Mummy’s Little Secret
Until a Devoted Mother Named Diane Schuler Killed Eight People, Including Herself, Her Daughter, and Three Nieces in a Horrific Car Accident, No one Suspected She could be an Alcoholic.
In 2009, a 36-year-old mother with five small children in her minivan took a wrong turn on her way back from the Sullivan County campground where the family had spent the weekend to their house on Long Island. Diane Schuler, a successful account executive and the mother of two of the children in the car, sped up the Taconic Parkway in the wrong direction for almost two miles before crashing into an oncoming SUV. Eight people were killed: Schuler, her two-year-old daughter, her three nieces aged 8, 7 and 5. Three others died in the SUV she collided with, including a coupe in their sixties.
The crash was the most devastating motor-vehicle accident that Westchester County had witnessed in more than 70 years. Still, that wasn’t the reason the accident attracted national attention. For a few days, Schuler’s bizarre behavior was a mystery. She was, by all appearances, a great wife and devoted mother, a warm, responsible employee and boss at Cablevision—why had she lost her way? Explanations—excuses—were quickly advanced: The Taconic is a narrow highway with no shoulder and few places to pull over; Schuler suffered from diabetes and had been complaining that morning of a toothache.
When the toxicology reports came back two weeks later, the information they contained hit the American public, who were by then entranced by the story, like a proverbial ton of bricks. Diane Schuler had been not only drunk but also stoned as she made the fatal mistake of entering the Taconic via an exit ramp. In fact, Schuler had the equivalent of 10 drinks in her system and high levels of THC in her blood. In addition, witnesses later reported seeing Schuler at two different times that morning on her knees by the side of the road, apparently vomiting. A red minivan had been spotted careening, tailgating, flashing headlights, honking and straddling two lanes—all signs of DUI—along the same route that Schuler had followed.
In the minutes before Diane Schuler drunkenly smashed her vehicle while travelling in the wrong direction on the Taconic Parkway her little niece cried, terrified, into a cellphone to her dad:
“There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane!”
Those were the awful, last words of Emma Hance, who at 9 was the eldest of the five children riding in the death car during the fiery, horrific crash in Westchester. That child knew she was in trouble. Yet she had no choice but to ride on, helplessly, to her death.
Before this call, Schuler made three, increasingly frantic calls from her cell.
At least two of the calls were to her brother, Warren Hance, the father of three girls who lost their lives. Diane’s daughter also was killed, as well as three men in an oncoming SUV.
The first call Diane made was relatively unpanicked. Emma took the phone to tell her dad that she “had a great time” camping upstate with the Schulers. But she warned her father that she was going to be late, and would not arrive home on time for drama rehearsal. This was curious, because the Schulers said they left upstate early, around 9:30 a.m. on July 26.
In subsequent calls, it was clear that something was terribly wrong.
Diane told her brother she was having “tunnel vision” Then Emma made her anguished cry. “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane!”
And then, for whatever reason, Diane decided to drop her phone and sped off to die. She ignored her brother’s entreaties to stay put.
Emma’s voice was never heard again.
It’s unclear why Schuler did not call her husband, Daniel, who was supposed to be driving home in his truck at the same time Diane took the kids.
The Taconic State Parkway crash was a traffic collision that occurred shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 26, 2009, on the Taconic State Parkway in the town of Mount Pleasant, near the village of Briarcliff Manor, New York. Eight people were killed when a minivan driven by 36-year-old Diane Schuler, after travelling 1.7 miles in the wrong direction on the parkway, collided head-on with an oncoming SUV. The deaths included Schuler, her daughter and three nieces, and the three passengers in the SUV.
The ensuing investigation into the crash’s cause received nationwide attention. Toxicology tests conducted by the medical examiner revealed that Schuler was heavily intoxicated with both alcohol and marijuana at the time of the crash. Schuler’s husband, Daniel, has consistently denied that she used drugs or alcohol excessively, and has made multiple media appearances to defend his wife and call for further investigation into other possible medical causes for her erratic driving. An independent investigator hired by the Schuler family obtained DNA testing and toxicology testing of Diane Schuler’s samples, which confirmed the results of the original testing.
