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I Dream of Diane

Diane and Danny Schuler on their wedding day.  

“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.