As far as 2020 shocks go, it wasn't the biggest, but when the news came in, it was certainly surprising: Former teacher Mary Kay Letourneau had passed at the age of 58, following a six-month fight with metastatic cancer few realized she'd had.
"We are deeply saddened to share the very difficult news that our beloved Mary passed away peacefully on July 6th 2020 after a six month battle since being diagnosed with stage IV, or metastatic, cancer. Mary fought tirelessly against this terrible disease," eldest son Steven Letourneau Jr. shared in a statement. "It is in that spirit that we ask for privacy and respect for our desire to focus on the road ahead for all of us who make up Mary's collective family."
That list would include her other three children with first husband Steve Letourneau and two more with Vili Fualaau, the estranged husband she had officially separated from last year after several long months in are-they-or-aren't-they limbo.
"I'm not surprised that they got married," Letourneau's lawyer and friend David Gehrke told People in 2017, when the duo first announced their split. "And I'm not surprised, in this day and age, that they are separating."
Theirs was a relationship that spanned decades and captured the attention of the world, its existence dissected at water coolers across America and in more than a made for TV movies. Because their boy-meets-girl story started when Fualaau, 37, was an actual boy. And Letourneau had been his teacher. Their older daughter was born while Letourneau was on trial for child rape, and their younger daughter was born while she was in prison.
"I thought this could be trouble, because it's not really a social norm," Letourneau reflected in 2004 about her choices on CNN's Larry King Live, "but I didn't—I didn't have an idea—I didn't believe that it was a felony. It just...I knew it just didn't...just wasn't normal."
In 1996, Letourneau was a well-liked, well-respected teacher at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien, Wash. Born Mary Kay Schmitz, she had been married to Steve Letourneau since 1985, the pair deciding to marry while students at Arizona State after she got pregnant. They had four children between the ages of 11 and 2.
Letourneau's father, John Schmitz, was a former Republican state senator and congressman representing Orange County—who, it was discovered in 1982, had extra-maritally fathered two children with a former student of his from when he taught at Santa Ana College. The known conservative, whose views proved too extreme for the John Birch Society, embarked on the affair in 1973, the same year his 3-year-old son Philip accidentally drowned in the family pool. Schmitz died in 2001, still married to Letourneau's mother, Mary, after 47 years.
"John and Mary were just so ideologically strict, so repressive," women's rights advocate and attorney Gloria Allred, who knew the couple, told People in 1998. "I'm sure [Mary Kay] never felt comfortable talking to them about things she might have been feeling."
Letourneau had known Vili Fualaau since he was 8 years old and in her second-grade class. Vili's parents were divorced and he lived with his mother, Soona. His dad, in prison at the time for armed robbery, had been married five times; Vili had 17 siblings. Letourneau knew his mom and other members of the family.
Fualaau was barely 13 and had just finished sixth grade, again having been in Letourneau's class, when their sexual relationship began. They were both taking the same art class at a community college that summer and she encouraged his drawing and poetry writing.
Letourneau claimed that she was separated from her husband when the affair began, that she would still have had feelings but would have resisted acting on them if she knew it was a felony. She described the build-up to the affair as "a million moments that just kept building something very beautiful and scary at the same time." In 1996 she had suffered a miscarriage and subsequently became depressed. She wasn't looking to fall in love, she said.
She later told Larry King that she and Villi had a "really compatible sense of humor" and a similar "perspective on life."
Vili had begun his adolescent advances after making a bet with his cousin that he could "get" Mary. "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 later told Dateline. He objected to being called a victim.
On Australia's Sunday Night in 2018, he recalled, "Mary and I became really close, and I kinda forgot about the bet."
Police came across them sitting in Letourneau's van one evening, parked near the marina, but a quick phone call to Fualaau's mother confirmed that the child was with a trusted adult.
"He said there was nothing between them," his mother later told the Seattle Times. "And I assumed I could trust her with my son."
Steve Letourneau discovered the illicit relationship in February 1997 when he came across love letters his wife had stashed away. He didn't know just yet that she was six months pregnant.
A relative of her husband reported her to the police, and Letourneau was arrested and charged with rape of a child. The argument that the tween-age boy pursued her and she didn't know that what she was doing was a crime, and that they were so in love, roundly fell on deaf ears.
"There was a respect, an insight, a spirit, an understanding between us that grew over time," Letourneau told the Seattle Times in 1997. "It was the kind of feeling you have with a brother or sister—a feeling that they're part of your life forever." But she "didn't know what it meant." And it certainly wasn't sexual at first. "I felt that one day he might marry my daughter," she added.
(Meanwhile, when you look at all the press coverage from the time, Vili is frequently referred to as "the boy," or "the student," because names of victims or alleged victims of sex crimes aren't generally published, especially when they're minors.)
Apparently the affair wasn't exactly a secret at the school, according to Gregg Olsen, author of If Loving You Is Wrong, a 1999 book about the case. "A janitor caught them in the stall, in a bathroom stall at one point. Other teachers saw them kiss," he told CBS News. Vili said in a court deposition that they snuck up to have sex one night on the roof of Letourneau's house.
