Truth lurks in bizarre fog of Kurt Busch's domestic violence hearings
While the assassin claim prompted lurid headlines and drew most of the media focus, it was only one part of an unclear and often unseemly domestic drama that continued to play out over two days this week. As SI's Andrew Lawrence, who was on hand throughout the proceedings in the Dover court, reports, few parties are likely to come out of the Busch-Driscoll case unscathed.
DOVER, Del. — On one side of his belt, he wore a can of pepper spray and handcuffs; on the other, a pistol and badge. This was heavy kit for a visitor to Family Court, where even cell phones and cameras are barred. But James Wood came by his special dispensation honestly. He’s a city police detective.
He had been called to the first-floor courtroom last Tuesday afternoon to testify in a protection order hearing, based on an alleged domestic assault that occurred while a NASCAR event was in town last September. The alleged perpetrator? Former Cup champion Kurt Busch.
Wood, who would go on to deliver a 90-minute testimony, represented the branch of the law that is charged with investigating the initial complaint made by Patricia Driscoll, the former Busch paramour who claims the driver for Stewart-Haas Racing choked her and three times knocked the back of her head into the bedroom wall of his motorcoach.
Wood’s most formidable weapon, it turns out, wasn’t his gun or his mace. It was his just-the-facts-ma’am demeanor on the stand. This not only distinguished him from most of the witnesses in this case; it helped bring this proceeding, a three-hour tour turned into a four-day circus of wild and sensational claims, back to its root purpose: determining whether Busch is responsible for inflicting some form of harm upon his ex, a self-employed defense contractor who also runs a military-oriented non-profit.
Now? There is only waiting, as the matter of Driscoll vs. Busch is far from resolved. After Wood was dismissed, at around 3:25 p.m. local time, attorneys agreed to submit versions of their closing statements in the next two weeks to spare the hearing that, after two days in December followed by last Monday and Tuesday, has spanned a month, from taking up a fifth session. Kent County commissioner David Jones, the presiding arbiter in this affair, will deliberate over the summations and the evidence and the hearing’s verbatim transcript -- the balance of which should be completed quickly thanks to Busch’s legal team, led by the redoubtable Rusty Hardin, picking up the tab for an expedited job.
Once decided, Jones will pass judgment to the lawyers in a separate round of correspondences. Along with his protection order, he told them to expect a written opinion. A pat conclusion seems at least a month away. “I have never had a PFA come out with an order one way or the other in this format,” said Carolyn McNeice, Driscoll’s lawyer.What does that mean for the upcoming NASCAR season? At best, Busch’s legal mess siphons headlines away from the sport’s kickoff event on Feb. 22, the Daytona 500. At worst, Busch goes from a respondent in a family matter to a defendant in a criminal case. “I’m just glad that the truth got told,” Busch said after the hearing, “and we'll wait on the commissioner's decision.”
The idea that there might be more courtroom appearances in the offing for Busch seemed far-fetched four months ago when Driscoll filed a formal complaint with Dover police. But not so much these days. Earlier last week, Dover police announced that their investigation had been completed and forwarded to the Delaware Attorney General’s office. Later that night, NASCAR chairman Brian France ramped up his previously tepid rhetoric on domestic violence, vowing in an appearance on Motor Racing Network to draw “a very strong, bright line” on the issue and be “very, very aggressive” in punishing trespassers.
Then earlier this week, on the second day of the Driscoll-Busch continued hearing, the Delaware AG granted McNeice permission to call Wood as a witness. If this legal tactic has a motorsports equivalent, it’s field-testing a race car to see how it might hold up in competition. One false move, and the whole effort could wind up twisted, burnt and altogether abandoned. (And McNeice would likely catch most of the blame for wrecking.) Just as in racing, it would all come down to the guy in the seat. Which brings us back to that top gun.
At first glance, the 33-year-old Wood comes off as a figure straight from central casting. His flush, bald head brings his fire-hydrant build into sharp relief. Think Michael Chiklis in The Shield. Never mind that Wood would probably be more at home in a series like Dragnet. His method on the stand during the second day of the continued hearing couldn’t have been more Joe Friday: clear, concise and deliberate, with a bit of sipping from a Styrofoam cup for pacing.
When asked about Busch by McNeice under direct examination, Wood could only offer a bare-bones account of the first time they met -- when the driver revisited Dover on Nov. 18 to be formally interviewed for Wood’s investigation. Wood said that Busch arrived with Hardin and two co-counselors: James Yarborough, listed as the “director of investigations” on the web site of Hardin’s firm and the Delaware-based James Liguori. The session, which was videotaped, took up no more than an hour.
The gist of what Busch told him: He was bummed about a poor qualifying run for the AAA 400, became even more “upset” after watching the movie Seven Years in Tibet back in his motor coach, and repaired to bed -- in the buff --shortly after the closing credits went up. Later that night, he was surprised by the sight of Driscoll and her nine-year-old son, Houston, whom he repeatedly escorted to the front end of the bus so the adults could talk. While returning from the second pass back to bedroom, Busch said, he intersected with Driscoll in a space between a wall and the left side of his bed that measured no more than two feet, drew her face in his hands -- “as if he was going to kiss her,” Wood said -- and gently directed her to leave.
