Diane Schuler: How The Perfect Mom Killed Eight In A Head-On Collision

On July 26, 2009, at 1:30 pm, Diane Schuler drove her minivan the wrong way down New York’s Taconic State Parkway. Around 1.7 miles in, she slammed into an oncoming SUV killing everyone in it, along with her daughter, three nieces, and herself.  

Before the accident, when her husband saw her, Diane Schuler’s behavior wasn’t out of the ordinary. The toxicology report told a different story. Diane was heavily intoxicated, which made it a typical case of drunk driving. It contributed to the passing of the Child Passenger Protection Act, which made it a felony to drive intoxicated with a minor in your car.  

The police quickly accepted the answer, but Diane Schuler’s husband, Daniel, was not. He believes that Dianne was an upstanding mother and would never put her child and nieces in danger. The documentary on HBO, There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, follows Daniel’s quest to clear Diane’s name. Of course, it brings up many other issues and has led many to believe that it wasn’t merely a case of drunk driving. Some now believe that Diane purposefully caused the accident that killed her and her family.

Diane Schuler on her wedding day
Diane Schuler on her wedding day – YouTube

Earlier In The Day

Early on July 26, 2009, Diane Schuler drove away from the Hunter Lake Campground, where they had stayed for the weekend, in her brother Warren Hance’s 2003 Ford Windstar. In the car were her 2-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son, and her brother’s three kids. Her husband left around the same time in his pick up truck along with their dog.

One of the co-owners of the campground reported that nothing seemed off. Diane Schuler was sober when she left that morning. Shortly after leaving, Diane stopped at a Sunoco gas station and a McDonald’s for some breakfast.  

Around 11 am, they started driving on Route 17/Interstate 86. At this point, witnesses started noticing some erratic behavior from a red minivan. They saw it driving aggressively by tailgating, honking, flashing headlights, driving in two lanes at once, and moving in and out of lanes.   

Diane Schuler Made Series of Phone Calls

Dianne Schuler called her brother Warren Hance (the father of her three nieces in the car) at 11:37 am to let him know that they would get home later than they thought because of traffic.  

Eight minutes later, at 11:45, cars driving by noticed Diane pulled over on the side of the road. She bent over with her hands on her knees like she was vomiting. She was seen again doing the same thing a bit later.

At 12:58 pm, Hance received another call from Diane’s phone. It was his 8-year-old daughter, Emma, who was very worried about her aunt Diane. Emma said that she wasn’t able to see or speak clearly. Diane then hopped on the line and confirmed that she was having trouble seeing.

Hance told her to pull off and that he would drive and meet them. While heading that way, he called her multiple times, but she wouldn’t pick up. Diane had left her phone on the highway, though. It was found by another motorist sometime later.  

The Tragic Accident

Almost seventy years earlier to the day, a bus traveling to Sing Sing prison from Brooklyn to New York fell off a ravine. It caught fire, killing twenty people. This was the worst accident in Westbrook County’s history and something they hoped they would never come close to again.

Diane Schuler would crush those hopes. 

We still don’t know the exact route Diane took after speaking with Hance, but thirty minutes later, at 1:30 pm, 911 calls started coming in. Two people reported that Diane’s van was edging towards Taconic State Parkway’s exit ramp. At the end of the off-ramp were signs that say “Don’t Enter and “One Way.”

Moments later, more 911 calls started pouring in, reporting a car driving down the parkway in the wrong direction. They estimated that she was going between 75 and 85 mph (121-137 km/h).

Eight people were killed in the crash

After driving 1.7 miles (2.7 km), Diane Schuler struck a 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer head-on at 85 mph. Diane, her daughter, and two of her nieces died immediately upon impact. In the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, 74-year-old Dan Longo, 81-year-old Michael Bastardi, and his 49-year-old son Guy were killed instantly. Diane’s niece died in the hospital later that day. 

Two people witnessed the accident and ran to the smoking wreckage. After pulling Diane out, they noticed a giant broken bottle of Absolut Vodka close the driver’s side. They tried to pull the kids out, but there was no pulse. None of them were wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. They didn’t even notice her son Bryan survived but was trapped under his cousins. Bryan would be the only survivor.

Investigating Diane Schuler and the Crash

The crash drew national attention. How could such a normal, family-oriented woman do this? The fact that Diane Schuler’s husband has publically disagreed with the investigation only added fuel to the fire.  

On August 4, Westchester County medical examiners released a damning toxicology report. Diane Schuler had a BAC of .19% at the time of the crash, with at least six more grams of alcohol in her stomach that she hadn’t absorbed into her blood. New York’s legal limit is .08% – Diane Schuler’s BAC was almost three times the legal limit.  

The report also found that Diane had high THC levels (the active part of marijuana) in her system. This means that she had likely smoked weed shortly before the crash. 

Denying the Toxicology Report

Four days after the report was released, Daniel Schuler and his attorney Dominic Barbara held a press conference to deny that Diane Schuler did drugs or had been drinking during their weekend at the lake because kids were around.  

