The morning of July 26, 2009, marked the end of a weekend camping trip for 36-year-old Diane Schuler and her family. She kissed her husband goodbye, settled her two children and three nieces in her minivan and set out on the two-and-a-half-hour drive from upstate New York to Long Island.
During the drive, Diane called her brother Warren and told him she wasn't feeling well. Soon after, Diane swerved into oncoming traffic on the Taconic State Parkway, where she crashed head-on into an SUV carrying Michael Bastardi, his son Guy and family friend Daniel Longo. All three men were killed, along with Diane, her daughter Erin and her nieces Emma, Alyson and Kate. Only 5-year-old Bryan Schuler survived.
Nine days later, Diane's toxicology report was released. Results found a high level of marijuana in her system, along with a blood alcohol level of 0.19—the equivalent of 10 drinks. A broken bottle of vodka was also found in the wreckage of her minivan.
Daniel Schuler denies that his wife drank or did drugs that day and believes an underlying medical condition contributed to her behavior. "She was a perfect wife, an outstanding mother," he says. "I go to bed every night knowing my heart is clear. She did not drink. She's not an alcoholic."
The official police report has not yet been released, and more questions than answers remain about the case. If Diane Schuler did drink and use drugs, how could no one have known? And why would she get behind the wheel with a car full of children?
Daniel has hired a private investigator to search for answers.
Private investigator Tom Ruskin says Daniel is convinced alcohol and pot did not cause this accident. "If [the investigation] led us to a bar, then he would have lived with that. That's not what our investigation has shown thus far," Tom says. "We have not shown that she was ever drunk in her life. Every person that we've interviewed, from high school through her adult life, has told us they never saw Diane drunk. She occasionally did have a drink, but she would even mix it with additional mixer, so she wasn't drunk."
When asked about the vodka bottle found in the car, Tom says Diane brought the liquor for her husband. "The way that the Schuler family describes it is she did have a tendency to bring the bottle back and forth because, during the week, Daniel would like to have a drink and she was somewhat frugal," Tom says. "We reasonably believe that's the bottle that was in the car."
In fact, Tom says his team has only found one other bottle of alcohol in the family's possession. "If you're an alcoholic, you have bottles hidden everywhere," he says. "There was one small bottle of alcohol in their home that was for his father, who they call 'Papa.' And Papa drinks Scotch, and there was a three-quarter bottle full of Scotch."
In the course of his investigation, Tom says his team has interviewed more than 50 people and no one has reported any strange behavior. "What we've been able to determine is that she did have a tooth problem. That tooth problem was causing her pain over a period of years. It is possible, even though I'm not throwing it out as the answer to the question, that this may have caused some kind of medical condition that may have made her confused that day."
Tom says he has documented Diane's point of distress based on accounts of phone calls made to Diane's brother and sister-in-law. He says Diane's niece Emma called her dad at 11:38 a.m. to say they left a bit late. Tom says Diane spoke with her sister-in-law at 12:08 p.m. about future plans. "Diane is coherent, she is responsive, and she is engaging," Tom says.
But 48 minutes later, Tom says the trip took a turn for the worse. "Emma makes a call from her cell phone to her family saying: 'There's something wrong with Aunt Diane. Aunt Diane is having trouble seeing. She's having trouble talking, and she is confused and lost," Tom says. "Diane is in the background heard; she doesn't know where she is. ... It is inconceivable that someone could consume 8 to 10 ounces and metabolize that within the 48-minute period. So something possibly other than alcohol could be a contributory factor to this accident."
One thing Tom says he can't yet explain is the marijuana found in Diane's system, though he says the Schuler family suspects the Westchester Medical Examiner's Office has made a mistake. "We have gotten a DNA sample from a toothbrush of Diane's. We are in the process of having the Westchester medical examiner's office transfer the extra specimens, samples, tissue samples, to a crime lab of our choosing, and they will first test it versus the DNA."
Since losing his father, brother and friend that tragic day, Mike Bastardi says he and his wife, Jeanne, have been taking things one day at a time.
Mike says he dismisses Tom's statements because none of the witnesses he interviewed were under oath. "They're taking the toxicology reports and just throwing them out the window," he says. "It's facts. The medical examiners, state police, they did their job. The facts are there, and he did not even consider it. It's just outrageous."
Jeanne says she doesn't believe Tom has any actual evidence. "There are no recorded cell phone calls. There are no voice mails. So what he's giving up as evidence is just what they're saying happened," she says. "Those cell phone [calls] in between, that's what we want to uncover. Were there adults that knew she was very intoxicated and neglected to call 911? The state police have assured us, had that happened, they would have issued an Amber Alert and maybe we all wouldn't be sitting here today."
Mike says he also thinks Daniel Schuler is hiding something. "In the beginning, [he] refused to speak to state police, denying this whole thing about the drugs," he says. "There's seven innocent people that were killed in this accident. And not to try to make the truth come out would make this clear for everyone and every victim involved is ludicrous and just shows me signs of guilt."
Elizabeth Spratt, the director of the lab where Diane's toxicology report was conducted, says the results are 100 percent correct. "There is no chance of error. We did a lot of work. We have standards. Controls. Checking and rechecking that we do for all of our work," she says. "This is standard for anything we do in the laboratory, and we stand by everything we reported."
Elizabeth says each victim was tested, but only Diane had traces of marijuana and alcohol in her system. "I feel very sad for the entire tragedy, but I know that our results are accurate and we did many samples. We didn't just do a blood sample to see that the alcohol level was here," she says. "We did vitreous humor [fluid testing behind the eyes], which was even higher. We did gastric contents. We did brain and urine, so we know that these all match with the alcohol level in the blood."
The Schuler family has said an unknown medical condition could be to blame for faulty levels of marijuana in Diane's system, but Elizabeth says that's simply not possible. "The THC [marijuana's active ingredient] itself was extremely high. It was 133 nanograms per mil. If I got a sample several hours after somebody smoked, I would see numbers like 2, 3, 5, 7 nanograms per mil," she says. "It peaks very quickly when you smoke and disappears very quickly."