Someone had to have known Diane was a danger. Yet Schuler offered himself up, grim-faced, to the press, insisting his wife had an occasional glass of wine — and tossed the rest of the bottle away.
He suggested an abscessed tooth may have caused a stroke. He blamed gestational diabetes, though Diane was not known to be pregnant. “I want to clear her name,” he said.
Diane Schuler left the Hunter Lake Campground in Parksville, New York, in a red 2003 Ford Windstar. Riding with Schuler were her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, and her brother’s three daughters. Her husband, Daniel Schuler, left the campground at the same time in a separate vehicle. A co-owner of the campground later said that Diane Schuler appeared sober when she departed.
On the way to West Babylon, New York, Schuler stopped at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant and a gas station in Liberty, New York. While at the gas station, it is claimed that she attempted to buy over-the-counter pain-relief medication, but the store did not sell any.
Schuler left Liberty just after 11 a.m., traveling along Route 17/Interstate 86 and the New York Thruway (Interstate 87), entering the Ramapo service area, and crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, heading east. Witnesses later reported seeing a red minivan driving aggressively on Route 17/Interstate 86 and Interstate 87, including aggressively tailgating, flashing headlights, honking the horn, and straddling two lanes. At 11:37 a.m., Schuler called Warren Hance, her brother and the father of the three nieces in Schuler’s car. She reportedly told him that they were being delayed by traffic. According to a police report, Schuler was seen at approximately 11:45 a.m. by the side of the road with her hands on her knees, as if vomiting; she was seen again in the same position a short time later, north of the Ramapo rest stop.
At about 1 p.m., another call was made to Hance from Schuler’s cell phone. During this call, one of Schuler’s nieces reportedly told her father that Schuler was having trouble seeing and speaking clearly. Schuler herself then talked to Hance and said that she was disoriented and couldn’t see clearly. Police believe that the car was stopped in a pull-off area beyond the Tappan Zee Bridge tollbooths for at least part of this call. Hance reportedly told Schuler to stay off the road while he came to meet them; follow-up calls from Hance to Schuler were not answered. A motorist later found Schuler’s cell phone by the side of the road near the toll lanes of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Investigators were trying to determine how (and why) Schuler got from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Taconic State Parkway ramps near Briarcliff Manor, which is where the next information in this timeline comes from.
At 1:33 p.m., two drivers called 911 after noticing Schuler’s van edging onto the northbound exit ramp of the Taconic State Parkway near Briarcliff Manor, New York. The end of the exit ramp (41°08′34″N 73°48′51″W), at the intersection with Pleasantville Road, is marked with two signs that read Do Not Enter and two signs that read One Way. The exit ramp itself is unmarked. Within the next minute, four more 911 calls were placed by motorists who reported that a car was travelling the wrong way down the parkway.
Schuler’s van travelled south for 1.7 miles in the parkway’s northbound passing lane before colliding head-on, at approximately 1:35 p.m., with a 2004 Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which then struck a 2002 Chevrolet Tracker. At the time of impact, Diane Schuler was traveling approximately 85 mph. Schuler, her daughter, and two of her nieces were dead at the scene of the crash, along with the three men in the TrailBlazer: 81-year-old Michael Bastardi, his 49-year-old son Guy, and their friend, 74-year-old Dan Longo. The two occupants of the Tracker suffered only minor injuries. Schuler’s severely injured third niece and Schuler’s 5-year-old son Bryan were taken to area hospitals, where the niece died later that day. Bryan is the sole passenger of Schuler’s vehicle to survive, suffering from broken bones and severe head trauma. He remained hospitalized before returning home in early October.
According to reports issued after the accident, a broken bottle of vodka was found inside the wreckage of her minivan.
