Mary Kay Letourneau spent seven years in prison for raping Vili Fualaau, a 12-year-old student. She later married him

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Mary Kay LeTourneau Credit: Courtesy A&E
Credit: Courtesy A&E

In the months before her 2020 death from cancer, former teacher and convicted child rapist Mary Kay Letourneau had a lot of time to reflect -- and told some of the people close to her that she felt remorse about sexually abusing the 12-year-old student who later became her husband.

"At the end of your life, you start reassessing a lot of things," says a source, who received a letter from Letourneau about six weeks before she died. "And she was trying to make her peace, not only with everyone else, but with herself."

"The bottom line was that she understood on a very deep level that she had really made a mess of her life and the lives of many other people back in 1996," says the friend. "She realized that even though things turned out relatively good, that she was responsible for a wide swath of destruction by her actions. She apologized to a lot of people for a lot of things."

Letourneau was a sixth-grade teacher in 1996 when she began sexually abusing Vili Fualaau, who was then her 12-year-old student. Ultimately, she was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for child rape. She twice became pregnant by Fualaau before he was 15, despite court orders aimed at keeping them apart.

MARY K. LETOURNEAU
Credit: Robert Huff/ZUMA

By the time she was released from prison, Fualaau was an adult — and he petitioned the court to allow them to see each other. A restraining order against Letourneau was dropped, but Letourneau remained a registered sex offender in Washington state until her death.

The couple married in 2005, despite the criminal history of their relationship. They settled in Washington and raised their daughters. It lasted until 2017, when Fualaau filed for legal separation from his former wife.

At the time, Letourneau was represented by David Gehrke, a high-profile attorney who got to know the couple well — and kept in touch with them for more than two decades.

"I'm not surprised that they got married," Gehrke told PEOPLE in 2017, "and I'm not surprised, in this day and age, that they are separating."

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Heidi Gutman/ABC

As the split proceeded, Letourneau and Fualaau still lived together and were occasionally spotted out in the Seattle area. They both remained active in the lives of their daughters.

But despite the long marriage and two daughters, the source says that Letourneau understood near the end that her actions in the 1990s were illegal and immoral. "Absolutely nothing she did during that stage of her life should ever be emulated," says the source. "She understood that, more acutely at the end of her life. She felt deep remorse."