lived in an impoverished area of Des Moines, Washington called White Center.  Olsen wrote that, "The name is a big joke among Seattleites who don't live there.  Toss a rock, they say, and you couldn't hit a white person if your life depended on it."  That is not quite accurate.  The area is home to a lot of Russian immigrants along with Cambodians, Samoans, and African-Americans.  The depressed, rundown area is also nicknamed Rat City for its rodent infestations.

In 1995, Mary Kay had a miscarriage.  Later that year she found out that her father had terminal cancer.  Mary Kay tried to turn to Steve for comfort.  He shrugged it off.  Mary Kay was devastated by his callousness. John's cancer went into remission.  Mary Kay was happy for her father even as she continued to be disappointed by her husband and he by her.

Also in 1995, she got a promotion at Shorewood Elementary School.  She was assigned to teach both fifth and sixth graders.  Students loved her and badly wanted to get into her class.  The principal would eventually issue an evaluation stating, "Mary Letourneau is not only a gift to Shorewood Elementary School, but a gift to the entire Highline School District."

One of the students in her class was familiar to her.  He was Vili Fualaau, then 12 years old, whom she had met and been impressed by when he was a second grader.  Vili was one of a handful of students who would become known as this teacher's pets.

Increasingly, she focused specifically on Vili.  Steve Letourneau later said, "I guess she saw the opportunity to kind of nurture him and I thought that was all it was."  By the time the school year ended in April 1996, other teachers were perplexed by the closeness between teacher and student.  Some commented that their interactions were less like those of an adult with an elementary student than that of two adolescents flirting.

Over the summer, Mary Kay and Vili continued spending much time together.  They took classes together at the Highline Community College and at a Seattle art store.  Mary Kay persuaded her husband to let Vili accompany the family on a trip to Alaska.

Vili and his older brother Perry were often at the Letourneau house.  Neighbors were disturbed by reports that Vili and Perry were smoking and drinking there and Mary Kay was permitting it.

Steve Letourneau was upset that the Fualaau boys were spending so much time at his house.  His wife had more than enough to do without catering to those kids.  Their house was a mess and their finances were a wreck so why were these kids, especially Vili, getting so much of his wife's concern and attention?

While most people looked at Vili and saw the kid as a kid, Mary Kay apparently saw him as an adult in a boy's body.  She would say, "He dominated me in the most masculine way that any man, any leader, could do.  I trusted him and believed in him and in our future."  Others would wonder about the psychological maturity of a 34-year-old woman who was "dominated" by someone barely in his teens.

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