A toxicology report released that August by Westchester County medical examiners found that Schuler had a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.19, with approximately six grams of alcohol in her stomach that had not yet been absorbed into her blood. The legal BAC limit is 0.08. The report also said that she had high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her system.
Diane Schuler’s husband Daniel Schuler and his attorney Dominic Barbara consistently denied that she ever drank to excess or could have been drunk while driving that day. Daniel Schuler eventually admitted that he and his wife had been drinking during the weekend, but he denied that Diane had anything to drink in the day preceding the crash. The campground co-owner, who claimed to know the Schulers well and saw them off at approximately 9 a.m. that morning, said that Schuler appeared sober when she left; the gas station employee whom Schuler asked for Tylenol around 11 a.m. also said, “I knew for a fact that she wasn’t drunk when she came into the station.” According to Tom Ruskin, an investigator hired by Daniel Schuler, no McDonald’s employees saw any signs of intoxication in Diane Schuler, when she engaged in extended conversation there while ordering food.
Ruskin told reporters in September that he had interviewed over fifty people who knew Diane, none of whom had ever seen her in a drunken state. Ruskin also pointed to autopsy results that showed an absence of organ damage often found in alcoholics, although an uninvolved medical examiner said such results do not rule out alcoholism. Schuler relatives have also disputed that Diane Schuler was known to drink heavily or irresponsibly.
Daniel Schuler told investigators that his wife smoked marijuana occasionally, and the family said to one magazine that she used it to relieve insomnia. Although Daniel Schuler is an officer in the Public Security Unit of the Nassau County Police Department, he was not required to report his wife’s drug use, because he is a civilian. In November, it was reported that Diane Schuler’s sister-in-law had made a statement to police that Diane Schuler smoked marijuana on a regular basis.
Daniel Schuler and Barbara publicly attributed Diane Schuler’s erratic driving to a medical issue, such as a stroke. According to Barbara, Diane Schuler suffered from diabetes although additional sources cite Schuler as having had gestational diabetes, a temporary condition related to a prior pregnancy, rather than a chronic condition. Barbara has also mentioned an abscess that had persisted in her mouth for seven weeks before her death, and a lump in her leg, about which he said, “[It] might have been an embolism”. The results of an autopsy conducted by a Westchester County medical examiner one day after the accident found that Schuler had not suffered a stroke, aneurysm, or heart attack.
That September, New York’s top forensic pathologist said that a hair test should have been done to determine Diane Schuler’s drug history. Daniel Schuler and his lawyer announced plans to exhume the body to perform the hair test and other examinations; experts said that this was unlikely to produce any new information of value.
Schuler also intended to re-test the fluid samples taken during the autopsy. The Westchester County medical examiner’s office, which performed the autopsy, said that the degradation of the fluids over time was likely to result in lowered alcohol and THC readings; however, several toxicology experts said that the results should be similar to the previous test if the fluid samples had been properly stored.
On November 7, Ruskin announced that the Schuler family had raised the money to retest Schuler’s tissue samples and that the retesting would take place soon. In July 2010, it was reported that Daniel Schuler had accepted a $100,000 offer from a film company, Moxie Firecracker Films, to record Diane Schuler’s exhumation for an HBO documentary. Daniel Schuler’s lawyer said that the money would be placed in trust for Diane’s son Bryan.
Ever since the accident, Schuler’s husband has dedicated himself to a pointless—some might say insane—effort to clear his wife’s name of the charge that she was an alcoholic. Daniel Schuler, a public safety officer for the Nassau County Police Department, also announced that he was suing both the state of New York for not keeping the Taconic safe and his brother-in-law Warren Hance because he owned the minivan. Talk about epic denial.)
Daniel Schuler’s persistence in disputing his wife’s intoxication has been condemned by family members of the three TrailBlazer victims. When Schuler appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to demand more testing of his wife’s remains, Longo’s brother Joseph issued a statement saying in part, “I want Daniel Schuler to know that he keeps inflicting more pain on all concerned once again by going to the media to try to paint a picture of a perfect wife and mother.”
