Heather Cook, ex-bishop convicted of fatally striking bicyclist with car in Baltimore, applies for work release

Heather E. Cook, the former Episcopal bishop serving a prison sentence for fatally striking a bicyclist with her car while drunk in 2014 in Baltimore, has applied for a work release program.

Cook’s application is under review, according to a prisons spokesman and a letter sent to the victim’s family and shared with The Baltimore Sun.

The prison system’s Victim Service Unit said in the July 19 letter to the family of Thomas Palermo that placement of Cook “is to begin within the next several weeks.”

But Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email that “there is no set time on when she would be approved or begin working” and he does not know why the letter gave that time frame.

Shields said the department’s review “is not a quick process” and that Cook is first undergoing a medical examination “to determine if she can work.”

Alisa Rock, a sister of Palermo’s wife, said in an email to The Sun that she opposes Cook’s application for work release. She said that by applying, Cook “once again attempts to limit the consequences of her actions.”

“I had hoped that, one day, Cook would truly grasp the enormity of the loss that her reckless behavior caused for us and our community,” Rock said. “It’s clear through these repeated requests designed to minimize her sentence that this has not been the case.”

Cook applied for home detention in May, but was denied, Shields said. The Maryland Parole Commission last year rejected Cook's first request for parole, with its chairman saying Cook "took no responsibility" for her actions and displayed a "lack of remorse."

“Rather than shirking her responsibility with repeated attempts to limit her incarceration (each of which cause my family much pain),” Rock wrote, “perhaps Cook could use this time as penance, to right her moral compass, and to finally take full responsibility for her actions.”

Lawyers who represented Cook at her trial and at her parole hearing last year did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

If she is approved, Cook would be taken to a job at a partnering business and return each night to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, where she is serving a seven-year sentence after pleading guilty to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident and other violations.

She would continue to earn 10 days off her sentence each month under the work release program, which Shields said she already earns by working in the prison sew shop for Maryland Correctional Enterprises, an arm of the department that hires people while they are incarcerated.

All incarcerated people are eligible to apply for work release within 18 months of their release date, Shields said, adding that Cook “is not being treated any differently.” Cook’s current release date is in late August of next year, Shields said.

The letter to Palermo’s family states that if Cook’s application is approved, the family will be notified before she is placed.

Cook was the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland in 2014, when, two days after Christmas, she drove her Subaru into a bike lane on Roland Avenue and struck Palermo, who was 41. Palermo, a senior software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who built bike frames, was cycling in the same direction and was killed almost instantly.

Witnesses said that after Cook struck Palermo, she drove away, passing by the scene a while later as she returned to her apartment complex before coming back to the scene of the crash 30 minutes later. Officials said her blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving in Maryland.

The letter to Palermo’s family says that any comments the family wishes to make should be submitted within 10 business days of the letter and includes a pink sheet on which to do so.

Cook resigned her position in the Episcopal Church on May 1, 2015. The church deposed her as a bishop in a separate action the same day.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

nbogelburroughs@baltsun.com

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