While describing this part, Wood, in between sips from his cup, cupped his hands in front of his face and shook them three times, while adding that Busch said Driscoll’s head “tapped the wall.” It was stunning revelation, not least because it disrupts Busch’s on-the-record narrative -- one that has unfolded in dribs and drabs.
Hardin, though, would likely call such an omission a strategy. “When you’re a witness, the temptation is when you’re being falsely accused is to volunteer any and everything you think would help,” he said in December. “So, yeah, the lawyer says, ‘Don’t do that.’ Why? Because people don’t tend to believe the person who keeps volunteering unresponsive information.”
Still, add up what Busch has shared in order: first, a vehement denial (via a public statement from SHR team president Joe Custer in November); then, in family court, agreeing to the time line and setting that Driscoll presents in her allegation; and, finally, admitting that he put his hands on her. With each disclosure, Busch’s narrative seems to lurch closer to Driscoll’s. And that one hasn’t really changed at all.
The wall detail was another nudge, one firm enough to throw Busch’s sure-footed defense off-balance. And yet, one couldn’t escape the sense that his legal team was bracing for something when Busch was recalled to the witness stand. His testimony bridged both days. On the first day, Hardin cast Busch in a bizarre two-man reenactment of his version of the encounter with Driscoll, a show they had apparently put on for Wood during their November interview. In this scene’s tender climax, Busch guided Hardin against a court room wall, collected the lawyer’s face and sweetly told him to scram -- and strained to note that he did not put Driscoll’s head into the wall. On the second day of testimony, however, Busch walked that claim back, telling Hardin that he told Wood it “was possible” that Driscoll’s head hit the wall. As dramatic twists go, this seemed like a J-turn.
What’s more, finding an avenue back to this point would prove difficult for Hardin while interrogating Wood. That was by McNeice’s design. At the end of her 20-minute examination, she revealed that Wood’s appearance in court had been secured through an agreement with the state’s attorney’s office, on the condition that his testimony is limited to the procedural aspects of the police’s information gathering. The Delaware Department of Justice confirmed as much, saying in a statement later in the day that “there was a conversation regarding questioning, and protecting the integrity of our investigation.”
And although the commissioner would bristle at this pact -- “it’s not binding between these parties,” Jones said -- it nonetheless prompted an extended recess that sent Hardin, Liguori and Yarborough scurrying into a back room to get on the same footing as McNeice. (“A similar conversation was had,” said DDoJ spokesman Carl Kanefsky.) Her move not only handcuffed the defense, it spared Driscoll another trip to the stand and took the defense’s star witness -- Driscoll’s ex-husband, Geoff Hermanstorfer -- completely off it. And this, after the man had taken four days off from work to talk.
When the hearing resumed, Hardin (above) could only muster questions concerning mechanical matters like whether Busch had been cooperative; or whether he made use of the binder that his team submitted during their meeting, replete with pertinent facts and 17 potential witnesses to interview (some of whom Hardin’s firm had already talked to and transcribed); or whether McNeice wrote up her client’s complaint as she was being interviewed by police.
For every Hardin volley, Wood had a sharp reply. The same held true for the detective’s exchanges with McNeice. At one point in her examination, she invited him to offer his opinion about Busch. His parry? Something to the effect of, That’s not my area.
If credibility were a contest in this hearing, Wood would’ve won hands down. He also would have had little competition.
In December, Busch’s coach driver, Mike Doncheff, shared a story that he said Driscoll (in the photo above) shared with him during a race weekend in Loudon, N.H., last September. Doncheff stated that she told him that a guy picked her up by the throat and threw her to the ground as she was attempting to round up illegal immigrants along the Mexican border. This week, Busch sort of pulled back the veil. “Most of what Doncheff had to say, wasn’t that accurate,” he said, before adding, “Poor guy.”
But that was just a rap on the knuckles compared to how harshly other witness were checked. Nick Terry, the race track chaplain who attended to Driscoll after the alleged attack, barely got 20 minutes into his pro-Busch testimony before the commissioner T’d him up. At issue was the fact that Terry, who had declined previous invitations to take the stand, had suddenly reconsidered after reading a portion of the hearing transcripts from December, in which Driscoll claimed Hardin had “threatened” and “bribed” him into appearing in court.
If Terry was going to be a witness, Jones said, he should’ve been sequestered. If that technical foul didn’t outright void Terry’s strongest point -- that he didn’t see any marks on Driscoll’s neck after her encounter with Busch -- it blunted his attempt to counter earlier testimony to the opposite by Driscoll’s neighbor, Walewska Rodriguez, arguably the second-most persuasive witness behind Wood.