Daniel changed the story but was consistently denying that his wife ever abused alcohol or could have been the day of the accident. When asked during an interview with Oprah about the bottle of Absolut, Daniel claimed that they usually kept the bottle in the camper. He said that Diane must have moved the bottle into the van because she was in charge of packing that day.  

The story changed, and Daniel said that he and Diane had been drinking during the trip. Daniel still denied that she drank the day before the crash.

The Hunter lake campground owner, who also happened to be a family friend, stated that she was not drunk at 9 am when she left. 

When Diane stopped at the Sunoco to buy Tylenol, the cashier claimed that he knew for a fact that Diane wasn’t drunk when she came in. She didn’t end up purchasing the Tylenol, which investigators think may have been for an abscessed tooth because people had seen her rubbing her cheek.  

Tom Ruskin, a private investigator hired by Daniel, also found that she appeared normal at the McDonalds. She had an extended conversation while ordering, without any indicators that she was intoxicated. The investigator said, “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.” In the course of his investigation, Ruskin found that nobody had ever seen Diane in such a drunken state.  

Daniel adamantly denied that his wife did drugs, though he did mention she occasionally smoked marijuana for her Insomnia. Diane Schuler’s sister-in-law did make a statement saying that Diane definitely smoked marijuana more than occasionally.

Who did Daniel Schuler Blame?

Daniel and his lawyer, Dominic Barbara, tried to prove that Diane Schuler drove erratically due to a health issue like a stroke. Because Diane had been obese and suffered from gestational diabetes, Daniel believed it was related to that. Diane also had a leg lump, which could have caused an embolism. As an autopsy by the Westchester Country medical examiner ruled out a heart attack, aneurysm, or stroke, this was untrue.

Daniel Schuler Outside of his Attorney's office
Daniel Schuler Outside of his Attorney’s office – Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

In September, New York State’s number one forensic pathologist announced that a hair test should have been done to determine if Diane was a regular drug user. Daniel and Barbara soon announced that they wanted to exhume Danie’s body for a hair test. Experts said the hair test would not change anything. Two separate tests had produced the same result, so that the hair test wouldn’t provide any new information. The next year, Daniel accepted $100,000 from a film company to film Diane Schuler’s exhumation.  

Diane Schuler’s Victims

Daniel’s consistent denial of his wife’s intoxication became a significant issue to the family of those killed in the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. After an appearance on Larry King Live, Joseph Longo, the brother of one of the deceased, made it clear in a public statement that Daniel Schuler was inflicting pain on his family.  

The daughters of Guy Bastardi also appeared on NBC Today with their lawyer. They questioned Daniel’s responsibility in enabling his wife’s substance abuse and even called for him to be drug tested. 

In the aftermath, the families and everyone involved got entangled in various legal battles over the crash. Jackie Hance, the mother of Diane Schuler’s three nieces, filed a suit against Daniel Schuler. The lawsuit claimed that her three daughters suffered extreme mental anguish in the moments leading up to their deaths. Daniel Schuler sued New York state over road safety and his brother-in-law Warren Hance because he owned the minivan. The Bastardi family sued Hance and Schuler over the accident. The lawsuits were settled or dropped by 2014.

The Child Passenger Protection Act

As a result of this Diane Schuler’s crash, New York Governor David Paterson proposed a law making it a felony to drive with underaged passengers while intoxicated. After the 11-year-old death of Leandra Rosado a few months later, the act was signed into law.

Why Did Diane Schuler Do It?

Despite Daniel’s claims, Diane Schuler was undoubtedly under the influence of marijuana and alcohol at the time of the crash. He is not wrong that Diane seemed like a model citizen and mother, which makes this case fascinating. How could a normal woman with no history of drug and alcohol addiction suddenly snap and endanger her family like that.  

The Bastardi family believes the act was a murder, not an accident, backed up by the Westchester County medical examiner. They declared the crash as a homicide because of Diane’s negligence.  

What we don’t know has led to many theories about the crash. Some believe that the accident was completely intentional. Diane Schuler abused alcohol and marijuana to get the courage to go through with a murder-suicide. She was depressed and angry and, deep down, had wanted to do this for a long time.  

Another theory was that Diane Schuler typically wasn’t alcoholic, but she had been self-medicating due to an abscess in her mouth. When she couldn’t buy Tylenol at the gas station, she turned to Vodka to ease her pain. The autopsy found nothing related to an abscess, so it’s likely wrong.  

The most interesting one is that Diane Schuler suffered from Auto Brewery Syndrome. This is a disease where your digestive system automatically turns starchy and sugary foods into alcohol in your body. If she suffered from Auto Brewery Syndrome, that would explain why she had alcohol in her system despite not being an alcoholic. Like the other theory, there’s a lot of evidence that goes against this. There was too much alcohol in her bloodstream, and the bottle of Absolut Vodka found in the crashed car imply drinking was the culprit. Also, there’s no such thing as Auto Marijuana Syndrome, so this does nothing to explain the THC in her system.  

Despite evidence that Diane Schuler was at best negligent and at worse a murderer, Daniel still adamantly defends her to this day.  

Alan Behrens

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