Michael Bastardi’s daughters appeared with their lawyer on The Today Show, during which they questioned Daniel Schuler’s culpability in enabling his wife’s drug and alcohol use and called for him to undergo drug testing himself. “It makes me angry that he keeps denying it,” said Margaret Nicotina, Michael Bastardi’s daughter. “Every time he does it, he brings it back for us. I just wish that he would just admit that she was drunk. Maybe if he knows what happened that morning, if they argued or anything, that would be the truth. He wants the truth. So do we.”Their lawyer called Schuler’s position totally outrageous, an insult to the intelligence of the American public, and a hoax.
In June 2010, the New York State Police issued its final report on the accident following eleven months of analysis. The report upheld the previous toxicology findings that Diane Schuler was intoxicated and had high levels of THC in her system at the time of the accident.
According to a Westchester medical examiner, the crash was ruled a homicide soon after it occurred because the victims were killed because of Diane Schuler’s driving, regardless of toxicology findings. On August 18, Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore said that no charges would be filed in the incident, as Diane Schuler was the only person responsible. “Diane Schuler died in the crash and the charges died with her,” DiFiore said.
She was, in his telling, the perfect woman—perhaps that’s how your mind would work, too.
Months after the accident, Danny Schuler can’t recall a single negative moment. Their marriage was like one in a storybook. Danny’s thoughts drift back to the modest house they shared in West Babylon, purchased soon after they married, with its good-size backyard that was perfect for celebrating confirmations and birthdays. Danny manned the barbecue, and Diane bustled around, making sure everyone had what they needed, all on the lawn that Danny cut and edged most weekends, while his 5-year-old boy maneuvered a toy lawnmower behind him and his 2-year-old girl shrieked with delight under a sprinkler. Come holiday time, Diane insisted that they do up the whole house. “Get in the spirit,” she’d tell anyone who dragged their feet, and directed Danny on proper placement of the blow-up pumpkins or the Santa Clauses or the Easter bunnies.
Later, I ask Danny, “What did she like most about the house?”
“That we bought it together,” he tells me.
“You guys fit together?”
“Perfect,” he says.
“You always wanted the same thing?”
“Always,” he says. “We got it, we had it.”
And then they lost it.
For 1.7 miles, Diane, 36, drove a minivan stuffed with kids the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, finally colliding head-on with an SUV. Diane hadn’t even braked. Passing drivers said she stared straight ahead, her expression serene and oblivious, her hands at ten and two on the steering wheel. Eight people died, including Diane, their daughter, their three nieces, and all three people in the oncoming On the way home from a weekend camping trip, Danny’s wife appeared to have guzzled ten shots worth of alcohol and, the report said, smoked marijuana within the hour. Police found a smashed 1.75-liter bottle of Absolut vodka on the floor of the front passenger seat, which Danny thought was still in the camper behind the TV.
For weeks after the accident, Danny slept in the hospital next to his 5-year-old, Bryan, the sole survivor, who had broken both arms and a leg. Danny kept the TV off. He didn’t need to hear the things people were saying—that he’d ignored the warning signs of alcoholism or, worse that he knew something was wrong when she left the campground that crisp Sunday morning. From his bed, Danny’s son wanted to know where Mommy was. Danny’s not built for this. Not for the grief. Nor for the guilt. For a minute, he didn’t know what to tell his son. “She’s in Heaven,” he managed, where she deserves to be, though then Bryan wanted to know what Heaven is. It’s where good people go.
“She was just nice, loving, kind, she bought cards for birthdays,” never forgot a one, Danny tells me. Danny lists her qualities. “Reliable, trustworthy, honest.”
“She sounds like a saint,” I say.
“She was,” Danny says.
Another home, another universe. “Diane’s a murderer,” Mike Bastardi’s wife, Jeanne, said. Mike’s father and brother Guy were in the TrailBlazer that Diane hit, along with their friend, Daniel Longo.
