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Bishop charged with manslaughter in death of cyclist Thomas Palermo

The Baltimore Sun
Bishop Cook faces manslaughter, DUI and texting while driving charges in death of Thomas Palermo.

A high-ranking leader in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland was charged Friday with manslaughter for allegedly driving drunk and sending text messages when she struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo last month.

Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, 58, surrendered to police Friday afternoon and was being held at Central Booking. A District Court commissioner set her bail at $2.5 million.

She faces numerous other charges, including leaving the scene of the fatal accident in North Roland Park and driving under the influence. Both the manslaughter and leaving the scene charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said that Cook's breath alcohol level was 0.22 percent, nearly triple the legal limit in Maryland, and that she was text-messaging at the time of the collision.

Mosby said Friday that she had met with Palermo's family the day before to update them on the investigation.

"I've assured them that no one is above the law," she said.

The case roiled Baltimore's cycling community while triggering scrutiny of the Episcopal Diocese, which elevated Cook to its second-highest rank in May despite her guilty plea in a 2010 drunken-driving case. It also raised questions about the justice system and whether the delay in bringing charges was unusual.

Cook's attorney, David Irwin, declined to comment on the charges.

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, said in a statement that the organization was "deeply heartbroken over this, and we cry for the Palermo family, our sister Heather and all in the community who are hurting."

The collision happened on a warm afternoon Dec. 27 as Palermo was cycling through Roland Park. Mosby said both Cook and Palermo were heading south on Roland Avenue when Cook veered into the bike lane and struck Palermo from behind. Palermo was thrown onto the hood of her 2001 Subaru and hit the windshield, Mosby said.

The car's windshield was smashed on the passenger's side, according to pictures taken at the scene and witness accounts.

Witnesses spotted Cook 30 minutes after the crash as she drove north on the same street, Mosby said. A passerby on a bicycle said he chased Cook but lost track of her when she entered her gated apartment community. Cook later returned to the scene, Mosby said. She was taken to the Baltimore police's Central District station, where she was given a Breathalyzer test.

Church officials had previously released a detailed timeline of what they knew about the crash that made no mention of Cook allegedly being intoxicated or text-messaging.

Sharon J. Tillman, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said officials were aware that Cook had been drinking before the crash and had been texting while driving, but police requested that they withhold certain information.

"We were cooperating with police in their investigation throughout," she said.

Cook previously pleaded guilty to a 2010 drunken-driving charge on the Eastern Shore in which she registered a 0.27 percent blood-alcohol level. In that case, police said, Cook was stopped while driving on the shoulder of the road with a shredded tire. An empty bottle of liquor and marijuana were found in her vehicle, police said. 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's previous case was not revealed to Episcopal clerics and lay delegates who in May elected her to the post of bishop suffragan, making her the first woman to reach the position in the diocese. The national Episcopal Church has started an investigation, which a former longtime bishop of Maryland said could lead to Cook's being stripped of her position.

Mosby, who took over the state's attorney's office this week and was sworn in Thursday night, announced the charges at a packed news conference Friday morning. The charges come after days of angst among supporters of the 41-year-old Palermo's family, who questioned why Cook had not been arrested more promptly.

Police, defense attorneys and former investigators have said it is not unusual for such cases — crashes resulting in deaths — to take weeks or months before charges are filed. But some in the cycling community and others have questioned whether she received special treatment.

The statement of probable cause filed by authorities against Cook does not detail any investigative measures taken after Dec. 27.

Jason La Canfora, an NFL reporter for CBS who called 911 after finding Palermo after the crash, also questioned why police did not give Cook a breath test at the scene.

"I saw no actions whatsoever toward testing her," said La Canfora.

Mosby said there was nothing out of the ordinary in the way the case was handled.

"We had to conduct a thorough investigation," Mosby said. "What the Police Department was able to do was rather expeditious."

Andrew I. Alperstein, a former prosecutor who led Baltimore County's auto-manslaughter unit, said that if anything, charges were brought quickly in this case. He said it can take months for police and prosecutors to reconstruct an accident.

"This is actually extremely fast for the case to have been charged," said Alperstein, who is now a defense attorney.

While Cook faces a maximum prison sentence of more than 20 years, lawyers said it was difficult to predict what sentence Cook ultimately might face if she is convicted, and it would likely depend on the judge.

Brian Thompson, also a former Baltimore County prosecutor, said sentences of between a year and 18 months are not uncommon. But because Cook is alleged to have been severely intoxicated and to have left the scene, coupled with her prior record, she could be facing more, Thompson said.

The case's high profile could also be a factor. "My guess is [Mosby] may want to make a statement with the case," said Thompson, now a defense attorney.

In the days after Palermo's death, cyclists rallied in support of him, turning out by the hundreds to mourn him during a New Year's Day ride and placing a white bicycle, known as a ghost bike, as a memorial near the scene.

Bike Maryland and Bikemore, two advocacy groups for cyclists, said Palermo's death was a "terrible event, but preventable if all road users slowed down and committed their full attention to the operation [of] what can be a deadly weapon when wielded incorrectly."

"We would like to remind everyone that when you hit-and-run, you are choosing to deny that victim immediate care," the groups said in a statement.

In a statement, Palermo's family said they are "deeply saddened to learn of the events leading up to the senseless hit-and-run accident that claimed Tom's life and support the prosecutor's efforts to hold Bishop Heather Cook accountable for her actions to the fullest extent of the law."

They also thanked friends, neighbors, colleagues, cyclists and community for their support. An online fundraiser for Palermo's children has garnered more than $70,000 in donations.

iduncan@baltsun.com

Charges faced by Heather Cook

Criminal

•Manslaughter by vehicle or vessel

•Criminally negligent manslaughter by vehicle or vessel

•Homicide by motor vehicle or vessel while under the influence of alcohol

•Homicide by motor vehicle or vessel while impaired by alcohol

Traffic law violations

•Failure to immediately return and remain at scene of an accident involving death

•Failure to immediately return and remain at scene of an accident involving bodily injury

•Driving under the Influence of Alcohol per se

•Use of a Text Messaging Device while Driving causing an Accident with Death or Serious Bodily Injury

Source: Maryland District Court documents

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