During the trial, in May 1997, Letourneau gave birth to her first child with then 14-year-old Vili, daughter Audrey Lokelani.
She ended up pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape, telling the judge, "Your honor, I did something that I had no right to do, morally or legally. 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."
She was given a suspended 89-month prison sentence and ordered to spend six months in jail, including credit for time served. She was released on Jan. 2, 1998, and as part of the terms of her release was ordered to get counseling and stay away from Fualaau, whose family was caring for Audrey.
Barely a month later, however, police spotted the 36-year-old woman and 14-year-old boy in a car parked in front of her house. According to police, the car was full of young men's clothing, baby clothes, photographs, groceries, personal documents, a lock box with $6,200 in cash and, tucked near the gas pedal, Letourneau's passport. She had purchased a pager for Vili to get in touch with her.
Child Protective Services were alerted by Vili's therapist that they had resumed their sexual relationship (although contrary to some rumors at the time, they weren't having sex in the car when the cop saw them).
Back in custody, Letourneau was put on suicide watch. Her attorney argued that she suffered from bipolar disorder and had stopped taking her medication after leaving jail, prompting her to take "really stupid risks."
"Everyone said this was going to happen," her attorney David Gehrke said on MSNBC at the time. "We were not surprised. Whether it's true love, whether it's sick love, whether it's an obsession or whatever, you can't start her in treatment one week and say, 'You're cured.'" Vili initiated the contact, he said.
Letourneau was sent to prison to serve out her original sentence.
That March, it was revealed she was pregnant with her and Vili's second child.
"She's upset that this news came out so early in the pregnancy," Gehrke told reporters at the time. "It seems like someone at the prison had access to her medical records and released the information prematurely without her permission." He would not say who the father was, only that he knew about the pregnancy.
"She's concerned about how this will lay on her future, her children, her image," Gehrke added. "It's another blow to everyone."
Meanwhile, Steve Letourneau divorced her and moved with their four kids to Alaska. "I'm kind of speechless," Steve told People in March 1998, after Letourneau was locked up again. "It's like taking a picture of our family from the wall and throwing it on the ground." Their kids were "handling it pretty well," he said, "considering their anger."
Mary Kay and Vili's daughter Georgia was born later that year at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Wash., then eventually also went to live with Audrey in the custody of Vili's mother.
Two cheesy TV movies were made about the Letourneau scandal in 2000, Fox's Unauthorized: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story and the "highbrow" one, USA's Mary Kay Letourneau: All American Girl, starring Penelope Ann Miller as the teacher who unwittingly gained legions of schoolboy fans with her criminal behavior.
"It's shock value. That's what it was all about. Shock. I call it media carnage. Road kill. Blood," Letourneau lamented the rabid coverage of her case years later on A&E's Biography.
For the seven and a half years Letourneau was in prison, she was allowed no visits from or contact from Fualaau, though they managed to get messages to each other. She ran a math lab and says she had an overall OK time with her fellow inmates, though some of the staff were verbally cruel. One of the biggest blows was not being allowed to attend her father's funeral in 2001.
Letourneau got out of prison in August 2004.
"She wants to be a mother, she wants to be a responsible member of society," attorney and friend Anne Bremner told the AP at the time.
"I don't know what my feelings are right now," Fualaau told Seattle's KING 5 News on the eve of her release, admitting he was "kind of nervous. But I know that I do love her."
During her time away, Fualaau had dropped out of high school, though in 2004 said he was working on his GED. "I tried to get my mind away from everything," he told People. "I was partying, drinking too much. Too many hangovers." His mother had unsuccessfully tried to sue the school district for negligence.
Two months after her release, Letourneau told Larry King in her first interview since being back on the outside that she and Fualaau were engaged. (They had to petition a judge to dissolve a no-contact order first.)
Recalling the lead-up to the scandal being national news, Letourneau said that neither she nor Fualaau ever considered not having the baby when she got pregnant the first time. She encouraged him to stay in school and she planned to take maternity leave and pursue a new career.
But when her husband found out, the plan unraveled. She insisted Steve's anger had more to do with her having an affair than with Fualaau's age—but the reality was, it didn't matter. She had committed an egregious crime.
Asked if the children, whom she did get to see while she was locked up, knew anything about what was going on, she explained to King, " I mean, the story is that their mother was away at prison. And now, finally, their mommy and daddy are back together. And that's the story. And I've told my oldest one, at least, that, you know, mommy's doing a time-out."
Her four eldest children had visited from Alaska four times a year. Gehrke's wife, Susan, would drive Audrey and Georgia to the prison twice a month to see her. Steve Letourneau eventually remarried.
"I know that my children and I are going to work very closely through this, and use as many resources as we have to to make sure we grow through this in a healthy way," Letourneau also said on Larry King Live. "...I'm very sensitive to each of my older children's developmental level and their understanding right now....I'm there for them right now. They're in Alaska, but I stay very close in touch with them. And it's not—it hasn't been appropriate to talk with my 10 and 12-year-old right now. I'll do that with their father, knowing, you know, that...of course, I'll answer questions that they directly, and I have answered questions. "
Letourneau said that she didn't consider her life to be "tumultuous," a word King used. Rather, it was "blessed."