“Danny didn’t even acknowledge my loss,” says Mike, almost politely.
Jeanne’s the one with no grays in her life; it’s all black and white. “Not even a second have I felt sorry for Danny. This becomes a man you can’t hate enough,” she says.
As we talk, I can’t help but notice a similarity between Mike and Danny and their families. Under different circumstances, Mike might have even found something likable in Danny. Neither family had taken the college route. (“School ain’t for everyone,” says Danny, a night guard at Nassau County parks.) The Bastardis grew up in auto parts. Mike’s father had started a business in the Bronx, and after high school, Mike went to work full time for his father, with whom Jeanne had also worked.
The Bastardis’ business thrived and Mike left the Bronx, which he’d tired of, and he and Jeanne moved upstate to four acres in Warwick, the kind of country like place that Danny, a hunter and fisherman, would like. Danny refuses to go to Manhattan and doesn’t even like overcrowded Long Island; in that regard, he’s like Mike’s dad, who was fed up with his hometown, Yonkers, and “all the bullshit there,” as he told Mike.
The bullcrap was one reason Mike Sr. used to get in his car and pop over to Mike and Jeanne’s. “Why don’t you call before you come?” Jeanne once asked him, since they weren’t always home. “I don’t care. I like the drive,” he’d said—he would wait in the driveway if they were out.
For Mike, as for Danny, family is the hub of life. Every summer for 42 years, the extended Bastardi family travelled to Wildwood Crest on the Jersey shore, sometimes in an entourage of 30 people. Mike had to show up or risk the doghouse. “Where’s my rotten son?” his mother would ask if Mike was late.
On July 26, Mike Jr. was returning from Wildwood. He’d snuck down there for a few days with the immediate family, though he’d called to reassure his dad: “I’m coming with you in August,” for the traditional reunion. When Mike got home, the phone rang. It was Mike’s sister, Margaret, laughing and wanting to know if Dad was there, sitting in the driveway. He was supposed to be on his way to their other sister’s in Yorktown Heights with Guy, his other son.
“Call me when you figure out where he is,” Jeanne said.
Around 2:30, Mike’s other sister, Roseann, called. “Did you hear from him?”
“We can’t get through to his cell.”
Then Mike’s brother-in-law Bobby called. “Mike, we’re looking at the accident on TV, and it looks like Guy’s car.” Then his brother-in-law Joe called. Jeanne, overhearing, said, “Which one? Which one?”
“All of them.”
Mike lost his breath. He stumbled into the backyard and collapsed.
“Mike’s shot. Totally shot,” says Jeanne. “He can’t think about anything else. This has destroyed my family.”
It’s a kind of Schuler family reunion—except that it’s taking place in a windowless conference room. Danny’s sitting with half a dozen of Diane’s friends and relatives who’ve driven in from Seaford and Massapequa to Danny’s lawyer’s office in Garden City. Danny sits at the oval table, bulky and downcast, and won’t take off his camouflage cap—whitetail, it says, for the deer he hunts. Still, for Danny, it’s almost a happy moment, as good as they get these days. The gathering is like a wake. No one considers Diane a murderer here. “The accident has come to stand for who she is,” says Christine Lipani, Diane’s best friend and neighbour. “If you knew Diane, you believe wholeheartedly there’s no circumstances where she would have done anything that is being said. I would put my life on that.”
Danny is not the only one who has Diane on a pedestal. “She could’ve gotten a doctorate,” says Christine, though Diane, a practical girl, quit Nassau Community College for a back-office job at Cablevision, which came with security and benefits and a ladder to climb, which she did. Diane’s braininess was legendary in the family. Danny remembers one time when they were buying a car, the salesman added the costs on a calculator and Diane caught him in a $100 error. “She could do it quicker upside down and in her head than he could do it on a calculator,” says Danny. “It was like Rain Man.” Diane performed similar feats all the time. With groceries, she knew the price before reaching the cashier. “Within pennies,” Danny says.
