For more than 20 years, Mary Kay Letourneau has been a household name — catapulted to the front of newspapers and magazines nationwide because of a sexual relationship she started with one of her sixth-grade students, Vili Fualaau
The details were scandalous — and illegal:
Letourneau, 55, met 33-year-old Fualaau when he was in the second grade, and she began having sex with him in 1996, just before he turned 13. After receiving a relatively light sentence for child rape, she was unable to stay away from him and was re-arrested when she was caught having sex with him, again, in a car.
Letourneau twice got pregnant before Fualaau was 15.
Somehow, their relationship endured and they continued to profess their love for one another. She was released from prison in 2004, and they were married in 2005.
They settled down near Seattle and, according to those who know them, appeared to live a relatively normal — almost mundane — life raising their two daughters, Audrey and Georgia.
They also found a circle of friends who accepted their controversial relationship, several of whom tell PEOPLE they were shocked that Fuaulaau and Letourneau are now separating.
“What she did was wrong,” family friend Anne Bremner tells PEOPLE. “But that was a long time ago. She and Vili have been together for, what, 20 years? She doesn’t discount the seriousness of what the situation is. But she’s not a pedophile because she’s not with the next 13-year-old.”
“They were in love with each other,” says another friend, Lydia Edgmon. “They were always sweet-talking. He was a gentleman. They were sweethearts. Every time I saw them, they were always together, always in love, always respectful and sweet.”
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“They were really happy, organized and did things together and always planned things around the kids,” Edgmon says. “They were a sweet family.”
Friends say that Letourneau delights in their two daughters.
“The girls have made her really proud,” Bremner says. “They’re her pride and joy. She loves them dearly.”
It’s something Letourneau has in common with her husband, whom Edgmon says is “crazy about his girls.”
But even the couple admits that their union wasn’t perfect.
“I don’t think there’s ever a full 10 good years of marriage,” Fualaau said in a 2015 interview with Barbara Walters. “You have your ups and downs.”
Their friends have spoken about some of the issues the couple faced, though a final breaking point — if there was one — remains unclear, and neither Fualaau nor Letourneau has commented since the separation became public.
What’s clear is that the split took some friends by surprise.
“Every picture on his Facebook right now is only him and his daughters,” Edgmon says of Fualaau.
“I can’t even imagine them getting divorced,” she continues. “With his personality and her personality, they are not going to do anything to harm those children.”
“They are always going to be friends,” Edgmon says. “There is nothing that is going to separate them as friends forever.”
• With reporting by CHRISTINE PELISEK and HARRIET SOKMENSUER