It was the "forbidden romance" that shocked the world.

In 1997, Seattle primary school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau – then a 34-year-old, married mother-of-four – was convicted of second-degree child rape after it was revealed she was having a "relationship" with her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau.

Letourneau's lawyer, David Gehrke, announced yesterday the 58-year-old had died after losing her battle with cancer.

The pair's illicit liaison began in 1996, when Letourneau was Fualaau's sixth-grade teacher. Letourneau thought the 12-year-old was a gifted drawer, and she began spending time with him to help him develop his skill.

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By July of that year, their relationship turned sexual. By the end of the summer, Letourneau was pregnant with Fualaau's baby.

"The incident was a late night that didn't stop with a kiss. And I thought that it would, and it didn't," Letourneau told Barbara Walters in a 2015 interview, on the eve of the couple's 10th wedding anniversary.

"I loved him very much, and I kind of thought, 'Why can't it ever just be a kiss?'"

Their affair – which was "never" just a "teacher-student relationship" – came to a halt in February of 1997, when Letourneau's husband Steve found love letters his wife had written to the schoolboy, demanding the two break off the affair.

Mary Kay Letourneau listens to testimony during a court hearing in Seattle in 1998. Photo / AP
Mary Kay Letourneau listens to testimony during a court hearing in Seattle in 1998. Photo / AP

"He came to my house and confronted me about it and told me if I don't want my mum knowing about this or anyone knowing about this, it was going to end," Fualaau said in the 2018 documentary, Mary Kay Letourneau: Autobiography.

"I was worried about everything, about Mary, myself and I said, 'OK, I don't want this to get out anywhere.' The fear of my mum's reaction and the thought of everyone being affected by it was one of my biggest fears, so I said, for the better of everyone, OK. It was kind of devastating."

But it was too late – Steve told relatives of the affair, one of who contacted school officials and social workers.

"I was suspended and all of a sudden, it doesn't look good for me," Letourneau said in the documentary, explaining she never thought the pair would get caught or that their relationship – while morally wrong – was particularly severe.

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"I'm married still, even though I was in a separation period, that's really not OK. I would need an attorney. I didn't imagine there were criminal consequences. I didn't know that I needed an attorney, get it?"

The relationship made international headlines, landing Letourneau in prison after she pleaded guilty to raping Fualaau on August 8, 1997.

Vili Fualaau with his schoolteacher and lover Mary Kay Letourneau. Photo / Supplied
Vili Fualaau with his schoolteacher and lover Mary Kay Letourneau. Photo / Supplied

"It's shock value. That's what it was all about. Shock. I call it media carnage. Road kill. Blood," she said two years ago, breaking down in tears over the backlash the couple faced.

"Everybody wants to hear the story. Whether it's because they want to analyse it or criticise it. It's been 20 years but it's still there."

After six months in jail, Letourneau was granted parole on the condition she did not see or contact Fualaau, who just 18 months older than her eldest son.

Less than a month later, police interrupted the couple having sex in a car – and Letourneau was sent back to prison to serve the remainder of her seven-year sentence, told by King County Superior Court Judge Linda Lau she had been given "an opportunity that you foolishly squandered".

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By then, she was already pregnant with Fualaau's second child – her sixth – and gave birth in prison. Fualaau, only in the ninth grade, was left to raise the couple's daughters, Audrey and Georgia, alone.

"I don't feel like I had the right support or the right help behind me. From my family, from anyone in general," he told Walters in 2015.

"I mean, my friends couldn't help me because they had no idea what it was like to be a parent, I mean, because we were all 14, 15."

In hindsight, Fualaau said he was surprised he was even alive, revealing he struggled with depression while Letourneau was imprisoned.

"I'm surprised I'm still alive today," he said. "I went through a really dark time."

Being unable to visit or contact his lover made it even harder, he said.

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"I mean, if they gave me more options or choices to make instead of just saying, 'Oh, you can't talk to her anymore', and I was like, 'I really do want to talk to her, though'."

Mary Kay Letourneau holds the baby that was fathered by a boy she once taught as an elementary school teacher. Photo / AP
Mary Kay Letourneau holds the baby that was fathered by a boy she once taught as an elementary school teacher. Photo / AP

Having served her full sentence, Letourneau was released from the Washington Corrections Centre for Women on August 4, 2004. A 21-year-old Fualaau filed a motion in court, requesting a reversal of the no-contact order against Letourneau, so that the couple could marry.

The pair married on May 20, 2005 at a winery in Washington in front of 250 guests, when she was 43 and he just 22.

Asked by Walters if Letourneau stole her husband's childhood, the registered sex offender hedged the question and instead pointed to their time apart while she was in prison.

"The only benefit if there is any benefit that I was away, is that he had years to be without me and not in a relationship," she said, adding he wasn't "physically faithful" when she was behind bars.

"I think that even though we did start when he was a young teenager, I was gone for a while, so he had plenty of time to his thing."

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In 2017, Fualaau allegedly filed for separation, withdrawing the request despite admitting in a 2018 Sunday Night interview there were problems within their marriage. The pair then divorced in 2019.

A friend of Letourneau's, lawyer Anne Bremner, said the 58-year-old had hoped in her death people would be able to see her as someone who had served her time and gone on to raise two daughters with Fualaau, having a positive impact on the people around her.

"She was always a really good person," Bremner said. "She was always a really good friend."