After Terry came the 41-year-old Charis Burrett, a willowy and pouty blond who, on Twitter, describes herself as "playmate, sun goddess, wife, mom, and gypsy"; and, on the stand, described herself as a stakeholder in an action sports apparel company. The commissioner sent her to the gallery after 15 minutes. She had hoped to speak more to Driscoll’s habit for embellishing, but Barrett’s anecdotes were seven years old. A teaser for one addressed how Driscoll spoke of killing and poisoning drug lords and other enemies of the state. The commissioner didn’t miss a beat. “I’ve heard that Julia Child might’ve been a CIA agent, too,” he said.
Richard Andrew Sniffen, a 44-year-old Christian music minister, took Barrett’s time and then some. Altogether, he spent 3.5 hours on the stand for Busch. A significant chunk of this was devoted to his personal testimony: how he ran away from home at 14 and spiraled into drug dealing and addiction, how he became a father for the second time at 18, and how he emerged from a five-year felony conviction and started over as a servant of God. The uplifting backstory would encounter a pocket of turbulence, however, when Sniffen began to describe how he reacted when Driscoll told him that she had been “assaulted” -- a word that Hardin had badgered her for not using in earlier correspondences that had been disclosed in the hearing.
One figured the word would’ve set off an alarm inside Sniffen, who testified to telling Driscoll that domestic violence is “a line that can’t be uncrossed.” But over time, that seemed to bother him less than Driscoll’s changing emotions-- from heartbroken and seeking reconciliation, to angry and out for revenge. For a man who, minutes earlier, admitted to participating in a 12-step program as a condition of parole and who counsels domestic victims, this was puzzling. But not as puzzling as his ability to remember dialogue better than dates, a knack for which the commissioner had little patience. In fact, Jones went as far as calling Sniffen’s memory “faulty at best.”
Driscoll, through McNeice, doubled down on the characterization of Busch as a depressed alcoholic. Busch, after taking a beat to explain that he had indeed consulted with two counselors about his drinking and anger, and took Wellbutrin (a prescription antidepressant) for four months in the fall of 2012, painted Driscoll as a Lara Croft figure, a trained assassin who once showed up for a family dinner in a bloodied evening gown, flaunted cell phone pictures of her “headshots” and rode herd over his life -- to the point of inserting herself in his professional affairs.
(Jones’ response to the assassin claim? A wry, “I’ll give it the weight I deem appropriate.”)
The vivid portrayals are not without their flaws. Driscoll’s rendering of Busch is compelling, but it doesn’t speak to his state on the night of the alleged assault, which has been repeatedly established as sober. Challenging Hardin’s ethics while on the witness stand was another unwise course. Her way back became through the line that McNeice found between Busch’s witnesses: all of them are tied to him financially. Doncheff receives a paycheck, Burett got an investment in her apparel business, and both of the religious leaders not only admitted to receiving donations but to having their Dover accommodations comped. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder: Why aren’t Busch’s parents or his kid brother, Kyle -- a NASCAR star in his own right -- or anyone from Stewart-Haas Racing in court to defend their boy?
Without them, Busch was essentially standing up for himself -- a considerable risk given his outlaw reputation. So far, the best defense has proved to be attacking Driscoll. His depiction of her seems as if it were ripped from a screenplay. In fact, Driscoll would allege as much, that Busch has essentially described the protagonist of a movie script she had been drafting during their relationship in a statement issued after the hearing ended. Even more incredible than this character was how Busch oscillated from believing it to be a false persona that Driscoll created for shock value, to seeming to believe that it captured the actual woman he was dating -- a prospect, he said, he found “exciting.” But consider how those threads come together on the night in question. In the first scenario, Driscoll is little more than 4-foot-11 and defenseless in a room with a man a foot taller than her. In the second, Busch should be the one in fear if Driscoll really were an accomplished killer or at least what one of her employees described in the Pocket Commando video as someone who'll "rip your nuts off."
But Busch doesn’t melt down like that, said 40-year-old Kristy Cloutier, who seemed like the defense’s ace in the hole. And she would know. She’s been by his side for 13 years, or about as long as Busch has raced in Sprint Cup. During that time, she’d work her way up from fringe member of his team to Gal Friday to something more: a big sister is how she described her relationship to Busch now.
It was quite an achievement for a woman who seemed to be casting about for a deeper sense of family. On the stand, Cloutier volunteered that she came to NASCAR -- specifically, its seat of power, Mooresville, N.C.-- to get away from an abusive relationship. It had gone on for two years, but she never reported it. She didn’t say this for pity. She said this for credentialing purposes, to make clear for the defense that I know from domestic violence.
And then she described her relationship with Busch: how he’ll scream and carry on in his office and “throw things sometimes," how he once got so drunk that he missed a team obligation, forcing her to cover for him; how he got drunk again during a work field trip to a Cubs game, pushed her and took a swing at her. For every incident, each more shocking than the last, she had the same explanation: That’s racin’.
“I’ve never felt threatened by him,” she said.
When Cloutier concluded her testimony after more than an hour, she wended her way from the witness box out of the courtroom and into a waiting area just outside. There, she found a seat in the corner, sat down and wept.