After those demonstrations, Danny told Diane she should do the bills. Then he let her take charge of the house, the kids, the finances. “She did everything. She was the boss,” Danny says. For Danny, it was perfect. “She was the mothering type,” he says. She mothered kids, who flocked to her, and she mothered Danny. “Big time,” he says.
Though Diane could be impulsive, Danny never doubted her judgment. One time, Diane ran out for milk and returned with a flat-screen TV. Another time, she went out for groceries and returned with a Jeep Cherokee. “She deserved it,” Danny tells me.
Shopping was one of Diane’s favorite things to do. After work, she loaded the kids in the car and ran off to Kohl’s or Wal-Mart to sniff out bargains. Diane stockpiled Christmas presents starting in July. Their attic is full of neatly packed outfits for the 2-year-old Erin and Bryan for years to come. “The attic’s insane,” says Danny. When Diane saw a nice brown pocketbook that Jay, her sister-in-law, would like, she bought it, the same way she bought a $300 bat for Jay’s son, making him promise to hit home runs. “She took so much interest in your life,” says Diane’s friend Camille Stio. Diane took special interest in Camille’s life. “She made it her mission to find me a husband,” says Camille, and she did.
Little seemed to bother Diane. There were no ups and downs, no mood swings, none that anyone noticed. “I’ve never seen her mad or angry,” says Noreen Smyth, another good friend I reach later by phone. She didn’t drink to excess, didn’t need to let off steam. Maybe a piña colada or two at a party—and even then she worried about a designated driver. And no one can recall that she ever griped. “She never, ever once said, ‘Oh, my husband is a pain in the ass,’ ” says Camille. She just didn’t seem to be affected by things that bothered other people.
“She never complained,” says Danny. “I do; she doesn’t.”
Diane was maternal and superefficient and also the breadwinner, bringing home six figures from Cablevision. For a dozen years, Danny has patrolled county parks at night, dressing like a cop without the gun or badge, a $43,000-a-year job, He likes the stability, and not being bothered by strangers, even if it meant arriving home past midnight when Diane was already asleep. “She wanted me to be home, but that’s my job, you know,” Danny explains brusquely. Mostly, the two led separate lives during the week; the weekend was their time together with the kids.
And so evenings, Diane put the children to bed and switched on her shows, The Biggest Loser, Dancing With the Stars. She didn’t need Danny to hear her deep dark secrets—he isn’t built for that either. “He gave her what she wanted,” says a friend of Danny’s. “A family.”
Diane compiled to-do lists and issued gentle but firm directives. She knew where everything was, every single toy. That she had walled-off areas of her life didn’t alarm anyone. “She infrequently talked about personal feelings,” says Christine. They were all so busy, no one probed behind that unflappable cheeriness. And yet Diane guarded secrets. She was a pot smoker. Danny told the police she smoked once in a while, but Jay knew better. She liked pot and smoked it “on a regular basis,” the police understood from their interviews. Diane didn’t believe in medicine. She seemed scared to death that doctors would deliver bad news and didn’t even have a primary-care physician. Maybe she preferred to self-medicate. To relax or “relieve the stress of work and the kids,” Danny told the police, she sometimes smoked pot. Her best friend, Christine, like most of her friends, was surprised to learn about her affection for marijuana; that didn’t fit with the super-responsible Diane they knew.
But then Diane wasn’t only saintly. She could be pushy, abrupt, impatient, the prerogatives of the boss—“stubborn,” her brother Warren told the police. It wasn’t quite her way or the highway but, as Noreen says, “Danny did it her way, and that was the best way,” And she didn’t take guff. “If a store clerk or waitress was rude, I would just try and be nicer,” says Christine. “Diane would tell me, ‘You drive me crazy. Stop blowing smoke up people’s ass.’ ” And Diane liked to honk a horn. “I never beep my horn,” Christine told me, and that would drive Diane nuts. “If we were driving and someone cut me off or was in front of us on a cell phone, she would reach over and honk my horn. She’d say, ‘I bet you didn’t even know that worked.’ ”
And she could be secretive. When Diane was 9, her mother abandoned the family; her father raised four kids. “The divorce was off-limits,” says Jay. (Some friends assumed her mother was dead.) Diane refused to speak to her mother.
