Taconic Crash Lawyer: 'No Alcohol in Her System' When She Left

Experts reject theory that the woman who killed 7 in New York suffered a stroke.

ByRadha Chitale, Lemita Steel and Katie Escherich
August 06, 2009, 7:18 PM

Aug. 7, 2009— -- The family of a woman who allegedly drove drunk and stoned the wrong way on a New York highway remains baffled about what happened and is appealing to anyone who saw Diane Schuler the day of the crash or has any information about her to contact its lawyer.

Schuler's family has rallied around the woman blamed for killing eight people, including herself, her daughter, three nieces and three men in a head-on collision on the Taconic State Parkway July 26. Diane Schuler was not a drinker, family members insist.

"I don't say that the report is accurate or not accurate," the Schuler's lawyer, Dominic Barbara, told "Good Morning America's" Chris Cuomo today referring to the police toxicology report. "What I say is that none of this case is logical. This is a woman who leaves a camp ground at 9 a.m. absolutely sober. ...We have video, we have tapes, we have people we spoke to. She had no alcohol in her system."

He later added, "There's no doubt she leaves that campground sober."

Schuler drove on the Taconic, heading in the wrong direction in the early afternoon. After dodging oncoming cars for 1.7 miles, she slammed into an SUV. Her minivan tumbled down an embankment and burst into flames.

The lawyer said that in one of four phone calls made from the Schuler's minivan before the crash, one of the children described her aunt as behaving strangely.

"We now have information about one of the phone calls where the child [in the car] says that her aunt is having problems speaking and seeing. Not slurred, but actually having trouble."

Barbara asked anyone with information about Schuler or the events leading to the crash to contact his investigators at the CMP Group in New York.

"The issue is what happened to this woman and how it happened," Barbara said. He later added, "It's not logical to just believe that these events occurred the way they did. It isn't who she was as a person."

Schuler, 36, was driving home to West Babylon, N.Y., from an upstate campground with her two children and three nieces in the car when she crashed. Her 5-year-old son, Bryan, survived the crash, but daughter Erin and nieces Alyson, Emma and Katie were killed, along with three people in another vehicle.

In a press conference held Thursday, Barbara pinned the accident on a stroke caused by an underlying diabetes condition. When asked about that theory today, Barbara said further examinations needed to be conducted to fully understand the cause of the accident.

But Barbara's explanation did not match some of the facts revealed by state police. Schuler's blood alcohol level was 0.19, over twice the legal state limit. The toxicology reports from the Westchester County medical examiner's office showed Schuler had the equivalent of 10 drinks in her stomach and elevated levels of THC, the active chemical in marijuana.

Investigators found a broken bottle of vodka at the crash scene, but Barbara's private investigator Thomas Ruskin told "GMA" that "we don't know if the vodka bottle was in the car or out of the car," because the car rolled.

"She was not a drinker. She was not an alcoholic," Daniel Schuler said of his wife during a news conference Thursday. "Something medically had to have happened."

"We had an occasional pina colada at a family barbecue," Jay Schuler, the wife of Daniel Schuler's brother, said on "GMA." "She was meticulous, safe, I trusted her with my son when I left the country ... those three girls before her own children were her life."

Schuler Family: 'This Is Not the Woman They Know'

Experts don't agree with Barbara's proposition.

"If they found elevated alcohol levels in her blood, she must have ingested it," said Dr. Pierre Fayad, chairman of the University of Nebraska Medical Center Department of Neurological Sciences. "Unfortunately, alcoholism and drug addiction are often missed or underestimated by family members."

Alcoholism, which affects 9.6 million people in the United States, disproportionately affects men more than women -- 6.9 million men compared with 2.5 million women, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism -- but women are uniquely susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

With less water in their bodies, women take longer than men to break down the toxic compounds in alcohol, with the result that the same amount of alcohol exposes a woman to more alcohol for longer periods of time than for a man.

And the associated shame and stigma of the disease makes it less likely that an alcoholic would seek help from family members or seek professional treatment.

Still, Daniel Schuler insisted during the news conference that he had never seen his wife drunk and that "she was the perfect wife."

And Jay Schuler said today that the whole Schuler family is shocked.

"This is absolutely not the woman they know," she said. "[Not] who I trusted my children with."

Barbara reiterated that "the family believes she did not ingest," but if that belief proves false, they want to know "what may have caused her to ingest if she did."

Thursday, Barbara suggested that Schuler may have ingested alcohol in an attempt to raise a low blood sugar level, a theory experts said demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both diabetes and stroke.

"Blaming the accident on a stroke preceding it is possible, like anything else, but not plausible," Fayad said. "Having high or low blood sugar acutely does not cause a stroke. It is the long term effect of diabetes that increases the risk of stroke."

Low blood sugar can mimic stroke. The brain is reliant on a consistent supply of sugar and oxygen from the blood, without which it may begin to lose function.

But a diabetic person's blood sugar level is higher than normal because it is not well regulated by insulin. Left untreated, as Diane Schuler's type 2 diabetes condition was, blood sugar will remain high.

Without proper medical controls, a diabetic person's blood sugar can increase enough to put the body in a crisis situation. Extra sugar seeps into the urine, drawing water along with it. The body becomes dehydrated and blood potassium levels climb, causing the brain and other vital organs to suffer.

Similarly, alcohol is a diuretic that draws water out of the body, causing dehydration, and can compound the effects of elevated blood sugar.

Searching for Answers in Taconic Crash

Fayed pointed out that infections, like the abscess in Schuler's mouth that the family described earlier in the week, can also elevate the blood sugar and precipitate a crisis situation.

"There is no way that having a stroke or the diabetes prompted her to drink. There is no medical explanation that would explain that assertion," said Dr. Aman Patel, director of the Neurosurgery Residency Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

And Schuler's prolonged erratic driving suggested that she was not affected by a stroke. During the four hours she was on the road, driving home from the family's vacation campsite with her two children and three nieces, Barbara said Schuler crossed the median on the Taconic State Parkway three times and state police received a number of calls reporting her.

"A stroke ... except in extraordinarily rare situations, would not cause a person to drive erratically for long distances," Good said. "The attorney's argument has no validity, in my opinion."

"Do you think we'd be doing this if we thought she was an alcoholic?" Barbara asked today.

As the family searches for answers, Jay Schuler said that 5-year-old Bryan is "doing well."

"He is going to be OK, but it's going to take a little time."

She also sent a message from the Schulers to the family of the other victims of the crash.

"They are in our prayers," she said.

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