I Dream of Diane

Photo: Henry Leutwyler

She was, in his telling, the perfect woman—perhaps that’s how your mind would work, too.

Three 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. The July 26 accident was the most horrific in memory—the worst in Westchester County in 75 years. 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 SUV. Toxicology reports later established Diane’s blood alcohol level at .19 percent, more than twice the legal limit. 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, tells me. 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 countrylike 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 bullshit 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.

The crash scene off the Taconic State Parkway near Mount Pleasant.Photo: Alan Zale/The New York Times/Redux

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?”

“No, why?”

“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.

Diane and Danny Schuler on their wedding day.Photo: Splash News

“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.

Brian Schuler was the only survivor of the crash. He doesn't remember what happened in the car.Photo: Tim Wiencis/Splash News

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 behavior 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 traveled 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 tells me, 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 tells me later.

Mike Bastardi and I talk on the phone sometimes. “More will come out,” he says. 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.

Another home, Another universe. “Diane is a murderer,” says Jeanne Bastardi. “Not even a moment have I felt sorry for Danny. He becomes a man you can’t hate enough.”

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 tells me. 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.

“They should come forward, come clean,” says Mike, and says that would be enough. “And we would feel better. We would.”

It’s autumn now on Danny’s well-tended block in West Babylon. Yellow and red leaves drop from the trees and onto the lawns and are quickly raked and bagged. The camper is parked in the driveway. Halloween had crept up. Danny intended to do up the house with lights and blow-up pumpkins, just as Diane would have, and he and Bryan did some, but there were other pressing matters. Bryan’s home from the hospital. Danny’s taken time from work to be with him and deal with the teachers and doctors, friends and family, who troop in and out. Bryan’s broken arms and leg are healed. But he’s still dizzy sometimes. And every time he hears a siren, he’s terrified. For a while, he wore an eye patch. “Why?” asked one of his playmates. “I had an accident,” he said. He doesn’t remember what happened in the car, Danny says.

Danny has agreed to meet me a second time on condition that, as Barbara makes clear, this is the last of it. Danny’s angry with me, not personally, perhaps, but with the endless questions of people like me and the suspicions they can’t mask. We meet again in Barbara’s office.

“Do you ever wonder if there was anything you could have done differently?” I want to know if Danny feels guilty in some general way, for inattention or absence or anything. But Danny, always specific, focuses on that fateful morning.

“Absolutely not,” Danny says. “I gave her a hug and a kiss.”

Danny’s life is hollowed out. He’s lost his little girl and his wife, the boss who didn’t trouble him with the details. His sense of financial well-being is gone, too. “I’m worried about money now,” says Danny, whose take-home barely covers mortgage payments.

“When you search your mind, is there anything you think you might have not known about her?”

“No,” he tells me. “Outstanding relationship. I’ll never find another woman like her.” Admit one flaw, even a minor one, and everything falls apart. I ask Danny if she ever honked her horn. Never, he says.

Danny had confided to Ruskin that his relationship with Diane had ups and downs, but insisted it was a good relationship and recently was in an up.

Now Danny tells me, “There were never any downs. Up for twelve years.”

How well did Danny really know Diane?

“She’d talk to me if things came up,” he says.

“About what?”

“The house needs painting, the gutters need to be cleaned.”

Danny is hunched forward, a defensive pose. He tells me he’s been awake since two this morning. The grief is crushing, and maybe the guilt too. For a dozen years, he got home after Diane was in bed. Now she haunts his sleep. He wants to talk to her in the middle of the night. “I miss you,” he would tell her. “I love you.”

What keeps him up at night? I ask.

“My daughter, my wife. Moving forward, finishing this, solving it. The truth is out there,” he tells me.

Danny has finally raised the money to retest the samples of Diane’s fluids and tissue held by the medical examiner—not quite $10,000. Maybe the medical examiner mixed up the test tubes, which the medical examiner tells me is ridiculous. It’s the language of CSI, those captivating TV procedurals in which they always get their man.

“What will it take to get Danny to accept that Diane was under the influence?” I ask Ruskin.

“Honestly, I’m not sure,” says Ruskin, who doesn’t accept it either.

I ask Danny about his efforts to uncover more evidence. It won’t bring them back.

“What would you do if your daughter died, and you know for a fact their mother was outstanding?” he asks me sharply.

The day before, he’d taken Bryan to the cemetery to see his mother’s and sister Erin’s graves for the first time. “We talked a lot, you know,” Danny tells me. He cries a little. “What do you say to him? What do you say to a 5-year-old?”

You say that Mommy was a good mommy, an outstanding mommy, and you promise not to rest until you prove it.

Additional research by Owen Pye.

I Dream of Diane