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Ex-bishop Heather Cook released from prison after serving half of sentence for fatal drunken driving crash

Heather Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who garnered headlines locally and around the world after fatally striking a Baltimore bicyclist with her car while driving drunk two days after Christmas in 2014, has been released from prison.

Cook, 62, served just over half of the seven-year sentence she was given originally on four criminal charges in connection with the crash that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, a software engineer and married father of two, on Dec. 27, 2014.

See more: A look at ex-Baltimore bishop Heather Cook's time behind bars, according to her case file »

Released a little after 10 a.m. Tuesday from the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup, she will be on supervised parole and probation for five years.

Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Cook is required to report within 24 hours to a Parole and Probation field office and would learn the conditions of her probation at that meeting.

“She will then be classified and assigned to an office location according to the home address she provides to us,” he said.

Cook declined a request for an interview through her attorney, David Irwin, who said his client is now “moving on to the second part of what is hopefully a redemptive period” and is “grateful to be home.”

“I truly hope that everybody that is involved in this can find some peace someday,” he said.

Members of the Palermo family have harshly criticized Cook for her conduct after the crash, including leaving the scene, as well as her repeated efforts to secure a reduced sentence.

Alisa Rock, the sister of Palermo’s widow, Rachel, and a frequent family spokesperson, issued only a brief statement Tuesday.

“Like always, my sister is choosing to focus on her family and friends at this time,” Rock wrote in an email.

Cook was the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and serving as its first female bishop at the time she struck Palermo, who was 41, with her 2001 Subaru Forester in Roland Park.

Witnesses said she left the scene of the crash and did not return until half an hour later. A Breathalyzer test at the time registered her blood alcohol level at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving.

Cook resigned from her church post in May 2015, and the diocese deposed her from the ministry the same day.

She pleaded guilty later that year to four criminal charges, including failing to remain at the scene of a fatal collision. Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory sentenced her to 10 years on that charge, but he suspended all but two years, a period of time he ruled would run in addition to a five-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.

The case roiled Baltimore’s close-knit cycling community and sent shock waves through an Episcopal Church already suffering declines in membership nationwide.

The church’s screening practices came under particular scrutiny after it emerged that Cook had pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge four years before she was approved as a bishop by the Diocese of Maryland. Diocesan officials admitted that the search committee that selected Cook had been aware of the arrest, which took place on the Eastern Shore in 2010.

The officials said that while committee members did know of the incident, they were never made privy to its full details. The committee chose to leave it up to Cook to share the story with the electors who would vote on her candidacy. Witnesses said she alluded to the case in parish meetings, but only in vague terms.

Last November, Cook applied for a sentence modification that would have changed two of her sentences from consecutive to concurrent status, making her eligible for release. She already had earned about three years in sentence reductions for good behavior.

Doory told the court he believed Cook had shown “substantial rehabilitation,” but he denied the motion, announcing that her release date was expected to be Aug. 6.

That date was recently moved forward to May because once prisoners are within six months of their release date, the rate at which they accumulate credits toward parole accelerates, Shields said.

Cook had earned her sentence reductions by taking extensive part in prison programs. She organized and ran a weekly addiction-recovery meeting for fellow inmates, organized a prison-wide symposium on recovery that featured a lineup of outside speakers and wrote a column on recovery for the prison newsletter.

Shields said Cook also was earning extra credits recently for working in the correctional department’s mail and distribution center.

She had applied for early release several times, including for parole in 2017, a work-release program in 2018, and home detention in 2018 and again earlier this year. She was denied each time.

Members of the Palermo family vehemently opposed each of Cook’s attempts to gain early release and criticized her behavior, including the fact that she had admittedly left the crash scene without helping the injured Palermo.

“Each of Cook’s attempts to reduce her sentence — applications for parole, house arrest, work release, now ... one for modification — traumatizes my sister and her family anew,” Rock said of Rachel Palermo and the couple’s children in November. “This trauma will affect them all for the rest of their lives, and it’s only appropriate that Heather Cook serve out her original sentence not only for the act of killing Tom, but for leaving him there. Especially for leaving him there, for abdicating responsibility for what she did.”

Leah Rock, also Palermo’s sister-in-law, said last month that Cook’s efforts in prison — where drugs and alcohol are harder to come by than they are on the outside — were insufficient to demonstrate that she has conquered the addiction problems she admits have plagued her.

She also said the case exposed a problem in Maryland law, which for parole purposes does not classify the crimes Cook committed as violent offenses.

“The criminal justice system needs reform all the way around, and this is no exception,” she said. “The fact that you can strike a man and leave him to die on the side of the road and have it not be categorized as a violent crime — three and a half years is not enough to make amends for that.”

Irwin has said that even though he has “great empathy” for the Palermo family, he believes Cook’s efforts in prison suggest she is in fact rehabilitated and ready to help others.

“In no way do I minimize the tragedy of the offense which [Cook] committed, but I truly believe it’s time for her to go to a different phase of her life seeking redemption,” he said. “I’m glad she is finally being released. She has been a model prisoner who has done amazing things in the department of corrections to help other women.”

Irwin said he didn’t know exactly what Cook’s plans were upon her release other than complying with the terms of her probation — violations could land her back in prison — and continuing what he called her mission of helping women living behind bars.

“All I know is that she wants to continue to help women who are incarcerated, even when she’s not there,” he said.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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