TIME Magazine article on Mary Kay Schmitz LeTourneau

Tony Hollick (anduril@cix.compulink.co.uk)
Mon, 4 May 98 02:17 BST-1

TIME Magazine May 4, 1998 VOL. 151 NO. 17

A Matter Of Hearts

An intimate look at the illicit affair that has pitted the vagaries of love
against the unsentimentality of the law


Mary K. Letourneau sat on the steps in front of her home, staring west
across a glorious sunset over Puget Sound. Inside with a friend was baby
Audrey Lokelani, Mary's fifth child and her first with Vili Fualaau, the
teenager she has become so infamous for loving. It was a breezy summer's
eve, and she could smell the fresh-cut grass on her lawn. She squinted into
a blazing horizon. "I had a dream last night," she said, speaking to a
neighbor. "I dreamed I was sitting here watching the sunset. And I sat
there and sat there, but the sun just wouldn't set."

That was last summer, before her life spun completely out of control,
before it was again and again on Oprah and Dateline and Geraldo, before it
was retold (and often mistold) in papers from the New York Times to the
tabloids. Letourneau's relationship with Vili, who turns 15 in June, as
well as her conviction and imprisonment, have drawn international
attention. The BBC has come to Seattle to film a documentary. Her image has
been an alluring paradox: at once darling suburban teacher and predatory
monster; so blond, so pretty, so...dangerous to children? She is more
complicated, of course, and soon several magazines will render her in
brushstrokes instead of spray paint. But even here there is haste:
Mirabella and Spin rushed out advance copies of their articles last week to
preview salacious disclosures. Letourneau, in jail but hardly
incommunicado, expected less trumpeting and more deliberation, since she
had cooperated closely with both writers. For their part, the Fualaaus have
sold the story and pictures of Vili to a tabloid, the Globe, for more than
$20,000. Their decision was understandable--the family has struggled
financially, and a radio host had already identified Vili early in the
week--but even as it ran his picture, the paper labeled him the "boy she
raped." When Mary sees it, she will think it a bit tacky.

She considers herself the victim of a collision of law and love. But if
Mary Letourneau is a complex character in a complicated situation, is she
any less guilty? Her new lawyer--a hotshot New Englander with an accent and
a Ph.D.--is concocting an appeal in secret. More disclosures are sure to
come, and several books are in the works. But could a mountain of paper
make what she did O.K.? Is there any way to defend Mary? The key may lie in
the meanderings of her heart.

There was a moment last year when Letourneau had some time to start a
journal for Audrey so that when the little girl is older, she can
understand this mess. At that time, last summer, the future didn't look so
bleak to Letourneau. She was still talking to her other four children, her
"angels," even though they were moving to Alaska with their dad Steven.
True, her lawyer, David Gehrke, was telling her she had to plead guilty to
"rape of a child." Such a ridiculous charge, she thought. Why couldn't
everyone realize that Vili had come on to her for months? But Dave and his
wife Susan were friends from the neighborhood, good people who assured her
that Dave had obtained a good deal--a few months in jail, then a treatment
program for "sex offenders." Another annoying term, Mary thought. She was
still imagining a life with all five of her kids together as a family. She
and Steve would divorce, but perhaps she and Vili--a sensitive, dreamy soul
who had, to her surprise, become the love of her life--could wed. To this
day, Mary likes to see the bright side.

Within weeks of these musings, brutal reality set in. In August, Letourneau
was taken into custody; in November, she was sentenced to seven years and
five months in prison for having sex with Vili. And though Judge Linda Lau
initially suspended the sentence, her leniency imposed an impossible
condition: Letourneau must not have contact with Vili. In February, Lau
learned that police had caught Mary and Vili together. Livid, she reimposed
the sentence and sent Letourneau to prison.

The February episode looked much worse than it was, say those who really
know Mary and Vili. The two were caught in her car in the dead of night
with wads of cash and Mary's passport. Outsiders thought they planned to
race off to a country that would allow them to marry, but the boring truth
was that they had gone to see Wag the Dog and get some food and beer. As
romantic and manic as Mary can be, she never planned to flee with Vili. To
where? And take him from his mother, the one person who has been sane and
humane throughout all this? No.

Though Mary and Vili kissed and touched, they mainly talked that night. He
needed to vent. He was a normal kid with school pressures, three older
siblings, a hard-working mom and a dad in prison, and now--he still
couldn't believe it sometimes--a baby. Vili has had trouble at school, and
he was arrested on a minor robbery charge last year. Few people listened.
Letourneau, his soul mate, was one.

