Kurt Busch's accuser Patricia Driscoll tells SI.com she's paying a heavy price for seeking domestic violence charges against the NASCAR star.
She says she has never worn a bloody ball gown to a family dinner, or gone truly medieval on a lover and poisoned him. She says she has never ducked away from a NASCAR weekend to gun down foreign enemies or taken credit for such dark adventures when they flash on TV.
Never in Patricia Driscoll’s wildest imagination did she figure anyone would ever peg her—a five-foot-tall former ballet dancer—for an assassin, let alone a “trained” one. But since bringing a domestic violence claim against her former boyfriend, the NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, she has faced a mighty head wind while trying to persuade the general public that she isn’t the second coming of Chris "American Sniper" Kyle. “I don’t know how many times I can refute these things,” Driscoll told SI.com. “It doesn’t seem to be enough. They are just some of the most ridiculous accusations I’ve heard in my life.”
Last November, Driscoll, 37, complained to Delaware authorities that Busch, also 37, grabbed her by the face and neck and three times knocked the back of her head against a bedroom wall of his motorhome on Sept. 26, during a NASCAR event at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. She requested a no-contact order in family court, a matter that she hoped could be settled while the Dover police and the state’s attorneys office decided whether to pursue criminal charges against the 2004 Cup champion—who has gone from forcefully denying Driscoll’s allegation to grudgingly confirming certain aspects of it to essentially brushing it all off again. (Busch, who has declined through his representatives to speak to SI.com about the incident, has largely refrained from speaking publicly about the case.)
Jones’s decision, however, didn’t so much bring to an end the case of Driscoll v Busch; it merely closed a chapter. Busch’s lead counsel, the Houston-based Rusty Hardin, said he plans to challenge the decision. In the meantime, the stock car world idles. NASCAR promised to “continue to gather information and monitor this situation very closely.” Joe Custer, the executive vice president of Busch’s team, Stewart-Haas Racing, said SHR is “relying on the authorities in Delaware,” especially the attorney general’s office. (Delaware Department of Justice spokesperson Carl Kanefsky said their investigation is still ongoing.) This general air of passivity has kept the saga from overshadowing NASCAR’s Super Bowl—the Daytona 500, which takes place on Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern time and figures to feature Busch on the starting grid.
Each new twist in this drama forces a new label upon Driscoll, who didn’t lack for labels to begin with—most of them of the product of sweat equity. Her enduring profile around in the Washington, D.C., area, where she lives, was once that of a self-employed defense contractor, non-profit director, author, right-wing pundit and mother to the world’s biggest Busch fan—a 10-year-old boy named Houston (her son by her ex-husband, defense contractor Geoff Hermanstorfer).
But Busch’s legal team, led by the silver-tongued Hardin, would offer a different spin on Driscoll. As the hearing trundled on, she went from being portrayed as a gold-digging scorned ex to a morally bankrupt mercenary who, according to Hardin’s written closing argument—a 66-page script that reads more like a press release than a legal brief—perjured herself on the stand as she “sought to ruin [Busch’s] career and reputation.”
In extensive interviews with SI.com, Driscoll elaborated on her decision to come forward, the obstacles in her path to justice, and the personal anguish that she has suffered in that pursuit—including a fresh round of attacks from Busch’s camp while announcing plans to challenge the PFA ruling. One would think that Driscoll, a Beltway insider in the midst of a protracted custody battle, would’ve been prepared for things to get ugly between her and Busch. But she says she never saw the dirty tactics coming, even after taking the time to consider what to do with her claim. “I thought he had more respect for himself and for me and my son that he wouldn’t have gone this route,” Driscoll said. “His legal team brought up everything under the sun that had nothing to do with that night. It’s just a shame.”
When Driscoll walked into Kent County Family Court on a cool and foggy December morning in Dover, she did not do so lightly. This is not a reference to the capital police officer or the domestic violence advocate who escorted her into the building on that day and on the three days after that. It is a reference to the six weeks of cost-benefit analysis that preceded those gloomy marches. Many have criticized Driscoll for taking so much time, no party more forcefully than Busch’s legal team. This, of course, makes her no different than the average woman who takes her domestic violence allegation public.
