Former bishop Heather Cook pleads guilty in death of cyclist

Former bishop Heather Cook to appear in court on drunken-driving death charges

Former Episcopal bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook pleaded guilty Tuesday to automobile manslaughter and three other criminal charges related to the December drunken-driving death of a bicyclist in North Baltimore.

Prosecutors said they would ask for a sentence of 20 years, with all but 10 years suspended, to be followed by five years' probation. Judge Timothy Doory scheduled sentencing for Oct. 27. He said he would not sentence Cook to any more time than prosecutors are seeking but could give her less.

With her guilty plea, Cook, 58, admitted to driving drunk and leaving the scene after striking Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two young children, on Dec. 27. Cook had been sending text messages while she was driving, Assistant State's Attorney Kurt Bjorklund said, and did not return to the scene until 30 minutes later at the urging of a friend.

Her blood-alcohol content registered at 0.22 on a breath test, nearly three times the legal limit.

Cook, the first woman to reach the position of bishop in the Episcopal diocese, has been receiving alcohol counseling and remains free on $2.5 million bail. Her attorney, David Irwin, said he would argue for less time than prosecutors are seeking, saying she had "mostly led a life that most would consider model."

Cook nodded slowly as Doory asked questions about whether she understood the implications of pleading guilty. As Bjorklund read the statement of facts, she bowed her head and appeared to close her eyes.

Palermo's family, who attended the hearing, declined to answer questions about whether they were satisfied with prosecutors' sentencing request. In a statement, Palermo's sister-in-law, Alisa Rock, said the family would "advocate the maximum penalty allowed under law."

"It's time for us as a community to send a strong message that we will not tolerate drivers who text on their smartphones, or drive while intoxicated," the statement said. "The next victim could be your parents, your child, your friend — even you."

Bicycle advocates Liz Cornish of Bikemore and Nate Evans of Bike Maryland attended the hearing and said they did not believe the sentence prosecutors are seeking is sufficient. Tougher penalties would deter others from committing similar crimes and contribute to a greater awareness of the "immense responsibility that comes with operating a motor vehicle," Cornish said.

"We believe the best way to honor Tom is to continue to bring awareness to the type of traffic violence that causes families like Tom's immense pain every day," she said.

The state's attorney's office declined to comment on how the plea offer and sentencing recommendation were reached. But they said prosecutors have been in close communication with the Palermo and Rock families "since the beginning of this process" and "have fully explained the state's sentencing recommendation and how ultimately the final sentencing determination will be up to the court."

Cook was elected bishop suffragan of Diocese of Maryland last year. The diocese came under criticism after it acknowledged that a search committee that vetted Cook knew she had been arrested on a DUI charge in 2010 but did not share that information with the electors who voted on her candidacy.

In that case, Cook was pulled over for driving on the shoulder of the road with a shredded tire, and her blood-alcohol level was measured at more than three times the legal limit. She had marijuana and two bottles of liquor in her car, and an officer wrote in a police report that she was so intoxicated that he ended her field sobriety test because he feared she might hurt herself. Cook eventually pleaded guilty in that case, telling an Eastern Shore judge that it was a "major wake-up call in my life," and she received one year of supervised probation.

Diocesan officials have said they knew none of the details surrounding that arrest during their search and would have eliminated Cook as a candidate if they had.

She resigned her position on May 1, and her clergy credentials have been revoked.

Prosecutors said Cook was driving drunk at 2:30 p.m. on a Sunday and texting when she left a traffic lane on Roland Avenue in Roland Park, entered a bike lane where Palermo was traveling and struck him. The crash caused serious damage to Cook's front hood and windshield, and Palermo's body was "jettisoned" to the side of the road, Bjorklund said. But Cook continued driving.

Cook first circled back to the scene, then continued to her home up the street "and only ultimately returned to the scene after the prodding of a friend," the prosecutor said.

She pleaded guilty to one count of automobile manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years; leaving the scene of a fatal accident, which also carries a maximum penalty of 10 years; and driving while under the influence and texting while driving, which both bring a maximum penalty of one year.

By suspending half the sentence, Cook would serve 10 years and a judge could impose the remaining term if she violated her probation. The terms of her probation would include installing an ignition interlock device in her car and continuing to attend counseling.

Cook appeared in court a day before her trial was scheduled to begin. Her attorney had previously said that they were considering a plea and didn't want to go through a trial "for everyone's sake."

When she was sworn in, a clerk asked if she promised to tell the truth "so help you God."

"So help me God," Cook repeated back.

Asked if she had any mental health problems, she looked to Irwin, who said she was being treated for alcoholism. After the hearing, Irwin said Cook wants to speak out about the incident, but he is advising her not to until her sentencing.

Doory told Cook he has an open mind about her sentence. "If anyone tells you they know what I am going to sentence, you have been misled," Doory said.

"We hope that one day Bishop Cook can truly grasp the enormity of the loss that her reckless behavior caused" his family, friends and the community, Rock said in the family's statement.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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