Before they were caught in the car, they had violated Lau's condition
several times. They met to go to the movies, to try to make sense of their
predicament, and, yes, to have sex. Titanic made their spirits take flight
and their libidos surge--forbidden love, a terrible tragedy, a soaring
sound track. According to the Globe, Vili even sketched Mary in the nude, a
la Jack and Rose.

But if truth is stranger than fiction, it is, in this instance, also
harsher. Mary, 37, is pregnant again, and her and Vili's second child, when
it is born, will be Exhibit A in the likely case that the local prosecutor
will bring fresh charges of rape against her. Though she has persuaded her
prison keepers that she is ill enough to stay in the infirmary--which is
equipped with a phone that she uses constantly--prison is still a terrible
place to be pregnant. The appeal of her original case will take weeks just
to plan, weeks more to be heard, weeks more to be decided. Susan Howards,
her Boston-based appellate lawyer, has been to Seattle only once, for a few
hours. Months, years could pass. Mary is due to give birth to another angel
in the fall, and within 48 hours, a state law enforcer will take the child
from her.

Vili Fualaau is a rather big teen but not a muscular hulk. He has recently
experimented with a mustache, and it's a little wispy. His voice has
deepened, and he's now about 5 ft. 8 in. His appeal is more Leonardo
DiCaprio than Ben Affleck, but mostly he's an average kid--which is to say,
he's extraordinary in his own way. Born in Hawaii to parents who emigrated
from Western Samoa, he loves art and music, and when strangers come by to
meet him--and many, many strangers want to meet him these days--he and Mom
Soona usually begin by showing them his artwork. He draws allegorical
cartoons, zany characters with deeper meanings. Later this month Spin will
run a sample depicting Mary's courtroom as a circus where Fear is the
central, spear-wielding character.

Some friends call him Buddha, and Soona has often called Vili "an old soul
trapped in a young body." He has always seemed mature. In sixth grade, a
couple of years ago, while classmates were writing poems that described
themselves as lovers of "girls, baseball, ice cream...and MTV," Vili wrote
that he was a "Lover of giving, faith, trust...Who likes to wear masks over
his soul." He was just 12.

That is the Vili that Mary fell in love with. She had met him years before,
in her second-grade class, and quickly noticed his talents. He had noticed
her too, and he flirted with her throughout sixth grade. Kids get crushes
on teachers all the time--and, of course, most are rebuffed--but Letourneau
had entered a fragile period. In October 1995, her father, retired G.O.P.
Congressman John Schmitz, had disclosed his terminal cancer. As Mary later
told a psychiatrist, she felt he had died already. "She felt she died too,"
says Dr. Julie Tybor Moore. Her father has always been a rock, even during
his own public whipping. In 1982, an extramarital affair was revealed when
his mistress (a former college student of his) brought one of their two
children to a hospital after the child was injured in an accident. The
hospital requested the father's name, and Schmitz--a church-and-family
conservative--then watched his political career wilt.

Family was always important to Mary; now hers seemed to be disintegrating.
She had been a superteacher, hauling her own kids to her classroom after
dinner so she could chat and play as she finished special projects. But
after learning about her father's illness, she withdrew, declining to take
on a student teacher and saying no to some Girl Scout duties.

Meanwhile, she and Steve were growing distant. They had always been a bit
oddly paired: she the literary romantic, he the frat boy at Arizona State,
where they met in the early '80s. She got pregnant not long after meeting
him, and she married like the good Catholic she has always tried to be. But
by the early '90s, it was clear to friends that even their four children
weren't going to hold Steve and Mary Letourneau together. Expenses outpaced
salaries--Steve loads cargo for Alaska Airlines--and creditors were
phoning. They filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in May 1994.

An inner circle of Mary's friends, a troika who have requested anonymity
even as they talk among themselves of a "campaign" to burnish Mary's public
image, insist that Steve was having affairs and abusing Mary, mostly
verbally but with an occasional shove. (Steve Letourneau and his lawyer
turned down several interview requests.) It got to the point that they were
barely civil. Therapist Moore says Mary remembered that when she told Steve
about her father's cancer, he growled, "What do you want me to do?"