Also, Driscoll’s thought process was consistent with that of the one in three women in this country who are likely to experience domestic violence, by the count of the Centers for Disease Control. The drawbacks of coming forward, Driscoll said, should have scared her into silence. She risked harming her defense contracting business, which distributes surveillance and tactical equipment to law enforcement agencies. She risked bringing a tidal wave of negative publicity to her nonprofit—the Armed Forces Foundation, which focuses on helping veterans reintegrate into civilian life. She risked imperiling a program developed in partnership with NASCAR that hosts service men and women at races, called Troops to the Track. She risked alienation from family and friends and banishment from NASCAR’s inner circle.
But by keeping mum, Driscoll felt, she faced an even greater risk than the ones just mentioned—abdicating a moral responsibility to her son. That line of justification was not without its own dilemmas, either. Houston regarded Busch as a father figure, and the racer’s motor coach had become just as much a home to the boy and his mother as their own home in Ellicott City, Md., had become to Busch. This arrangement, Driscoll explained, is partially why she and her boy were inside Busch’s motor home on the evening of the 26th. (Busch’s lawyers say that she trespassed; she says that she punched in a key code, just as she always did.)
According to Driscoll's testimony, Busch “just snapped” moments into their visit, and she alleged in a recent interview with SI.com that the driver “choked me and smashed my head against the wall” to the point where “I couldn’t breathe,” as her son sat in the next room. That was when Busch crossed a line that she felt duty-bound to defend. “It’s important to me as a parent that Houston understands that what Kurt did was wrong,” she said, “that he should never put his hands on a woman and that if he does there are consequences.”
Driscoll said the doomed encounter with Busch on the night of Sept. 26, which lasted 10 minutes, was the first time the driver overheated around her son—but not around her. She said that a week before the Dover incident, while en route to a romantic tour of New England following a race in Loudon, N.H., Busch strangled her with a seatbelt and struck her in the thigh with a rearview mirror that he had ripped from the windshield of a rental car. She also said there was another instance of abuse in 2012, but declined to go into specifics.
Each time, Driscoll said, she found a way of rationalizing it to herself. She reckoned the New England incident, which ended with the two separating at Logan Airport before reaching the first stop on their tour, was just the racer raging as he always does when his results—in this case, a 36th-place finish—fell short of his competitive standard. (Doncheff and Busch’s assistant, Kristy Cloutier, would testify to enduring similar abuse—Cloutier in her own office and at a Cubs game in 2011, when she said the driver took a swing at her while drunk.) And Driscoll reckoned she and Busch could overcome the 2012 incident when the driver agreed to stop drinking, go to counseling, and take Wellbutrin for depression. (In court, Busch scoffed at this abuse claim, but admitted to addressing problems with drinking and depression.)
If Driscoll was overly patient with the driver, she said it’s because she’s in the practice of negotiating second and third chances as part of the work she does for AFF—which regularly confronts issues of domestic violence within families of veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Some of these guys are committing crimes, but it’s not completely because they would do this in their right mind,” she said. “It’s because they are dealing with issues of PTSD and substance abuse, and jail really is a last resort. It’s not what’s going to fix them.”
Driscoll has a hard time resisting a good project. “I’m a fixer,” is how she puts it. Meanwhile, Busch is as challenging a racecar driver as he is a personality. Driscoll’s attraction to Busch would seem curious to anyone who has plugged his name in YouTube and screened the raft of videos of him intentionally wrecking his fellow drivers and nearly running over an opposing crew member, melting down on his team and cursing out the Walter Cronkite of motor sports reporters—ESPN’s Jerry Punch. (For that last transgression, which resulted in a $50,000 fine, Busch apologized to Punch on the air, albeit a year later.)
