Their relationship was born in scandal. But now that Mary Kay Letourneau, the ex-teacher, and Vili Fualaau, her former student, are officially engaged, they appear eager to embrace normalcy. What matters most, if their bridal registry is any guide, is having sensibly priced housewares. Few people, though, are likely to forget the dirty linen from their past, including the 7½ years that Letourneau served for seducing Fualaau when he was 13. “I think they’re a bit nervous,” says Christina Dress, who befriended Letourneau while both were behind bars. “There are a lot of people with harsh opinions of them. I don’t know if it’s going to come off like the fairy-tale wedding she’s hoping.”
While Letourneau, 43, and Fualaau, 22, who have two daughters together, get on with their improbable lives, a rash of similar cases has once more focused attention on the issue of female teachers accused of molesting male students. In the latest example to gain national notoriety, Pamela Turner, 27, a popular physical-education teacher and coach in McMinnville, Tenn., was charged on Feb. 7 with 13 counts of statutory rape for allegedly having an affair with a 13-year-old boy at Centertown Elementary School. “For young teenage boys, there’s always that fantasy about the older woman, and occasionally you have the woman think the same thing about the boy,” says Dale Potter, the prosecutor on the case. “But once the line is crossed, they’ve got a big problem.”
The allegations against Turner have stunned the community. The teacher, whose husband, Chris, filed for divorce in January, won immediate acclaim when she arrived at Centertown in August 2003. “She’d get down and do sit-ups with the kids,” says Laura Medley, who has had two children at the school. Some parents say they never noticed anything untoward about Turner—who was dubbed the “Barbie Doll” by students for being so pretty and bubbly. But others recall spotting her and the boy in question in situations that raised eyebrows. “She’d be rubbing up against him, but it was basketball practice, so who could say anything,” says parent Beth Ivie.
According to the indictment, Turner and the boy began having sex last November, at school after hours and at their respective homes. It is unclear how the affair came to light, but the boy’s mother says he is “doing okay; he’s getting counseling.” As for how her son is coping, she adds, “PlayStation 2 and basketball—and he’s strong, more mature for his age, but he’s still just 13.” (Turner’s lawyer didn’t return calls.) On the same day that Turner was charged, police in Winterville, N.C., led Katy Tew, 30, an English teacher at South Central High School, out of her class and charged her with having sex with a then-16-year-old student in December. “Everybody was whispering and pointing at him,” says the boy’s father. “This is what he’ll be remembered for, even 20 years from now.”
Of course Fualaau and Letourneau have always viewed their experience together more romantically. According to Robert Eldridge—who along with his wife, Marvel, has been putting up Letourneau at their Seattle home since her release from prison last August—Fualaau, who is unemployed but has been taking art classes, is looking forward to tying the knot, with the ceremony tentatively slated for April. “He’s anxious for this to happen,” says Eldridge. Meanwhile, the couple’s friend Noel Soriano argues that Letourneau should not even be considered a sex offender. “She’s not a pedophile,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “she’s a Vili-phile.”
The criminal justice system thinks otherwise, which is one of the reasons the couple’s daughters, ages 6 and 7, are now being raised by Fualaau’s mother, with Letourneau—who also has four children from a previous marriage—allowed unlimited contact. According to Soriano the youngsters will be the flower girls at the wedding, which will have 200 guests. But no ceremony will dispel the sense of unease that the couple conjure up. “To a lot of people, Vili is still a victim of a sex crime, and I’ve heard people say that Mary Kay is just manipulating him,” says Dress. “But I’m sure he can make his own decisions at this point.” But the question is, can he?
By Bill Hewitt. Ken Lee in Los Angeles, Barbara Sandler and Eileen Finan in Tennessee. Chad Love in Oklahoma and Michaele Ballard in Winterville