Moore believes that Mary has bipolar disorder--most people know it as manic
depression--an illness with a raft of possible symptoms, from irritability
to hypersexuality. Moore theorizes that "psychosocial stressors" in Mary's
life--the most crucial being the news of her father's cancer--tipped a
disorder that had been mild and all but unnoticed into depression followed
by a nervous breakdown. "I think she was very interested in this boy, and
she had often extended relationships with students after school," Moore
says. "But by [June 1996], she was overly elated, highly revved up and
nearly delusional." Moore notes, "The father had always been the man in her
life--and even the husband was for a time--but then she really began to see
this boy as the man in her life."

Mary has never fully accepted Moore's diagnosis, and her friends disagree
over its accuracy and importance. For their part, prosecutors think she's
more evil than ill. Whatever her true state, in June 1996, she and Vili
became more than close friends. He had stayed at her house many times
before. Soona was working nights making pastries, and she thought the
sleepovers at Mrs. Letourneau's were healthy for Vili. But he had begun
writing Mary romantic poems, and at some point openly asked her to have
sex. She declined at first.

Then, just after midnight on June 19, Steve and Mary were at home arguing,
tossing threats and denunciations around as usual. Vili was there, but he
left amid the fighting. Mary eventually followed him in the van, picked him
up and drove to the marina in a suburb called Des Moines. Her van crept
around the parking lot as they looked for a place to stop, and a security
guard watched it run over a curb. Suspecting a drunk driver, he called the

When they arrived, Officers Rich Niebusch and Bob Tschida couldn't quite
figure out what they were dealing with. They shone a spotlight into the
back window, and a startled Mary jumped from under the covers she and Vili
were sharing and into the driver's seat. She at first lied and said her
companion was 18, and Vili pretended to be asleep. But the officers
questioned him and learned his age. He had just turned 13. Even as Mary
tried to explain herself--there was a fight with my husband; we were just
sleeping; I often watch Vili--they were concerned enough to call in a
sergeant. After all, Mary was clad in a coat and T shirt but "was
bare-legged below the T shirt," Tschida wrote in a report. The sergeant who
arrived later reported that she was wearing a beige skirt. Regardless of
this, it didn't look good, and Vili told the Globe that he and Mary had, in
fact, been "close" to having sex that night.

Somehow, no one beyond the police discovered just how bad it looked. The
cops called Soona, but Fualaau family lawyer Robert Huff says they spoke
with her "for half a minute" before allowing Mary to tell Soona a G-rated
version of the incident. "Mary's a great talker," Huff says, "and Soona
calmed down." Soona then told the police it was O.K. for Vili to go home
with Mary; for reasons that aren't clear, the police didn't press the
issue. They never informed Mary's school, and they decided there wasn't
enough evidence to file charges.

"I think our people went out of their way and followed good protocol on
this," says Des Moines police commander Kevin Tucker. "You know, when they
were talking to the mom and she was saying it was O.K., then basically
there were no signs of criminal activity." In hindsight, of course, there
was every sign: a Washington State statute clearly defines sex with a minor
between the ages of 12 and 16 as rape.

Over the summer, Mary and Vili were able to live out their love. Steve
always worked a lot--he and Mary were still paying into a court-approved
bankruptcy plan and had a hard time meeting mortgage payments. He was used
to seeing Vili around anyway. The teenager told the Globe that he and Mary
had sex in nearly every room of the house.

In the fall, Mary realized she was pregnant. She and Steve hadn't had much
sex in the previous few months, and the baby was definitely Vili's. Steve
was by then very suspicious of the amount of time his wife and her student
were spending together. When he learned that Mary was pregnant and that
Vili was the father, Steve was enraged. Gehrke and Huff, who works as both
the Fualaaus' lawyer and as Mary's media representative, say Steve ranted
about "that n_____ baby" in front of their children. He even confronted his
13-year-old rival, demanding to know if he was having sex with Mary. Vili
said yes.

The Letourneaus were in hell. Steve wasn't sure what to do. Take his
children from their mother? In the end, a relative of his called Mary's
school district anonymously. School officials immediately phoned the cops,
who questioned Vili the next morning. He told the truth, and later that
day, in February 1997, the school principal called Mary out of a faculty
meeting. A detective was waiting to arrest her.

