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Former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook sentenced to seven years in drunk-driving death of cyclist

Former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook was sentenced to 7 years for killing a cyclist in a drunken crash.

Former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook was sentenced Tuesday to seven years in prison for killing a cyclist in a drunken crash in Baltimore two days after Christmas.

The sentence came at the end of a two-hour hearing in which the wife, mother and sisters-in-law of Thomas Palermo directed their grief and anger at the disgraced clergywoman.

Prosecutors said Cook was far above the legal limit for alcohol and sending a text message as she drove her Subaru Forester in Roland Park on the afternoon of Dec. 27. She struck and killed Palermo, a 41-year-old software engineer and father of two young children, as he enjoyed a ride.

She left the scene twice, a fact that weighed on judge Timothy J. Doory.

"Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision," Doory said.

Cook, 59, pleaded guilty last month to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident and other violations.

Patricia Palermo told the court that she had asked God many times why he let her son die — until she had a revelation.

"God didn't do this," she said. "Heather Cook killed Tom."

A sheriff's deputy placed cuffs around Cook's wrists, and she was led out of the courtroom past benches packed with members of Palermo's family. Many had called on Doory to order the maximum sentence of 20 years.

After the sentencing, some expressed disappointment.

"While no amount of prison time would ever seem sufficient, we feel the court today could have sent a stronger signal that our community takes driving while under the influence and driving while distracted seriously," said Alisa Rock, one of Palermo's sisters-in-law.

Cook sat for most of the hearing with her face set and brow slightly furrowed. But when Palmero's mother took the stand to speak only feet away from her, she began to break down.

When Cook had her chance to speak, she drew herself slowly to her feet and asked the judge if she could turn to address the family directly. She paused for a few moments before she began.

"I am so sorry for the grief and the agony I have caused," she said. "This is my fault. I accept complete responsibility."

Then Cook turned back to Doory.

"I believe God is working through this, and I accept your judgment," she told him.

Her lawyer, David Irwin, and the prosector, Kurt Bjorklund, drew contrasting portraits of the woman who was drunk when she got behind the wheel of her car on Dec. 27.

A supporter described how Cook had successfully grown a parish in York, Pa., attracting so many new worshippers that the church had to build new facilities. Last year she was elected bishop suffragan, the number-two job in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

But Cook also had problems with alcohol.

Bjorklund asked Doory to consider a drunk-driving charge Cook received on the Eastern Shore in 2010. In many cases, he said, such an arrest serves as a wake-up call, leading people to change their behavior — but not for Cook.

"It meant nothing to her, that initial arrest," he said.

Irwin said his client did not have any support to help her battle her alcohol addiction after that case. He said she stayed sober for a year before she relapsed.

"Alcoholism is a disease," Iriwn said. "I'm afraid most alcoholics don't get it the first time."

The Palermo family, who lived in the Anneslie neighborhood of Towson, spent the morning of Dec. 27 hiking at Gunpowder Falls. Thomas Palermo stopped to help a inexperienced kayaker who was having trouble, his wife, Rachel Rock Palermo, recalled in a letter to the court.

Later, he went out for a bike ride. A software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he had a side business building bike frames.

He was cycling down Roland Avenue in Roland Park when Cook veered into the bike lane, killing him almost instantly.

Her car was badly damaged, but Cook drove on.

Irwin said she was unaware of the seriousness of the accident — "she's confused, she's inebriated, she's texting" — but when she realized a person was involved she returned to the scene and found chaos already unfolding.

Cook left the scene a second time, to take her golden retriever home before turning herself in.

"She made sure her dog was OK, but didn't care about another human," Bjorklund said.

Cook admitted to police that she had caused the accident and submitted to a Breathalyzer — blowing a blood alcohol level of 0.22, almost three times the legal limit.

In the following hours, the news of Thomas Palermo's death began to reach his family.

"The world as I knew it was completely changed," Patricia Palermo said.

Rachel Palermo didn't tell her two young children that night that their father had been killed, she wrote. She put them to bed that night and waited until morning.

"The pain on my daughter's face is etched in my mind," she wrote. Her son hit her and ran away.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against Cook shortly after taking office in January.

Irwin revealed in court that any civil liability in the case has also been resolved. A lawyer for the Palermo family confirmed a resolution but declined to provide details.

Doory said he hoped the sentencing could mark an ending for Cook and Palermo's family alike.

"No one need think about the legal aspects of this case again," he said.

But the testimony in court Tuesday made it clear that moving on will not be easy.

Rachel Palermo has been dealing with life as a single mother. She had no full-time job when her husband was killed, and his health insurance expired. Her three sisters said they have stepped in to try to share her burdens.

In the letter, Rachel Palermo said she was still having trouble coming to terms with her situation.

"I'm having a hard time believing this is my life now," she wrote.

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