Mary Kay Letourneau, the former Highline teacher who made national headlines after she was jailed for raping her 6th-grade student in 1997 and later married him, died of Stage 4 colon cancer Monday, according to her attorney David Gehrke. 

Letourneau was 58 years old when she died in her Des Moines home, said Gehrke, who represented her in the case. Some of her family members, including former student Vili Fualaau, were by her side when she died, Gehrke said.

“Mary was a client, a good friend, a wonderful mother, and a force of nature,” longtime friend and attorney Anne Bremner wrote in an email to The Seattle Times. “She paid her debt to society. She was brilliant and dedicated to her work and family. She overcame seemingly insurmountable odds with panache and humility. She will be dearly missed.”

Letourneau and Fualaau met when he was in the second grade and she was a teacher at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien. Their relationship became sexual when he was 12 and she was 34 and a married mother of four.

She was arrested in 1997 after she became pregnant with his child, and was convicted of second-degree child rape. She was paroled after six months but was again caught having sex with Fualaau, a violation of her parole conditions.

The two, who have two daughters, were married in 2005, though Fualaau filed for legal separation in 2017, according to King County Superior Court documents. A year later, KOMO News reported the couple had reconciled and gotten back together, but the two split up again a few months later, according to the TV station.

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Gehrke said Wednesday the two were separated when Letourneau died, though Fualaau — who had since moved to California — returned to Washington earlier this year to spend the last two months taking care of her. She was diagnosed with cancer about four to six months ago, Gehrke said. 

“They were together since the mid-90s, when he first met her, and they’ve been in love since the late-90s,” he said. “That’s 20 years of love — and they never fell out of love. They had their differences like couples do, but they deeply loved each other through the end.”

Despite the notoriety surrounding Letourneau’s case, Gehrke said he hoped people would remember her for “all the good she did before and after, not for the one mistake she made in life.”

While Letourneau served her sentence at the Washington Corrections Center For Women, Gehrke said she was “very active” in organizing events for mothers and daughters during visiting days. After she was released from prison, he said, she worked a handful of jobs, including at a local sports bar in Des Moines and as a paralegal.

“Mary never made as big a deal (about the case) as everyone else,” Gehrke said. “She was firmly convinced before that it was a lack of understanding with the legal system. That it was love, not a crime … She paid her price and she moved on.”

Gehrke said the family is in the process of making funeral arrangements, but didn’t have any more details about date or location.

Seattle Times staff reporter Paige Cornwell contributed to this story.