But Driscoll found Busch to be far less irascible when she met him at a 2010 benefit dinner at Walter Reed Hospital, even though she initially mistook him for his younger brother, Kyle. It’s a case of mistaken identity that had Kyle fuming recently. When asked during NASCAR’s Charlotte-based media tour in January whether he had been following the hearing, little brother mostly objected to the misperception that he was the one in legal trouble. “I think people need to do a little bit more background before they write names or say names if they don't know what the heck they are talking about,” said Kyle, while noting that he hadn’t been following the trial or talking to his brother. “It hasn’t been bothersome from a sponsorship standpoint that I know of. I know it could be if it continues.”
Soon after the initial confusion between Driscoll and the elder Busch was cleared up at Walter Reed, she was smitten. “The fact that he was at the hospital with the troops, and the way he was being so nice to these service members really melted me,” she said of the older Busch brother. “I was an instant sucker for that because this is such a passion of mine.”
They seemed to have much in common, Driscoll and Busch: entrepreneurial minds, Type-A personalities and unsuccessful in marriage. (Busch was in the process of divorcing his first wife, Eva.) He and Driscoll began dating soon thereafter, to much head scratching among Driscoll’s friends inside the Beltway. “They don’t follow NASCAR,” she said. “Their perception of it was as a redneck sport. Their reaction was, ‘Ohmigosh, here you are a girl hanging around Congress. You’re all over the world. You’re at embassy balls around town. What the hell are you doing dating a racecar driver? This does not fit Miss High Society.’”
It is, however, conduct befitting a seasoned code switcher—one whose upbringing in El Paso, Tex., was a conflation of ballet lessons and applied ballistics. That last hobby—shooting guns—Driscoll took up when she was five and encouraged by her father, Jim, a teachers’ union head turned Democratic political operative. “It's a really neat way to block out the world,” said Driscoll of blasting away at milk jugs and beer bottles on the range. “You have to focus.”
She liked that Busch approached his job with a similarly high level of concentration, but quickly became alarmed by how much of his job he took home with him. A down performance, she said, could spiral Busch into a deep funk that would cause him to disappear for days and “drink himself to death.” His texts on the night of the 26th, she said, read like that of a man pushed to a new emotional brink. Moreover—as Driscoll testified in court and explained in an interview—it seemed like a solid reason for her to look in on him that night, to not give much thought to the past incidents in which, she said, Busch’s bad moods had turned violent.
Driscoll says that, even as she spent the days following the encounter sobbing and vomiting, she believed a swift and peaceful resolution could be reached. She disclosed the incident to the AFF’s board of directors. At the time, that board included two high-ranking NASCAR officials, executive vice-president Steve O’Donnell and chief marketing officer Steve Phelps—both of whom resigned from the board citing a conflict of interest. Driscoll also consented to be interviewed by NASCAR legal counsel John Bobo, a former prosecutor who led NASCAR’s internal investigation. Even though “I was very open and cooperative,” she said the talks broke down suddenly; a resumption, she was told, could happen only “through our general counsel [communicating] through your attorney.”
All the while, Driscoll fretted over how her dispute with Busch would affect her guardianship of Houston. For the past six years, she has been locked in rancorous custody battle with Hermanstorfer. Further complicating matters, Busch had agreed to testify as a witness on her behalf.
Of course, the last encounter between Driscoll and Busch significantly diminished any hopes of future collaboration. In fact, 15 minutes after the encounter, while Driscoll was seeking succor inside the motor home of Nick Terry, a track chaplain for a non-denominational religious group called Motor Racing Outreach, Busch sent Driscoll a text saying he “would only support the Houston custody s---, IF you cooperate with our split.” Since no terms were actually discussed in their encounter, Driscoll interpreted the text as a threat. Protecting her custody became her “number one priority,” she said, though one stalled by the fact that her chief counsel, the Virginia-based Mark Dycio, was on vacation and unreachable immediately following the Dover encounter. “Once you’ve got that in a place that's about as good as it’s gonna get, then you go to the police.”
And yet Driscoll didn’t, not straight away.
How come? Because Driscoll thought a resolution could still be achieved diplomatically—even as Busch harassed her, she said, with unrequited text messages. She offered Busch the opportunity to consent to a protection-from-abuse order (or PFA for short), which is not an uncommon practice in Delaware.