In the long months that she waited to plead guilty (last summer) and be
sentenced (in November), Mary and Steve barely spoke. According to Spin,
she had to sleep in the car outside their home because she was under court
orders not to live in the same house as children, even her own. In a series
of interviews with the TV tabloid show American Journal, Steve said he
cried often during this period and his children were confused and

According to police reports, on May 9, Mary told police that Steve hit her
in the stomach and said, "We want to see the law bury you, and it can't
happen too soon." The officer found a large red mark on her stomach. Steve
was gone, and Mary didn't want to press charges, so the cops left. But Mary
told police that Steve returned that night drunk. As they were talking, he
pulled away in the car quickly, allegedly knocking her hard to the ground.
She was eight months pregnant with Audrey. A neighbor took her to the

Her debacle got little attention at first, but after Mary did some
interviews with a local paper last summer, her attractive face and quixotic
mien changed that. Soon many images of Mary--some of her own creation, most
drawn by others--were emerging. There was the weepy, repentant Mary at her
original sentencing. "Help us. Help us all," she begged the judge. Moore
believes this was "the real Mary," brought back to reality by Depakote, a
mood stabilizer. Others suggest it was a ruse (successful) to win leniency.

But soon enough, Gehrke's hard-won deal didn't look so good. The "Special
Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative" required Mary to tell her kids that
Mommy was a rapist. How could she do that? From behind the scenes, the
image of a truculent, unrepentant Mary then emerged. She stopped taking the
Depakote--her doctor approved, wrongly thinking she would quickly change to
lithium, another medication used to treat bipolar disorder--and started
telling friends that she and Vili were truly in love. "Since when do people
who love each other have to defend it?" she would ask. She quarreled with
her court-approved treatment counselor, Terry Copeland, who in 15 years had
never seen a sex offender in his care return to prison for committing
another sex offense. He has counseled more than 400.

Reporters were creating images of her too, some that Mary disputes. In his
forthcoming piece in Mirabella, Jim Fielder includes an account by a
court-appointed counselor of an incestuous relationship involving Mary and
one of her three brothers. Mary has told friends that the counselor who
wrote this evaluation wildly exaggerated the truth, which was that in an
innocent childhood exploration, she had once touched a brother's penis. She
has told friends she hopes to sue the counselor. Friends say Letourneau is
also angry with Fielder, claiming he not only interviewed her under false
pretenses (she believed he was writing a screenplay) but also took copies
of her psychiatric evaluations from Julie Terry, a close friend with power
of attorney for Mary. Mirabella editor in chief Roberta Myers denied all
the allegations Friday, saying Terry, in fact, gave Fielder the documents.

What's next for Letourneau? New lawyer Howards has to devise an appeals
strategy, which won't be easy. Washington State has led the nation in
aggressively prosecuting sex criminals, and Howards starts out knowing
little about Washington law. She made her name in Boston by helping win the
release of a group of women who had murdered their abusive husbands. But
Mary has told friends that she doesn't think the abuse she has accused
Steve of should be part of the public debate. She is disappointed that
Gehrke pinned her defense on her bipolar condition, and she doesn't want it
emphasized. She will almost certainly claim in an appeal that Gehrke did a
poor job.

Letourneau believes that Gehrke could have sought a deal for her under a
molestation rather than rape statute, one carrying a maximum penalty of 15
months rather than 89 months. She has begun reminding people that Vili was
the "aggressor" in their relationship and that without violence there can
be no rape. But David Allen, a Seattle criminal-defense attorney, says,
"Molestation is a different crime, involving touching or fondling. Rape of
a child in Washington is defined as any penetration, however slight. It's
age-driven, and who the aggressor is or whether it's consensual doesn't

Another long shot for Mary could be a claim that Vili raped her, since she
was vulnerable and didn't have the will to resist his come-ons. So far,
however, Mary has avoided putting any legal burdens on her young lover.
Meanwhile, her friends and lawyers are bickering about how to proceed. The
infighting has worsened in the past few weeks. Howards has tried,
unsuccessfully, to get them all to shut up, and she is the only one who
isn't talking.

Unless Howards works a miracle, Mary K. Letourneau will leave prison in
2005. Vili will be 21. Though the judge ordered Mary never to see him again
for the rest of her life, it's hard to imagine her complying. On the other
hand, seven years is an eternity for a teenager to wait for a girl. Even
so, Vili says he will. "No matter how long I have to wait," he told the
Globe, "I'll be there because our love is so special that nothing can stand
in its way." So far, almost everything has stood in its way.

--With Reporting by Victoria Rainert and Andrea Sachs / New York


/ /\ \

Tony Hollick, LightSmith

http://maelstrom.stjohns.edu/archives/la-agora (LA-Agora Conference)
http://www.agora.demon.co.uk (Agora Home Page, Rainbow Bridge Foundation)
http://www.nwb.net/nwc (NorthWest Coalition Against Malicious Harrassment)

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