Maryland bishop suffragan faces more charges in fatal accident

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 5, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] A Baltimore grand jury has indicted Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook on 13 counts for allegedly causing the Dec. 27 car-bicycle accident that killed Thomas Palermo.

Five of the charges listed in the indictment handed down Feb. 4 by a Baltimore City grand jury come in addition to those Cook has faced since being charged Jan. 9 with four criminal offenses and four traffic violations.

The new charges include driving while under the influence of alcohol per se (a “per se” DUI charge involves drivers whose blood alcohol limit is above the .08% legal limit and can be charged with drunk driving even if their ability to drive does not appear to be impaired), driving under the impairment of alcohol, texting while driving, reckless driving and negligent driving.

The original criminal charges included manslaughter by vehicle, criminal negligent manslaughter by vehicle, homicide by driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol per se and homicide by driving a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol.

The traffic charges filed on Jan. 9 included failing to remain at an accident resulting in death, failing to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury, using a text messaging device while driving causing an accident with death or serious injury, and driving under the influence of alcohol. The grand jury added to the two failure-to-stop offenses a charge of failure to stop the vehicle as close as possible to the scene of an accident.

Failing to remain at an accident resulting in serious bodily injury or death are both felony charges.

Cook faces a combined maximum penalty of at least 39 years in prison and a $39,000 fine, depending on whether her 2010 arrest and subsequent “probation before judgment” sentence is considered a first offense for any sentence she might receive if she were convicted of the charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or driving while under the influence of alcohol per se.

She is scheduled to be arraigned in Baltimore City Circuit Court on March 5.

When Cook was first charged in January she turned herself in later that day after an arrest warrant was issued. She was booked into jail and a $2.5 million bail was set. A judge later refused to lower the bail amount, according to news reports.

Mark H. Hansen bailed Cook out of jail on Jan. 25. He posted $35,000 in collateral and signed a $215,000 promissory note agreeing to pay $1,000 a month, according to the Baltimore Sun. The paper reported that the only condition of her release is that she not drive.

Cook returned that day to Father Martin’s Ashley, a drug and alcohol treatment facility near Havre de Grace, Maryland, where she had spent 12 days after the accident before being charged, according to Cook’s attorney, David B. Irwin.

In an autobiographical statement submitted as part of the search process that resulted in her being elected suffragan in May 2014, Cook called Hansen her “steady companion” and a “passionate Anglican.” She said that she and Hansen had dated in their 20s and reconnected in 2012. He currently works as a “lay pastor” at St. Clement’s Church in Massey, Maryland in the Diocese of Easton.

The Diocese of Maryland declined to comment on the indictment. Late last month, the Standing Committee and Bishop Eugene Sutton asked Cook to resign as an employee of the diocese. She has not yet responded to that request.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter of the Episcopal News Service.

Comments (14)

  1. Chief Jim Donovan says:

    Regardless of her alleged offenses, I find it deplorable that her bishop and the standing committee would abandon her in this sad time. Where is their compassion?

    1. Helen Bell says:

      asking her to resign does not mean they are abandoning her. It merely means they recognize that it is inappropriate for her to remain on diocesan staff as a bishop following these events. What Heather Cook needs now is pastoral care and Bishop Sutton has said they will be providing tat on an ongoing basis as well as reaching out to the Palermo family.

  2. Lisa Fox says:

    Thank you for continuing to provide news updates on this story. It’s a painful story all around, and I commend your coverage.

  3. Walter Ludewig says:

    WOW! What a tragedy, and in so many ways. I can identify with this situation, because I am an alcoholic and this very well could have happened to me. It’s been 38 years, by the Grace of God, since I went to my first AA meeting, but reading about Bishop Cook’s troubles brought all of those memories flooding back—-the shame, guilt, self loathing and utter despair. I hope that there are some people who will stand by her, and love her until she can once again love herself.
    Her pain can be turned to God’s purpose, I will mention the bare facts to the AA and NA meetings I attend, and her problems will remind us alcoholics and addicts that we, too, can have this in our own lives—-just pick up a drink, just take a pill. Bishop Cook’s experience will, in that way, keep several people clean and sober for several more days.
    She will be in my thoughts and prayers, as will the victim, Thomas Palermo and his family. It could have been me, it could have been me.

    1. Elizabeth Byrd says:

      Thank you for sharing.