Dana Harrington Conner, an associate professor at Widener Law, in Wilmington, Del., with a 20-year record of arguing and studying domestic violence cases, illustrated this practice further using 2013 statistics from the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, a Delaware state agency that seeks to improve responses to domestic violence. She said that of the 3,073 petitions for order of protection from abuse filed in Delaware in 2013, a total of 1,546 civil protection orders were entered by the court. Of the orders entered, approximately 62% (969) were entered by agreement of the parties, compared to approximately 17% (266) of the orders entered after a contested hearing.
Interestingly, Harrington Conner said, “there’s a lot of research to suggest when individuals agree to an order by consent that they’re more inclined to obey it than if the court imposes an order on them. That’s another part of this. People tend not to be happy about any outcomes in family court. It’s an emotional time.”
Another thing to keep in mind about the consent option: It comes without a finding or a trail, unlike a restraining order. The idea is to separate the parties (albeit in a manner that puts control over the process in the victim’s hands) as cleanly as possible and only resort to help from the criminal justice system in the instances of recidivism. Case in point: The only condition of Driscoll’s consent agreement with Busch was that he agree to be evaluated for mental health problems related to anger management and impulse control, a condition of the current PFA.
Driscoll intended for the deal to be an olive branch, but Busch took it more as a threat. When he didn’t take the deal, after weeks of dithering, Driscoll saw Busch as a threat. That’s when she finally went to authorities. “Making this decision to report a crime, obviously, was a hard choice,” she said. So too was her simultaneous decision to “stay the course.”
Still, Driscoll figured that the first leg in her journey, the hearing in family court, would be a short one. She entered the courthouse armed with reams of email and text messages between her and Busch, a credible witness in Walewska Rodriguez—the next-door neighbor who saw her soon after her encounter with Busch—and photos of the bruises and abrasions about her neck and face. Driscoll thought she would have little trouble proving that she and Busch should be kept apart, even though they live in different states (Maryland and North Carolina, respectively).
Instead, she watched in horror as the routine hearing dissolved into a personal tarring and feathering. Busch, most memorably, called her a “trained assassin” and accused her of killing with rifles and poison, scheduling assassination missions around the NASCAR schedule and, in one incredible instance, showing up at her family’s house in El Paso before a dinner outing in a blood-stained ball gown. Into evidence, Busch submitted the cringe-worthy Pocket Commando video and 23 pages of a screenplay that Driscoll drafted about—wait for it—a trained female assassin. It opens with a love scene in which the protagonist is stabbed in the gut.
Among Busch’s supporting witnesses were the bus driver Doncheff, who echoed the assassin claim; the assistant Cloutier, who described the relationship between Driscoll and Busch as “puppeteer and puppet”; the chaplain Terry, who said he didn’t see any marks on Driscoll (this, despite administering first aid to her); a professed ex-con named Richard Andrew Sniffen, who counsels domestic violence victims yet bristled when Driscoll lashed out against the driver following the “assault” (Sniffen’s words); and an ex-Playboy playmate named Charis Barrett, who called Driscoll a liar. “My lawyer had to keep tapping me on the leg or the arm, especially when he brought out the bloody ball gown trench coat story,” Driscoll said. “I turned to her and said, ‘Can he really just make s--- up?’ Out loud. And she told me that I needed to be quiet while we’re in court. It’s very hard to be quiet when people are making up bald-faced lies about you.”
Throughout, the implication was clear: that Driscoll, as Busch put it on the stand, is a “badass” and that he “would’ve had my ass handed to me” if he laid a finger on her. But it’s an idea with a big blind spot: that a trained female fighter is no more immune to assault from within their ranks than the average woman.
Along with that verbal onslaught, Driscoll has had to endure criticism for not rebutting these claims on the stand. She said might well have if she hadn’t already testified for 6½ hours. (Of the first five hours, she was made by Hardin to spend at least two recounting the attack over and over—an exercise that rendered her a weepy mess.) A return to the stand would not only have likely made a needlessly long hearing even longer, it would’ve complicated Driscoll’s ability to call her second and final witness: James Wood, the Dover police detective who was was secured with the cooperation of the DA's office. Wood blew apart Busch’s claim that the NASCAR star “did not put [Driscoll’s] head into the wall.”