“I made many efforts,” her mother, Eileen, tells me. “Her dad would’ve liked it to work out. It was Diane’s choice. We could have had a relationship. I never stopped loving her.” But Diane was hardheaded and unforgiving. “It’s not the Diane that anybody knows,” says her mother, who stayed in contact with Diane’s three brothers. “I guess she couldn’t get over her hurt.”
Shortly after the accident, Danny turned himself over to the care of Dominic Barbara, a skilled attorney who’s represented a procession of high-profile client-celebrities, Joey Buttafuoco prominent among them. Barbara became the new parent figure in Danny’s life, replacing Diane while promising to rehabilitate her. “Who Diane is was on my shoulders,” Barbara tells me. And so Barbara introduced the drama of a woman besmirched. She was not a reckless substance abuser but a devoted mother to whom something horrible and beyond her control had happened. What it was, no one could be sure, perhaps ever.
Barbara walked Danny onto Larry King Live and into a press conference, laying down the rules: No questions about marijuana use. Danny wasn’t eager for prime time. “There just isn’t no words for it right now,” Danny says at one point. But he did his best. He choked up at the mention of his dead 2-year-old. Then he turned angry and chivalrous in defense of Diane. “Listen to this,” he said at the press conference. “I go to bed every night knowing. She did not drink. She is not an alcoholic. My heart is rested every night. Something medically had to have happened.”
Danny left the real storytelling to Barbara and his investigator, Tom Ruskin, a former cop and president of CMP, a private-investigation firm. Ruskin drily laid out the chronology. Danny and Diane had gone to Hunter Lake Campground in the Catskills, where they’d parked their camper for three seasons. On Sunday, July 26, Diane left at 9:30 a.m. with five kids buckled into the red Ford Windstar minivan borrowed from her brother Warren, and two witnesses report that they noticed nothing out of the ordinary. She stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast, an ice coffee and an orange juice, and took it back to the car, according to an investigator, then pumped some gas at a nearby Sunoco, and hit traffic on Route 17.
At 12:08 p.m., Jackie Hance, Diane’s sister-in-law and the mother of three of the girls in the car, called Diane on her cell phone. (Ruskin’s information comes from Jackie’s husband, Warren.) They had a coherent discussion about Jackie’s oldest, 9-year-old Emma, and her upcoming role in a play. Then at 12:58, Emma called her mother. “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane,” she said.
Jackie heard the kids crying in the background, but after two minutes and 33 seconds, the call cut out. Warren, Emma’s father and Diane’s brother, called back at 1:02 p.m. and heard Diane slur her words.
She was disoriented.
She referred to him as Danny. Diane had pulled off the road just past the Tappan Zee tolls. Warren got Emma on the phone. “What signs do you see?” he asked his 9-year-old. Warren told Diane to stay put; he was on his way. Instead, Diane headed out, turning north instead of south, though she’d driven the route dozens of times; twenty minutes later, she entered an exit ramp that brought her onto the Taconic the wrong way.
And so in place of the police’s sordid story line, Ruskin proposes a mystery: “Unless you believe that a woman who’s like a PTA mom of the year decides this is the day I don’t give a damn, I’m going to have eight or ten shots and smoke a joint in front of my kids and nieces, then something else had to happen.” Even if true, went the argument, the behaviour doesn’t make sense.
Then Barbara came right at the condemning toxicology report, respinning it. He claimed that the medical examiner’s report showed Diane was not an alcoholic. Barbara exaggerated; the report noted that some changes associated with some long-term alcoholics weren’t present.