  4. Selena Smith says:

    Finding it interesting that two of the commentators here see that Bishop Cook’s & Thomas Palermo’s tragedy means getting rid of the Bishop, and that two others write about support and taking some meaning & daily learning from that deadly experience.
    I am also thankful as one other writer for the ongoing reporting about this tragic situation by ENS. I think that this story is Churchwide and includes the Episcopal Church’s involvement with the Presiding Bishop who ordained Bishop Cook, the Bishops and Standing Committees who consented to her election, and the results of addictive behaviors of church members. Thank you, ENS.

  5. Jeff Larason says:

    Your coverage of this tragic event has been well reported and thoughtful. However, I would like to suggest that using the word “accident” may not be the best descriptor of this event. It is certainly a word that victims and survivors often find offensive. When a DUI driver claims their crimes were “accidents” it further deepens their wounds. I’m not stating that Bishop Cook in any way intended to crash. But if she did knowingly drive under the influence and distracted, she made decisions that are well known to put others at risk. By calling it an “accident” you are, by connotation, editorializing on her innocence. It would be better to use neutral words such as crash, collision or wreck.

  6. Mark Merrill says:

    And use of the word “alleged” is not necessary either. She hit and killed Tom Palermo. That is FACT.
    And No, it was NOT an accident. Heather Cook CHOSE to drink herself the 3x the legal limit, then get in her car. She CHOSE to text while driving drunk. She CHOSE to run away from the scene, then drive by to see what was going on.
    She needs jail. A long time in jail.
    Stop apologizing for her.

  7. William A. Flint, PhD says:

    Responsibility for one’s actions is a primary and fundamental truth in our Common Life, Heather Cook, violated that fundamental truth by driving with intoxicated and by leaving the scene of an accident she caused resulting in the death of a human being. The facts are clear. Yes, she should resign for the sake of the Church at large. The Episcopal Church has a right to demand the highest standards from its Episcopacy. It appears the State is acting responsibly in the case, the Church should do the same.

  8. Julian Malakar says:

    We express our heartfelt sympathy for the Palermo family and for the two children who lost their father at such a young age. May Almighty God comfort this bereaved family and strength them to move forward with positive outlook trusting on Him.

    Accidents happen to all walks of people, whether holy people of God or not. But truth is that there must be some cause before the accident happens. Teaching from the Scriptures and regular praying, surely help us reducing accidents like this and performing our duty for the glory of God. By dishonest, we not only cheat ourselves, but cheat God and the community we serve. We know that wages of sin is death. It is embarrassing to know that the shepherd who helps protect sheep from evils’ paw fall oneself into temptation by driving while drunk. May God strength Bishop Cook and her family to stand firm to truth trusting on Jesus in this trouble time; Jesus is hope for any circumstances!

  9. Selena Smith says:

    Those who are suggesting that ENS in reporting not use certain language (or to use other words) are trying to be sensitive to the feelings of those of us who have had a relative killed in an accident by the actions of a drunk driver. I had a first spouse killed by a drunk driver and appreciate the sensitivity about feelings and at the same time I am not offended by the words used by ENS. While my spouse who was killed is irreplacable, the words “accident(s)” and “alleged” are important to be used in regards to law and insurance settlement for survivors. The settlement can help us have some power to get on with therapy and our living.

  10. Philip Snyder says:

    I have been involved in prison ministry for almost 20 years and have seen Satanists, Gang Leaders, Murders, Rapists, and Child Molesters all converted to the love of Jesus Christ while incarcerated. Given her crimes, I doubt that she will be serving her sentence in a state jail (normally for terms < 5 years or so, depending on the state), but in a women's penitentiary. If there is any place that is hell on earth, it is a maximum security penitentiary. The very wall seep with the anger and hatred of all the people (inmates and correctional officers) there.

    But prison open one's eyes to God's "2×4" that drives us to repentance and surrender. There are a number of good AA programs in prisons and (at least in Texas) quite a number of faith based programs to help offenders come to grips with what they have done, why they did it, and God's unbounded forgiveness and love. I pray that Bishop Cook will avail herself of these programs and not hide behind the pride of "I'm a Bishop, so I don't need this simplistic religious stuff." We ALL need the "simplistic religious stuff" from time to time – especially those of us in holy orders.

  11. Richard McClellan says:

    There were no winners and losers with this tragic event. I’ve seen mud hurled at Bishop Cook from “Christians” when prayers should be offered up. That being said, the church had no choice but to essentially defrock her.

  12. RoseMarie Urban says:

    Addictions are so heartbreaking to begin with and tragic when they cause these things to occur. So sad for the man whose life was taken. We need to pray for all concerned. My the Grace of God and Recovery bring her to peace and may the family of the victim also know the peace that passeth all understanding.

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