Diane Schuler was drunk and had consumed marijuana not long before driving a minivan with five children the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, authorities said Tuesday, a stunning revelation that helps explain the collision that killed her and seven others.
Citing blood work results, authorities said the West Babylon mother had a blood-alcohol content of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 and the equivalent of about 10 drinks. She had enough tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive substance in marijuana, in her bloodstream to indicate that she ingested it 15 minutes to an hour before the July 26 accident, authorities said.
Police said they found a broken bottle of Absolut vodka, which had been opened, in the crushed remains of the Ford Windstar Schuler was driving, but they are unsure if she drank from it.
Schuler, 36, ingested alcohol and marijuana sometime after she left an upstate campground about 9:30 a.m. on July 26 with her two children and three nieces, New York State Police Maj. William Carey said Tuesday. A woman fitting her description was later seen driving aggressively on the New York State Thruway and Route 17, police said.
At 1:35 p.m., she entered the Taconic driving south on a northbound exit ramp, going into oncoming traffic for 1.7 miles before crashing head-on into an SUV, police said.
The collision killed Schuler, her daughter, Erin, 2; her three nieces, Emma Hance, 8; Alyson Hance, 7; and Kate Hance, 5; and three Yonkers men in the SUV - Guy Bastardi, 49, his father, Michael Bastardi, 81, and their friend, Daniel Longo, 74. Schuler's son, Bryan, 5, is recovering at Westchester Medical Center.
Shock and outrage
Tuesday's news outraged the Bastardi family and shocked many who knew Schuler.
"We're all just so upset," said the clerk at Marianna's Bakery in Floral Park, where Schuler grew up and her nieces still lived. "You didn't think you could feel worse than last week," said the clerk, Mary Ann, who did not give her last name.
For the past week, investigators have said they did not believe drugs or alcohol played a role, saying Schuler pulled over to call her brother, Warren Hance, the father of the nieces, a half-hour before the crash and said she wasn't well. Police publicly theorized about other possibilities, including undiagnosed medical conditions.
In fact, six grams of alcohol remained in Schuler's stomach, unprocessed, police said Tuesday. There were 113 nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol per milliliter of her blood, a "high level," said Elizabeth Spratt, of the Westchester Laboratory, which processed the tests.
"With a [blood alcohol level] at that particular range, there are difficulties in perception, judgment and memory," Spratt said, adding that severely drunk and high people often have "tunnel vision," meaning peripheral vision is impaired.
The autopsy classified the deaths as homicides, but Carey said, without elaborating, that criminal charges were unlikely. The probe continues "so that the public and the families of the victims can understand" what led to the crash, said Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore in a statement.
Investigators say they still have unanswered questions, including exactly what Schuler drank and whether her family was aware of her drinking that day. Most importantly, Carey said, they do not know why Schuler - a Cablevision manager whom neighbors, friends and family described as a trustworthy, caring mother - would drive drunk and high.
State police said they informed Schuler's husband, Daniel, and Warren Hance of the results Tuesday morning and they seemed very surprised.
Carey said police had no indication that Diane Schuler had been treated for drug or alcohol problems. "We have had limited information from the family," Carey said. "We are attempting to gather more information from friends and family. . . . The family is going through a grieving process." Investigator James Boyle said Hance and Daniel Schuler are cooperating.
A spokesman for Cablevision, which owns Newsday, declined to comment.
"Sober as a judge"
Ann Scott, owner of Hunter Lake Campground in Parksville, where Schuler stayed with her family that weekend, said Schuler seemed "sober as a judge" when she left for home.
David Brody, one of the first paramedics at the crash scene, said he saw no evidence she was drinking. "I'm shocked at what I'm hearing," he said, adding that alcohol use is not always apparent to first responders.
Friends struggled with the news. "We're all in disbelief, all of us," said Sharon Gregor, 51, of Massapequa, who camped many weekends with Schuler.
In West Babylon, where Schuler lived, some remained skeptical. "I've never seen her drink; I've never seen her smoke," said neighbor Julie Shaughnessy. "There has to be another explanation."
At Floral Park Florists, which provided flowers for the coffins of Schuler and her daughter, employee Christina Henrichs said she began having doubts as details emerged. "You kept hearing things that didn't quite add up," she said. "But you didn't want to think anything bad. It's just shocking."