But Barbara has mastered his métier: On TV there’s no fact-checking. And so he sped on, sowing doubt, weaving friendlier scenarios. Was there a small undetected stroke, or an abscess that somehow travelled to her brain and clouded her judgment and that led to acute substance intake? Then Barbara told Larry King that they planned to exhume Diane’s body for further testing. It was a perfect headline-maker, and another deft tug at public opinion, even if Barbara, as he later said, isn’t convinced of the wisdom of that course. “I’ve done Larry King ten or fifteen times, and that was my best performance,” he said later.
Mike Bastardi said “More will come out,”. He talks to cops and medical examiners and lawyers, pressing the D.A. to call a grand jury, keeping the case, his dad and brother, alive. Like Danny, he’s latched onto the idea that there’s a hidden truth out there.
And so Mike and Jeanne sift and resift the few available facts, suspicious of everything. Danny didn’t even know that Diane had packed the vodka in the car. Diane left McDonald’s with a cup of orange juice, a good mixer. And how about the weight gain? In older photos Mike saw in the press, Diane has a pretty face and dark hair, a lovely smile, and doesn’t weigh 204 pounds, her weight according to the autopsy. (“Don’t we all” gain weight, Danny told me.) To the Bastardis, adding pounds could be explained by steady drinking.
And yet Diane is dead and already a criminal, and so for Mike she’s an unsatisfying repository for anger. He and Jeanne prefer living culprits, aiders and abettors: Danny and even Warren, father of three dead girls.
“They make like it was not even their fault,” says Mike. “I think they knew she was drunk and stoned.” Mike has finally got ahold of the state-police investigation. Detective James Boyle interviewed a couple who said that at about 11:45 a.m. on July 26—23 minutes before Jackie supposedly had that coherent 12:08 p.m. conversation with Diane—she noticed a red minivan pulled over to the side of the road. Diane Schuler—they later identified her through photographs in the press—was bent over with her hands on her knees, “as if she was … going to vomit.” The minivan sped up, tailgating, honking, and zigzagging; later, another motorist spotted her entering the Ramapo rest stop, driving on the grass. (Jackie refused to be interviewed by the state police, another suspicious fact for Mike and Jeanne.)
“Diane probably drank and drove so often Warren couldn’t conceive it would get this bad,” says Jeanne.
Mike started out sad and confused, but grief turned to rage. Danny had insulted them. “Don’t you dare tell me this whole thing happened in that minivan and she was perfect before and after and her whole life,” Mike says. “They threw too much shit out.” For Mike, it’s a pitched battle. “They picked a fight with the wrong people.” He and Jeanne want someone’s head. “It makes me feel like some kind of justice is being done,” he says.
Mike and Jeanne focus on that 1:02 call when Warren learned that Diane was incapacitated. Warren raced in search of Diane. Danny was out of the loop. Warren didn’t call him, though he besieged Diane with calls, at 1:20, 1:24, 1:28. There was no answer. The phone had been abandoned. But Warren didn’t call 911. The first call from the Hances to the state police comes at 1:40, by which time everyone is dead.
“If he’d called 911 immediately, we wouldn’t be here,” Mike said. In Warren, Mike sees a kind of depraved indifference. When Warren told a terrified Emma to stay put, the minivan was parked directly across from the state-police barracks.
Would Warren really risk the lives of his three daughters? “They keep trying to make these people into normal-thinking humans,” Jeanne says.
Daniel Schuler and his in-laws, Warren and Jackie Hance, later sued each other over the crash.
The Bastardi and Longo families pushed for prosecutors to convene a grand jury, but it never happened. Michael Bastardi Jr., who wrote a book about the experience, remains convinced that the Schuler and Hance families can provide some details to shed light on the events of that day. He hopes they will eventually be willing to sit down.
“I do hope, someday,” Bastardi said, “maybe if they have a change of heart they’ll reach out and we’ll find out what really went on.”
“They should come forward, come clean,” says Mike, and says that would be enough. “And we would feel better. We would.”
Map of accident Road map of accident location (maps.google.com)