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The Fall From Spyglass Hill

Friends Say That to Understand the Story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Ex-Schoolteacher Jailed for Having Sex With an Adolescent, You Need to Look Back at Her Childhood in Orange County

April 29, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a warm August afternoon in 1973, the summer before Mary Katherine Schmitz started sixth grade, her little brother Phillip drowned in the pool behind the family's home in Corona del Mar's exclusive Spyglass Hill.

The swimming pool, lined with turquoise tiles and architecturally sited to take full advantage of the backyard's panoramic ocean view, had just been filled. Former congressman John G. Schmitz was away on business, and his wife, Mary, busy with church work and her own campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, was counting on her eldest daughter once more to look after the child everyone in the family still called "the baby."

The baby was a fearless 3-year-old, and when he took off his life jacket and stepped into the deep end of the pool, not even the diligent Mary Katherine--playing in the shallow end with her older brother Jerry--noticed the tiny splash. Only after their mother began looking for Phillip was he found, lifeless on the bottom of the pool.

Twenty-five years later, Mary Kay Schmitz Letourneau, married with four young children, went to a Washington state prison for the rape of a 13-year-old boy. Unrepentant, Letourneau insists she fell in love with the boy when he was a student in her sixth-grade class. They have a baby girl together--her fifth child--and now Letourneau is pregnant with their second child.

For the Schmitz family and other Mary Kay supporters, the best explanation for her stunning behavior may begin with what happened that warm summer day on the scenic hill in Corona del Mar.

"There is no question that her brother's death, combined with other traumas Mary Kay suffered later, contributed to the tragedy of her life today," says Dr. Julia Moore, the psychiatrist who evaluated the once-beloved Seattle teacher and diagnosed manic depression before she was jailed as a sex offender last November.

The story of the petite blond woman known at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women as prisoner 769014 is as sad as it is outrageous. And it mirrors, many say, the downfall of her father--the brilliant and flamboyant ultra-conservative Orange County politician who lost his career and, for a time, his family, when it was revealed that Southern California's most outspoken advocate of family values himself had a mistress, also a former student, and two illegitimate children.

The Outspoken Congressman

In 1962, the year Mary Katherine was born, John George Schmitz was a Marine officer teaching other officers at El Toro about the dangers of communism. He made his first headlines that year for stopping a man who was stabbing a woman by the roadside near the Marine Corps base. With nothing more than the sheer authority of his voice, Schmitz disarmed the assailant.

Although the woman died, Schmitz's reputation as a hero was made, and the next time his picture was on the front page, it was as the area's newest state senator.

By then, Schmitz had attracted the support of such wealthy conservatives as hamburger magnate Carl Karcher, sporting goods heir Willard Voit and San Juan Capistrano rancher Tom Rogers. When congressman James B. Utt of Tustin died and Orange County Republicans needed a man to fill his seat in Washington, Schmitz, then a national director of the John Birch Society, retired Marine colonel and community college teacher, was the easy choice.

With such slogans as "When you're out of Schmitz, you're out of gear," the unpretentious Wisconsin native who grew up scrubbing beer vats won the election and moved his family to Washington, when Mary Kay, the fourth of seven children, was 9. He quickly established himself as one of Congress' most right-wing and outspoken members--and just as quickly enraged his most famous constituent, part-time San Clemente resident President Nixon.

Of Nixon's historic visit to China, Schmitz, whose political hero was Joe McCarthy, quipped, "I have no objection to President Nixon going to China. I just object to his coming back." His fellow Birchers laughed, but the president and his men were not amused. By the time election day rolled around, neither was Schmitz, who lost his seat to a more moderate candidate.

But that was not the end of Schmitz's political career. In 1972, with George Wallace still ailing from injuries suffered in an assassination attempt, Schmitz took his place as the American Party's candidate for president. He collected more than a million votes, but lost much of his longtime Orange County support.

"He was operating on a higher level of politics than any of us had the guts for," recalls former Schmitz campaign treasurer Tom Rogers. "His philosophy was unbending, even for his fellow Republicans, and he never doubted his own abilities and was never humble . . . until it was too late."

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