Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Kay Letourneau: The Romance That was a Crime

Love in a Van

The Letourneau family, 1991
The Letourneau family, 1991

It was a late June afternoon and Steve Letourneau -- handsome, blond-haired, ruggedly built -- headed home from his job as an airline baggage handler. He was in a bad mood. He worked hard, as did his pretty, thin, schoolteacher wife, Mary Kay, but they could not keep up with the bills.  The couple fought frequently, almost constantly, over money.  Other problems added to their marital tension. Their Des Moines, Washington (the "s" in the "Des" is pronounced) home was always cluttered.  Steve knew that 34-year-old Mary Kay suspected, rightly, that he had been cheating on her. But he had no intention of giving up the extramarital affairs that gave him both solace and excitement.

On top of all that, Mary Kay always had an ex-student from her sixth grade class over at the house.  It was summer and school was out.  Why should that boy, 13-year-old Vili Fualaau, always be hanging around?  It seemed like his wife wanted to informally adopt that kid.  She had more than enough responsibilities as it was.  He and Mary Kay had four children of their own.  Moreover, Steve was tired of Mary Kay constantly singing that Samoan-American boy's praises.  Maybe he was a good artist for a kid his age but so what?  That didn't make him a genius.  Like most people, Steve thought Vili was a nice enough boy but he was just a boy, gangly, awkward, sometimes shy and other times self-consciously daring.  Mary Kay did not seem to want to put her foot down around her former student the way an adult should. She even allowed him to smoke cigarettes in their house.

Letourneau's school lover, younger
Letourneau's school lover,

Making his way through the chaotic rooms, Steve found Vili and one of his own children working on an art project.  The dark-complexioned, curly haired boy was clad as he usually was in the popular "gangster" style of baggy shirt and pants.  Steve slammed down a box full of bills and papers on the kitchen table.  "The school year's over!" he shouted at his wife.  "Get busy working on this."

As Steve shouted, Vili made a quick exit.  Mary Kay jumped into the family minivan and took off after him.  She found the teen walking along a nearby marina.  She slowed the vehicle down and stopped.  Vili got in.  A distressed Mary Kay apologized to the boy for her husband's rudeness.  Then she started crying.

Vili felt a variety of strong emotions churning inside of him.  Despite a 21-year age difference, he had long felt a great closeness to Mary Kay.  Vili would later claim that he had started puberty at 10 so it is perhaps not shocking that he sexually fantasized about this woman who singled him out for praise and shared so many of her most intimate thoughts with him.  For a long time he had believed, or at least hoped, that she shared his feelings.  In a display of adolescent bravado, he had even bet a friend $20 that he "could sleep with the teach."  Some reports say that Vili was a gang member who always carried a knife.  He was eager to grow up. 

As he comforted the weeping woman, holding her, he felt emboldened to go farther.  He kissed her.  To his joy, she returned the kiss.  The two were embracing, touching each other intimately, and kissing deep and passionately.

Flashing lights interrupted the scene.  A night watchman thought the parked car might be suspicious and called police. 

"What is going on here?" an officer asked.

Mary Kay Letourneau
Mary Kay Letourneau

Mary Kay gave her full name and said she was a schoolteacher.  She was watching Vili overnight because his mother worked a late shift.  The boy appeared to be hiding under a sleeping bag.

"How old is the boy?" she was asked. "Eighteen," she replied.

The police were perplexed.  According to a book on the case, If Loving You Is Wrong by Gregg Olsen, an officer "wondered if she was being held captive by the boy or perhaps he was being held against his will."

They prodded Vili.  They could tell by looking at him that he could not be 18.  He had neither a driver's license nor a state ID card.

"How old are you?"

"Fourteen," was the reply.

The police took the pair down to the station.  Officers phoned Vili's mother, Soona Fualaau.  The attractive, plump woman, who wore her black hair in waves cascading down her shoulders, told the police that she trusted Letourneau.  "If he's with her," Soona said, "It's OK."

The two were free to leave.

A few days later, 34-year-old Mary Kay Letourneau and 13-year-old Vili Fualaau first had sexual intercourse.  Vili would later claim they had sex some 300 to 400 times.  The scandal would shock much of the country.  No one would be more stunned than Mary Kay's friends and family. They had always seen her as a kind of "All American Girl" (a phrase that would become part of the title of a made-for-TV movie about the case).  What they didn't know was Mary Kay was in some ways repeating a sordid chapter in her family history.

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