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Kin 'shocked' that NY mom was drunk before crash

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FRANK ELTMAN | August 5, 2009 10:12 PM EST | AP

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FLORAL PARK, N.Y. — If Diane Schuler had a drinking problem, she apparently was good at hiding it from those who were closest to her.

The 36-year-old mom, who was drunk on vodka and high on marijuana before driving the wrong way and causing a highway crash that killed herself and seven others, didn't appear intoxicated to people who saw her before she began her trip and didn't give warning signs to close family.

"This is the absolute last thing that we ever would have expected," Schuler's brother, Warren Hance, said in a statement Wednesday.

Hance's three young daughters died along with Schuler, her 2-year-old daughter and three men in an SUV hit by Schuler's minivan in the fiery July 26 wreck on the Taconic State Parkway, about 35 miles north of New York City. Schuler's 5-year-old son survived.

Schuler, a Long Island cable company executive, had a blood alcohol level more than twice the state's legal limit and had downed more than 10 drinks and smoked marijuana shortly before the crash, according to toxicology reports released Tuesday.

State police said investigators didn't know of the drug or alcohol use at first, until they found pieces of a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka underneath debris from the burned-up vehicle days later.

They suggested they could learn much more about Schuler, who called her brother a half-hour before the crash saying she was disoriented, from family members they have already talked to, including her brother and husband. Cooperation has been "limited thus far," state police Lt. Dominick Chiumento said.

In a statement read by family member Stephen Spagnuolo, Warren and Jackie Hance said they were "shocked and deeply saddened" by the news Schuler was intoxicated while driving their three young daughters home from a weekend camping trip upstate.

"We would never knowingly allow our daughters to travel with someone who might jeopardize their safety," they said. "We have never known Diane to be anything but a responsible, caring mother and aunt."

The operator of the upstate campground where the family stayed said she noticed nothing amiss when Schuler left at about 9:30 a.m. on July 26 with her son, daughter and nieces.

"I've never seen her with a drink in her hand," Ann Scott, co-owner of the Hunter Lake Campground in Parksville, said Wednesday. "If she had alcohol on her breath, I would have smelled it, believe me."

Scott said her campground does not ban alcohol, but she said the facility is not a haven for partiers. Scott described the Schulers as "just a normal mom and dad with their kids."

Schuler's husband, Daniel, told investigators that everything seemed fine when he and his wife left the Sullivan County campground, state police said. He went on a fishing trip while his wife headed home with the children.

Daniel Schuler has not commented on the findings regarding his wife, but attorney Dominic Barbara said Schuler would attend a press conference on Thursday.

No criminal charges are planned, police said, although families of three Yonkers men, including a father and son who were driving in the SUV to a family dinner, consulted with Westchester County prosecutors Wednesday.

A lawyer for Michael and Guy Bastardi's family suggested criminal charges were possible against anyone who knew Schuler had been drinking before the crash.

"I believe there is a strong fragrance of criminality," attorney Irving Anolik told reporters after meeting with the district attorney.

He said he wanted to ascertain whether Schuler's family members or others knew about her condition. He said his clients also would explore a possible civil case.

Several neighbors of the Schulers and Hances refused comment Wednesday about what they knew about the Long Island family, saying they didn't want to interfere with the family's privacy.

A psychiatrist said people can often hide alcohol problems from relatives and co-workers, although he didn't have specific information on Schuler.

"The common denominator is the misuse of a chemical that interferes with some aspect of their life," said Constantine Ioannou, vice chairman of the psychiatry department at Nassau University Medical Center.

Alcoholics vary from the weekend warriors, who only drink on Friday and Saturday nights, to the binge drinkers, who may not drink for months at a time and then will go on three- or four-day tears.

Then there is the alcoholic whose disease comes as a shock to relatives.

"They seem to be functional human beings," Ioannou said, "until you find out they have been drinking all day long."

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Associated Press writers Suzanne Ma and Jennifer Peltz in New York City and Kiley Armstrong in Yonkers, N.Y., contributed to this report.