Did police, school fall short? Letourneau case to go to jury

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article

When Des Moines police found Mary K. Letourneau and then-12-year-old Vili Fualaau under a blanket in the back of her van, they questioned them separately and took Fualaau to the police station until his mother was called.

But a jury will have to decide whether police should have done more to prevent what became an affair that would result in Fualaau becoming a father at 13, an event that changed his life forever.

Yesterday, King County Superior Court Judge Philip Hubbard denied the city of Des Moines' request for a summary judgment in the lawsuit filed against the city and the Highline School District by Fualaau and his mother, Soona Fualaau.

The $1 million lawsuit, pressed by Soona Fualaau, says the police and the school district were negligent in not taking action against Letourneau when they arguably had reason to think the relationship was more than that of a teacher and student.

In denying a summary judgment, Hubbard said the senior police officer took a look at the two in the van parked at the Des Moines Marina at 1:20 a.m. June 19, 1996, and knew "something is going on here," Hubbard said. "But the detective didn't follow through."

Anne Bremner, attorney for the city, said it was beyond the officers' comprehension that a 35-year-old teacher would be having sexual contact with a 12-year-old student.

Bremner said that Vili Fualaau and Letourneau were interviewed separately. The officer asked Fualaau if he had been touched in a sexual manner and he said no. Fualaau gave his age as 14, and officers took him to the police station and first called his aunt, who said Fualaau had permission to be with Letourneau. An officer then tracked down Fualaau's mother at work, and she confirmed that it was all right for her son to be with Letourneau, who had been his teacher since he was a second-grader at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien.

Bremner said it would have been a violation of Letourneau's civil rights had police arrested her that night because there was no probable cause she had done anything wrong.

That night at the marina, according to Bremner, Fualaau and Letourneau "kissed but it wasn't sex."

Fualaau and Letourneau still "see themselves as Romeo and Juliet" and want to get married, Bremner said, adding that there was nothing anyone could have done to keep the two apart.

But attorneys for Soona Fualaau say police didn't provide enough information about the situation when they called her at work, telling her they found her son at the marina with Letourneau. The attorneys say, too, that police should have contacted the state Child Protective Services for additional investigation and not dismissed the incident simply because Letourneau was married, a mother of four, a teacher and 23 years older than the boy.

Cyrus Vance, attorney for the Fualaaus, cited the testimony of a Des Moines senior officer who in a deposition said he "thought it was suspicious" to find a 35-year-old woman lying in the back of a van under covers in the middle of the night, who, along with the boy, "scampers into the front of the van when they see police."

This should have triggered the response that "this is suspicious, more needs to be done," Vance said. If the police had investigated more closely — had they gone to the school where Letourneau taught and learned that she and her student had been seen slow dancing, that he drove her car around the school grounds — the affair might never have happened, Vance said.

Instead, Letourneau became pregnant, pleaded guilty to child rape in 1997, was let out on conditional release and, although ordered not to, contacted Fualaau again and became pregnant a second time. She was then sent to prison for seven years and her daughters given to Soona Fualaau to raise.

In the meantime, Vili Fualaau is now 18 and is said to be a reluctant participant in the lawsuit. The trial is set for Sept. 17.

Vance said he doesn't know whether Letourneau, who is to be released in 2004, will be called to testify.

Nancy Bartley can be reached at 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com.