For Mike, as for Danny, family is the hub of life. Every summer for 42 years, the extended Bastardi family has traveled 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.”
From his bed, Danny’s son wanted to know where Mommy was. “She’s in heaven,” he said. the boy wanted to know what heaven is—it’s where good people go.
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 neighbor. “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.