July 26, 2004 12:00 PM

When Mary Kay Letourneau walks free Aug. 4 after almost seven years in the Washington State Corrections Center for Women, the former teacher can point to a sterling record of accomplishment: Letourneau, 42, tutored inmates, bolstered the prison textbook collection, sang in the choir and rarely missed mass. “The facets to this woman,” says her friend Susan Gehrke, “are unfathomable.”

So, apparently, is her taste in men. In the late 1990s Letourneau sent tabloid sales soaring when she carried on an obsessive affair with one of her students, Vili Fualaau. She was a Republican congressman’s daughter and a mother of four with a crumbling marriage. He was a talented artist from a broken home. She was 34. He was 12. Americans were shocked—and perversely transfixed.

“It’s normal to f— when you love so much,” Fualaau reasoned in their 1998 book, Un Seul Crime, L’Amour, published in France, where some in the press dubbed them star-crossed lovers. By their count they were “normal” hundreds of times, producing two daughters. She called it “a true union of bodies and souls.” The State of Washington called it child rape.

The timing of Letourneau’s parole is uncanny, coming just as the similar case of Florida teacher Debra Lafave is making headlines (see box). What’s more, a U.S. Department of Education report released June 30 contends that, at some point, almost 10 percent of all students are victims of sexual misconduct—ranging from lewd comments to rape—by school staff. And most studies claim at least 10 percent of the abusers are women. Male or female, such abusers “have poor boundary definitions,” says Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, the Hofs-tra University professor who wrote the report. “They are not mature or fully developed,” and show “a lack of willingness to control their behavior.”

Certainly Letourneau just couldn’t stay away from the kid. “Wild love that consumes you totally,” she described it. To some who know her well, Letourneau is simply stuck in her own private Neverland. “Mary has this remarkable ability to block out reality and rationalize her actions—she lives in a fantasy world,” says Michelle Jarvis, an estranged friend.

In fact, some say Letourneau has yet to accept that she is guilty of a sex crime. “The biggest issue for her is that she committed adultery, not that it was with a child,” adds Gregg Olsen, author of If Loving You Is Wrong, an account of the case. By all reports, she’s still stuck on Fualaau, now 21, whom she called “my companion for life.” And she will likely fight for custody of their daughters Audrey, 7, and Alexis, 5, now living in Des Moines, Wash., with Fualaau and his mother, Soona. “I assume she’ll try to reunite with the children and Vili,” says a college friend who asked not to be identified. “My guess is that she’ll have a wedding.”

One obstacle she will have to overcome: The court order placed on her by the judge stipulating she is to have no contact with Vili. An adult at last, he can apply to have the order rescinded, which costs roughly $2,500. And that’s just what he hopes to do. He still carries a torch—or at least a candle—for his teacher. “I’d really like to start one step at a time,” Fualaau tells PEOPLE. “Get the order lifted, get to know each other again, talk about our finances, get married. I don’t know. Try to live like normal people with a future.”

That would be an improvement over his recent past. Unemployed, Fualaau never finished high school, though he is working on his GED and spending time with his daughters. (“We watch movies, go to the park,” he says.) After Letourneau’s imprisonment, he went into a tailspin. “I tried to get my mind away from everything,” he says. “I was partying, drinking too much. Too many hangovers.” His mother has drawn an even darker picture. In a failed 2002 lawsuit charging the school district with negligence in the affair, Soona testified not only to Vili’s alcohol problem but also to his mental instability. “He’s not all there,” she said, noting that on his therapist’s recommendation he was hospitalized in July 2001 for “psychotic depression.” Letourneau, she complained, “lives in a fantasy world and she has engulfed my son in this fantasy world.”

Fualaau said in court papers that he’d come from a home in which his father, Luaiva, often battered Soona. And Soona, he said, perpetuated the abuse: She beat him and his three siblings “with wooden and metal broomsticks until they broke…and threw glass and plates at [us] in a rage.” Child Protective Services made three home visits, but the children were never removed.

Soona denied that Luaiva beat her and called Vili’s other accusations exaggerated. Wherever the truth lies, it’s clear Fualaau was ripe for nurturing as he entered Letourneau’s sixth grade class at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien, Wash. So, too, was his teacher, whose marriage to Steve, a baggage handler, was unraveling. It was platonic at first, as Vili spent time with Letourneau’s family, even joining them on a trip to Alaska. But in June 1996, just before his 13th birthday, one thing led to another and, as Fualaau told Paris Match, “we made love nearly everywhere and all the time.”

Eventually, someone noticed. In March 1997 Letourneau, pregnant with Audrey, was arrested after a relative of Steve’s reported the affair. Pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape, she served six months of a 7½-year sentence. Released in January 1998, she was barred from any contact with Fualaau. Instead, she brazenly defied the order and met him often. Letourneau conceived Alexis in her car, which is where they were one night in February 1998 when cops busted her again. She went back to prison and gave birth to Alexis in a Tacoma hospital that October; within hours Letourneau was returned to her cell and the baby placed with Soona. Her college friend says Letourneau pumped breast milk to be sent to her infant girls. Learning that much of it was likely thrown out by prison officials “broke her heart.”

Letourneau’s early days as a guest of the state were bumpy. Her celebrity made her unpopular with fellow inmates. She also sassed guards and balked at work, and as punishment passed 18 of her first 24 months in solitary. “She spent more time there than any inmate I can think of,” ex-cellmate Christina Dress told NBC. Still, adds Letourneau’s college friend, she “refused to crack.” Perhaps, but she was crushed in 2001 when she was forbidden to attend the funeral of her father, ex-California Rep. John Schmitz. She has, however, been allowed to see her children. Her older four, now 10 to 19 and living with their father in Alaska, have visited four times a year. (The Letourneaus are divorced.) And twice a month, Audrey and Alexis are driven to the prison by Susan Gehrke. The girls meet with their mother for several hours in a rec room, where under supervision she can hug them, join them in arts and crafts and share meals with them.

What’s next for Letourneau? First things first: She must register as a sex offender. “I think she’ll try hard to make a statement that she is not a bad person,” says her college friend. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she went to law school or did something in defense of women’s rights. She’s bright, talented, still young and pretty.”

But will that be enough to keep Vili interested? “He’s waiting for the happily ever after—to prove to the world that this was some magical relationship,” says a close friend of Fualaau’s. “I just can’t picture it.” And will Letourneau find him as good a catch at 21 as she did when he was 12? “At some point they are going to realize they have nothing in common,” says Olsen. “Really, they barely know each other.”

Richard Jerome. Stacey Wilson in Seattle, Lorenzo Benet and Sandra Marquez in Los Angeles, Kathy Ehrich in New York City, Cathy Nolan in Paris and Jeff Truesdell in Tampa

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