2 years later, eyeing tragic Taconic crash

Mike Bastardi Jr., whose father and brother were killed by a wrong-way driver, discusses "The Taconic Tragedy: A Son's Search for the Truth," his wife's book, which comes out Monday. Videojournalist: Craig Ruttle (June 8, 2011)

Nearly two years after the notorious Taconic State Parkway crash, a documentary and a book confront the lingering question: Why did a seemingly loving Long Island mother drive drunk and high with a minivan full of children, causing a wrong-way collision that killed herself and seven others?

The documentary, "There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane" -- to air on HBO on July 25 -- suggests Diane Schuler, of West Babylon, was suffering delirium caused by severe tooth pain as she drove home from an upstate camping trip with her two children and three nieces. A forensic psychiatrist says Schuler may have been self-medicating with vodka and marijuana.

 

No solutions

But the film's director acknowledges the documentary does not solve the mystery. "Is there a single answer as to why she drank and smoked that day? No," said filmmaker Liz Garbus. "I don't think we'll ever know exactly what happened that day."

The book, "The Taconic Tragedy: A Son's Search for the Truth," focuses on the pain of the families of the three men killed in a sport utility vehicle that crashed head-on into Schuler's minivan. It speculates on what may have led to Schuler's binge but offers no conclusions.

"There are a lot of questions that I'd like to try get answered," said Michael Bastardi, whose father, Michael Bastardi Sr., 81, and brother, Guy Bastardi, 49, both of Yonkers, were killed. His wife Jeanne wrote the book, and the family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit.

The others killed were Bastardi family friend Daniel Longo, 74, of Yonkers; Schuler, 36; her daughter, Erin, 2; and her nieces Emma Hance, 8, Alyson Hance, 7, and Kate Hance, 5, of Floral Park. The sole survivor was Schuler's son, Bryan, then 5, and his father was driving another car at the time.

Both projects recount the well-known facts of the case.

Schuler -- driving to West Babylon from a camping trip with her husband, children and nieces -- ended up going south on the northbound lanes of the Taconic. She drove 1.7 miles before the crash. Toxicology tests showed she had a 0.19 blood alcohol concentration -- twice the legal limit -- and had smoked a large quantity of marijuana.

The documentary reveals survivor Bryan Schuler's injuries caused an eye condition, oculomotor nerve palsy, that required surgery and special therapy. And it chronicles Schuler's husband Daniel's attempt to clear her name by proving toxicology reports were erroneous or that the accident was caused by a medical condition -- theories the film does not substantiate.

 

A complex picture

Through interviews with Schuler family and friends, the film presented a complicated portrait of Diane Schuler. She was a dedicated cable television executive who earned six figures, read to her children at bedtime and made photo albums for her in-laws. But she kept inner pain to herself -- for example, not discussing even with her husband the estrangement from her mother, who abandoned her at age 9.

 

Payment report disputed

Garbus disputed reports that Schuler's family was paid $100,000 to participate in the documentary. She said Schuler and Bastardi family members appearing in the film were given an undisclosed stipend.

The Hance girls' parents, Diane Schuler's brother Warren Hance and his wife, Jackie, did not participate in the film, but a letter Jackie wrote to a relative is read on camera. "Warren and I are broken," it said. "My life ended July 26, 2009." The Hances declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Daniel Schuler and his sister-in-law Jay Schuler, who is in the film.

In the book, Michael Bastardi's grief turns to anger as Schuler's family appeared on TV to dispute the toxicology tests. "It was a three-ring circus," Bastardi said from his upstate Warwick home last month. "The crash itself was a horror. It's an unbelievable episode in my life, and that compounded it a hundred times worse than it really should have been to deal with."

Bastardi wants the Schuler family put under oath for depositions through the civil lawsuit his family filed against Schuler's estate and Warren Hance, who may be liable under New York law because Diane Schuler was driving his minivan.

Bastardi wants to discover the truth he was hoping would be uncovered by a Westchester grand jury. But the district attorney's office declined to convene one, a decision criticized in the book. Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore, said the case didn't go to a grand jury because "the only culpable party, Diane Schuler, died in the accident."

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