"I'm healthy. My children are healthy. And I still have a mother. And I come from a very loving family. And I have Vili," she said. At the time, she was not allowed to leave the state of Washington without permission. She could teach again, she said, just not in the public school system.
Letourneau, 43, and Fualaau, 21, got married in May 2005 at a winery in Woodinville, Wash., in what could almost be mistaken for normal circumstances. They set up registries at Williams Sonoma, Macy's and Tiffany. Their daughters were flower girls.
David Gehrke bought them a telescope.
"They've got this nice little place on the beach and there's always things to look at," the lawyer and family friend said on MSNBC's The Abrams Report. "We figure, the little girls are there and they can watch the ships go by, and there's eagles that fly by."
They remained in the Seattle area to raise their kids. Fualaau is an aspiring DJ—Letourneau even hosted a "Hot for Teacher" night at a bar where he was deejaying in 2009. As of late Letourneau was working as a legal assistant—something she had expressed her desire to do upon her release from prison—while Fualaau was employed at a home and garden center.
It was déjà vu in 2014 when Letourneau was arrested again—this time for failing to show up at a hearing a year after being cited for driving with a suspended license—taken away due to unpaid tickets. She paid a fine after showing proof of her license renewal.
In April of 2015, ahead of their 10th wedding anniversary, she and Fualaau sat down with Barbara Walters for ABC News.
"The incident was a late night, and it didn't stop with a kiss," Letourneau recalled about their first sexual encounter. "And I thought that it would, and it didn't."
"It was a huge change in my life, for sure," Fualaau said. "I don't feel like I had the right support or the right help behind me. From my family, from anyone in general. I mean, my friends couldn't help me because they had no idea what, what it was like to be a parent, I mean, because we were all 14, 15."
Being barred from talking to Letourneau, the mother of his kids, was difficult. "I mean, if they gave me more options or choices to make instead of just saying, 'Oh, you can't talk to her anymore,' and I was like, 'I really do want to talk to her, though,'" he recalled.
The fractured fairy tale appeared to be coming to an end when Fualaau filed for a legal separation in May 2017.
However, he told Radar Online afterward, "It's not necessarily what you think. Everything is fine between us...All the rumors that you hear between us. It's fine." Rather, he was trying to start a business, and he wanted to disentangle himself from a potentially messy background check.
"When you want to get licensed, they do background checks on both parties," Fualaau explained. "If I decide to be a part of it I have to be licensed and I have to be vetted and so does a spouse. She has a past. She has a history."
Sure enough, they were spotted together soon afterward. And on a 2018 episode of A&E's Autobiography, they appeared together and Letourneau simply said they weren't talking about it.
Asked on Australia's Sunday Night in a special that aired in September 2018 if he had any advice for his younger self, Fualaau cracked, "Don't do it!" He laughed and added, "I can't regret my two daughters and the entire life that I've already lived."
"I think I understand about it, just like how it was surprising to people,'' their daughter Audrey, now 22, said about her parents' relationship. "It's been feeling different because it's not really been brought to our attention, just because we grew up with it, so we're adapted to it." She and Georgia consider their mom to be on the strict side, Audrey revealing that Letourneau once cut the padding out of one of her bras.
Their dad "definitely feels like a young dad now that I'm at that adult age to where I can go to a bar,'' Audrey said. "He's like a 'friend dad.'"
And 24 years after the whole thing began, Letourneau hasn't changed her story.
"I was pursued, and I didn't think about it," Letourneau also said on Sunday Night. "I did not think about it. Didn't."
"Was it right?" mused Fualaau, sitting next to her. "Was it wrong? I don't know."
Letourneau still feels that she was wrongfully imprisoned. "I did the best that I felt at the time with the decision that I made," she said, "and I tried to take the guilty plea back when I realized I was tricked and coerced into it."
The whole thing wasn't her idea, she continues to insist.
"Who was the boss?" she turned and asked Fualaau. "Who was the boss?"
"I don't know what to say," he said quietly. "Who was the boss?" she asked, louder.
"What?" "Who was the boss back then." "It was me pursuing you," he agreed. "Who was the boss back then?" she repeated.
He laughed and said, "This is ridiculous." "No, who was? Just say it," Letourneau insisted. "All I knew is what I knew back then," Fualaau said uncomfortably as she continued to press him on who the boss was.
"This is getting weird," Fualaau replied.
With so much dramatic history between them, it felt impossible their story might end with something as pedestrian as a straightforward divorce, the love having faded over time.
And yet that's precisely what friends said as their split became reality last year. "The intimacy was gone," a source told People. "That's not to say they didn't love each other, but it wasn't what it used to be." Just like that, it was over, continued the source: "For years, there was hope it would work. There was hope up until the time where it was clear that the hope had faded away."
(Originally published Nov. 24, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT)