Jury rejects negligence claims by Vili Fualaau

A King County jury yesterday rejected claims that school officials and police were negligent in not recognizing a sexual relationship between 12-year-old Vili Fualaau and his sixth-grade teacher, Mary K. Letourneau.

The relationship shattered both their lives. Fualaau says he has suffered from ridicule, depression and drug and alcohol abuse. His attorney said he is unemployable and was asking for nearly $2 million for him and his mother, Soona, from the Highline School District and the Des Moines Police Department.

Letourneau, the married mother of four, had two children by Fualaau, who is now 18. She is serving a 7-½-year prison term for child rape.

The verdict, which came after a 9-½-week trial and nearly three days of deliberations, meant only Fualaau, his mother and Letourneau were to blame.

Tears welled up in his mother's eyes when the verdict was read. Vili Fualaau was not in the courtroom.

Ten votes were necessary for a verdict. Of the 12 jurors who heard the case, two found the Des Moines Police Department negligent in failing to protect Fualaau. One juror found the school district negligent, and another abstained.

"We always felt we did everything within the confines of the law," said Mike Patterson, attorney for the Highline School District.

Fualaau's attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., was disappointed in the verdict but said the point of the lawsuit was to make sure that public institutions were held accountable. He declined to speculate on an appeal.

Jurors heard testimony from police, psychiatrists, school-district staff and Fualaau, who admitted he'd lied in earlier sworn statements. The crucial difference was that he claimed that he and his teacher had had sex on school grounds.

Police and school-district officials allege the lawsuit — in which Fualaau and his mother were asking for $1.9 million — was a gold-digging claim.

"All along, this has been only about money," said Anne Bremner, the attorney representing the Des Moines Police Department.

It came out during the trial that Vili Fualaau and his mother had spent nearly $180,000 they had gleaned from various tabloid, book and movie deals depicting the relationship between the student and his 34-year-old sixth-grade teacher in the early 1990s.

The lawsuit alleged the Des Moines Police Department and the Highline School District should have done more to protect Fualaau from Letourneau at the first signs the woman might have been sexually interested in the student.

For example, in 1996, the boy and teacher were found in the back of a van by police, who failed to further investigate the incident.

The relationship became public in 1997, when Letourneau gave birth to a daughter fathered by then 13-year-old Fualaau.

Vance, Fualaau's attorney, portrayed him as an emotionally fragile youth with a lower-than-average IQ, learning disabilities and drug and alcohol problems. He says the young man was exploited by Letourneau and later by media deals that made him an international curiosity.

Fualaau's mother, Soona, said she agreed to the book and movie deals, which provided the family more than $180,000 in addition to her $15,000-a-year income. On the witness stand, she said those deals were a mistake.

Vance said the relationship cost Fualaau his privacy and his childhood, eventually leading to hospitalization for depression. He said his client is currently unemployable.

The claim Vance sought for Fualaau included $500,000 for his mother. The total was based on lost earnings and Fualaau's future psychiatric needs. The school-district attorney, Patterson, and lawyer Bremner, who represents the Des Moines police, portrayed Fualaau as a sexually precocious youngster who used to watch pornography with his grandfather. They claimed he aggressively pursued his teacher and bet other students that he could have sex with her.

At the heart of the case is a June 19, 1996, incident at the Des Moines Marina when police found Fualaau, then 12, with Letourneau in the back of her van. As the spotlight shone on the vehicle, Letourneau scrambled into the driver's seat and Fualaau faked being asleep. Police took them to the station and questioned both. Fualaau denied any sexual contact with Letourneau, a fact Bremner emphasized multiple times during the trial.

One detective acknowledged that he did not follow up on the incident, but Bremner said police did nothing wrong in how they handled the case. Investigators did talk to the boy's mother, who told police it was fine to let the boy stay with Letourneau.

Patterson said there was nothing the school district could have done to prevent Fualaau from becoming sexually involved with Letourneau and denied there was sexual contact between Fualaau and Letourneau while he was her student.

Fualaau in earlier depositions said there had not been sexual contact until the summer of 1996. But on the witness stand, he said there had been several incidents while he was in Letourneau's sixth-grade class.

In one, he said, Letourneau offered to remove an item of clothing for every test question he got right.

Letourneau was arrested and charged with child rape in 1997, after she had given birth to a baby girl. She was convicted and served six months in jail.

She was released and ordered to have no contact with Fualaau. However, they resumed their relationship almost immediately and were caught together in a car. Letourneau was sentenced to prison, and shortly thereafter found she was pregnant again.

She is due to be released in 2004.

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