‘We were in love. How can it be a crime?’: how 34-year-old Mary Kay Letourneau fell in love with her 12-year-old student

They seem like an ordinary family. A mum, dad and two children, having a picnic beside a picturesque lake. Yet this family is anything but normal.

For a brief time, they were the most talked about family on earth.

Mary Kay Letourneau made world headlines when she seduced her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau.

Vili is now her husband, and their children – Audrey, born while their mother was on trial, and Georgia was born in prison.

It all began very differently. Mary Kay Letourneau was a much-liked and respected teacher at Shorewood Elementary School. She was married to husband Steve and had four children.

She first met Vili when he was just eight years old. He was a student in Mary Kay’s Year 2 class.

Things wouldn’t get physical for another four years, when, acting on a dare, 12-year-old Vili made his move during summer school.

“I remember she was very pretty,” Vili tells Sunday Night’s Matt Doran. “I think it was more of showing off to a cousin of mine, betting because we used to brag about girls when we were young. ‘Oh that girl likes me, no she doesn’t, I bet you that you can’t get whatsername.’ So I ended up taking the bet and pursued Mary.”

“Mary and I became really close and then I forgot about the bet.”

Mary and Vili tried to keep their relationship secret, but were caught together by police.

Lawyer David Gehrke was a friend and neighbour of Mary’s, who would go on to represent her at trial, and recalls the encounter.

“[The police] got there and Mary pops out of the car and she’s wearing a t-shirt. There was this young child sleeping – Vili – so that raised some questions. Mary, smart and quick, said, ‘No, I am his teacher – his mum knows he is with me.’”

Despite the suspicious story, the incident was never investigated further. But rumours quickly began to spread through the tight-knit community –  not only was there an affair between a female teacher and a student, but the teacher was pregnant.

“It was front page in the Seattle Times,” David explains. “The rumour was a Highline School district teacher was impregnated by a sixth-grade student, and that really got tongues buzzing. Then one Friday night, I got a phone call from my good friend Lee and he said, ‘David, it’s Mary.’ That’s all he had to say, and I knew immediately what he meant.”

Despite the gossip, Mary and Vili continued their illicit relationship. She even brought Vili back to her family home on numerous occasions.

A few months into their secret affair, Mary fell pregnant to Vili. At the time, she was still married and living with her husband Steve Letourneau and their four children.

Steve suspected she’d been unfaithful – but then he discovered dozens of notes and letters that confirmed his wife was in a sexual relationship with Vili.

Steve moved out, and it wasn’t long before a relative of Steve’s reported Mary’s affair with Vili to her school district. In March 1997, she was arrested and charged with child rape.

To this day, Mary claims she had no idea she was committing a crime.

But it was a crime – and Mary needed a lawyer fast. She hired her friend and neighbour, David Gehrke.

David recalls Mary’s reaction when they first discussed the situation. “’But we were in love. It’s love. I didn’t make him do anything. If anything, he was wanting it. He was pushing for it. We were in love. How can it be a crime?’ I had to repeat many times in many different ways why it’s a crime.”

At the trial, she stated, “I did something I had no right to do, morally or legally it was wrong, sorry.”

While she admitted in court that she broke the law, Mary now denies any wrongdoing.

Even though Vili had been 12 when the affair began, she reached a deal with prosecutors to get her a lesser penalty by pleading guilty to the second-degree rape of a 13-year-old.

Two months after being charged, Mary gave birth to Audrey.

When Mary was eventually sentenced to 6 months’ jail, Audrey was placed in the care of Vili and his mother.

Despite her conviction, imprisonment and the public condemnation, Mary’s relationship with Vili was far from over. She was released from prison after three months on strict parole conditions forbidding any contact with Villi. But again, she defied the law.

When police caught the couple in a car together, Mary was arrested on the spot and hauled back to court to face the same judge who had ordered her to have no contact with Vili.

Mary was sentenced to a maximum of seven and a half years in prison – but to make things even worse, she was pregnant again.

Mary and Vili’s second child, Georgia, would be born in jail.

Mary told Matt Doran she was wrongfully imprisoned. “Absolutely. I did the best that I felt at the time the decision that I made, and I tried to take the guilty plea back when I realised I was tricked and coerced into it.”

While in prison, Mary secretly sent Vili love letters, and the pair had an arrangement allowing Vili to have girlfriends.

On the outside, Vili and his mother Soona raised their two daughters Audrey and Georgia.

At times, it was tough for the teenage Vili. “I had no idea what I was doing. It’s kind of like… you swim or you drown.”

Yet Vili kept going for the sake of his children.

Audrey is now 21 and Georgia 19. This is the first time they’ve ever spoken publicly about their parents’ relationship.

“It doesn’t feel any different,” Audrey explains. “It’s not really brought to our attention. We grew up with it so we’re adapted to it, I guess.”

When Mary was released from prison, the couple was determined to live together as a family with their two children – which was now legal because Vili was 21. In 2005, they were married.

Mary is doing her best to be a good mother – not only to Audrey and Georgia, but to her other four children with whom she has a strained relationship.

She is also living her life on the right side of the law – practicing as a legal clerk in the same court house where she famously appeared more than two decades ago.

Vili once dreamed of becoming a professional artist, but those ambitions were overtaken by the responsibilities of being a father while he was still a child.

These days works as a builder’s labourer. On a work site away from Mary, he admitted there are problems with their marriage.

“I can’t regret my two daughters and the entire life that I’ve already lived,” Vili says. “I’ve learned that [being] regretful is actually a bad thing. Everything that’s already happened is already meant to be. It’s my journey through life, so I’ve got to live it out.”

Reporter: Matt Doran

Producers: Andrea Keir