What’s more, Driscoll didn’t think that the claims against her needed further defending, so ridiculous were they on their face. But the fact-checking process is under way now. Some of it is happening quietly; one person who was along for that fabled El Paso dinner date nixed the bloody ball gown detail and cautioned against trusting Busch’s memory of that night as he “drank to near intoxication.” Some of the fact-checking Driscoll has initiated herself. On Feb. 9, she filed a $5-million defamation lawsuit in Fairfax County against Barrett and her husband, Luke.
She is also pushing back against the criticism she has received for the crisis management email she sent to Stewart-Haas honchos Greg Zipadelli, Eddie Jarvis and Mike Verlander after owner-driver Tony Stewart was involved in an incident in which another driver, Kevin Ward Jr., was killed during a sprint car race in upstate New York last August. Busch’s camp submitted the Aug. 29 correspondence, in which Driscoll made a case for releasing negative information about Ward in an effort to turn public approval back in Stewart’s favor, as further proof of her mercenary nature. But it’s an argument, she would soon reveal, that overlooks a key fact about trained assassins: They don’t act without a direct order.
Three days after Driscoll fired off that email, she received another from Busch. As ever, he was running hot—this time over a poor testing session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in preparation for the September race after which their relationship would slip into critical condition. He suggested that his bad day on the track was a trickle down effect of a team crisis management strategy that had yet to settle on a direction.
“I wish they would have followed the crisis plan I asked you to do,” Busch wrote in the email, which was reviewed by SI.com, “because now they look like a monkey f------ a football. I don’t know how Tony recovers from this s--- and he couldn’t man up to your ideas being better. The videos look bad so I hope his lawyers are good. I’m not sure [NASCAR chairman] Brian France can even get Tony out of this mess no matter how much Tony pays him.”
NASCAR spokesman David Higdon categorically denied to SI.com that there was any truth to Busch's claim about payments or contact between Stewart and France during the time period in question.
But the most disappointing part of this screed isn’t the game plan on offer. (Negative campaigning is hardly an original PR ploy.) It’s the fact that when you pair Busch’s email with an exchange that was mentioned in the PFA hearing—a text to Driscoll from Zipadelli’s wife, Nanette, that essentially confirms the smear-the-victim media strategy was taken—one could reasonably deduce that this is how NASCAR stars stand their ground. After all Stewart returned to the track just three weeks after the Aug. 9 accident, in the wake of a toxicology report that showed that Ward died while under the influence of marijuana. And Stewart was granted an exception to contend for the Chase. Yet somehow, Driscoll is more criticized for submitting the idea that helped get Stewart off the hook than the driver ever was for executing it. “That just blows my mind,” she said.
It’s why Driscoll holds faint hope of NASCAR ever making good on France’s promise to throw the book at domestic violence offenders in his sport. He allowed Travis Kvapil to pursue his career unabated after the veteran driver pled guilty in a North Carolina district court to assault and imprisonment of his wife in 2014. (Under the plea agreement, the charges will eventually be dismissed if he completes two years of probation.) And France continues to let Busch drive despite reams of court transcripts that—were the chairman inclined to take the time to review them, she suggests—might lead him to, if not park Busch indefinitely, then at least give some serious thought to putting a domestic violence policy on the books.
“You don’t need to wait,” Driscoll said of NASCAR taking action against Busch. “No one tells you how to run your sport and what’s good for your corporation.”
Certainly, she hasn’t sat on her hands during this whole process. She has kept busy crisscrossing the country for her foundation and managing her company, which she said has seen a spike in business since the hearing. The fact that it’s not fully resolved just further proves why more domestic violence victims don’t come forward. “This is the message,” she said, “[that] I believe Kurt's legal team is trying to send: ‘Look at what we will do to you over a restraining order. Imagine what we're going to do to you for criminal charges.’ This is where the system is really messed up. They will bully you to the point of quitting so they can get off on a technicality. It's not right.”
The mere fact that Driscoll keeps fighting doesn’t make her an assassin. It makes her something else—a survivor.