Heather Cook pleads guilty to automobile manslaughter

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Sep 9, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] Former Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook is due to be sentenced late next month after pleading guilty Sept. 8 to automobile manslaughter and three other criminal charges.

The other charges to which Cook pleaded include driving while intoxicated, texting while driving and failing to remain at an accident resulting in death, according to a spokesperson for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney office.

Prosecutors said during Cook’s court appearance that they would ask for a sentence of 20 years, with all but 10 years suspended, to be followed by five years’ probation. Judge Timothy Doory will sentence Cook on Oct. 27.

Doory said in court that his sentence would not exceed the figure reached in the plea deal but cautioned he could give her less time, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Cook’s trial was scheduled to start in Baltimore City Circuit Court Sept. 9. She was accused of 13 charges for causing the Dec. 27, 2014, car-bicycle accident in suburban Baltimore that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two and software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who also built custom bike frames.

The charges included driving the car that struck Palermo while having nearly three times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood system, texting while driving and then leaving the scene of the accident.

Outside the courthouse, David Irwin, Cook’s attorneys, told reporters that the state’s sentencing recommendation “is a very heavy one.”

Irwin said that Cook’s 58 years of “mostly leading a life that everyone would consider a model” is a mitigating factor in terms of the length of her sentence, “but obviously nothing can reverse the tragedy of Dec. 27.”

Also outside the courthouse, Alicia Rock, Palermo’s sister-in-law, said it was time for the community to send a strong message that we will not tolerate drivers who text on their smartphones or drive when they are intoxicated.”

“We hope that, one day, Bishop Cook can truly grasp the enormity of the loss her reckless behavior caused for Tom and my sister, the children, his parents and our community,” Rock said.

On May 1 Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori announced that she and Cook had reached an agreement that deprived her of her status as an ordained person in The Episcopal Church and ended all ecclesiastical disciplinary matters pending against her. That announcement came on the same day that Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton said he had accepted Cook’s resignation from her diocesan post.

A Baltimore grand jury indicted Cook Feb. 4 on 13 counts for causing the Dec. 27 accident.

Five of the charges listed in the indictment by a Baltimore City grand jury came in addition to those Cook had faced since being charged Jan. 9.

The grand jury had added charges of driving while under the influence of alcohol per se (a “per se” DUI charge involves drivers whose blood alcohol limit is above the .08 percent legal limit; such drivers 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.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in January that a breathalyzer test administered to Cook after the accident showed she had a blood alcohol content of .22 percent.

The original Jan. 9 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.

The failing to remain at an accident resulting in serious bodily injury and the failing to remain at an accident resulting in death are both felony charges.

Cook faced a combined maximum penalty of at least 39 years in prison and a $39,000 fine, depending on whether her 2010 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol and for marijuana possession 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.

Cook, who is free on $2.5 million bail, entered a drug and alcohol treatment facility soon after the accident. Irwin said Sept. 8 that Cook, who was once canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Easton, is now living on the Eastern Shore and seeing a therapist.

Prompted by Cook’s case, the church’s General Convention this summer passed three resolutions meant to acknowledge the church’s role in the culture of alcohol and drug abuse, adopt a policy on alcohol and other substance misuse and encourage dioceses, congregations, seminaries, schools, young adult ministries, and affiliated institutions to update their policies on the use of alcohol and other substances, and to question ordinands at the very beginning of their discernment process about addiction and substance use in their lives and family systems.

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

Comments (11)

  1. Nancie Wilson says:

    There’s certainly plenty of blame to go around! However, if the Standing Committee and/or Search Committee in that diocese were aware of her prior DUI arrests, then that should have not been hidden and should have waved a BIG red flag that this woman was probably not eligible to be a bishop.. Hindsight is always 20/20, however.

  2. Ed Lane says:

    “Outside the courthouse, David Irwin, Cook’s attorneys, told reporters that the state’s sentencing recommendation ‘is a very heavy one.’

    “Irwin said that Cook’s 58 years of “mostly leading a life that everyone would consider a model” is a mitigating factor in terms of the length of her sentence, ‘but obviously nothing can reverse the tragedy of Dec. 27.'”

    Really? One deprives another of their life through self-indulgence and outright stupidity and we should overlook it because for 58 years they didn’t do it? Amazing how attorneys will spin things.

    1. Tod Roulette says:

      Exactly, that was less than genuine and truthful. She should have never been on the short list of considered Bishop’s for Maryland. As a dedicated and proven academic scholar of Women and Gender Studie’s I cannot help to wonder if her sex and ‘first’ position of being elected to this position despite known history of alcohol abuse and police interaction lead to godly men and women picking her as their leader. Additionally, as a man of color it makes me triple wonder if a person of color, male or female with Cook’s background had been offered up as a candidate if there would have been 3 votes finally pushing this candidate forward? Sadly, I think not.

  3. Alda Morgan says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Noreen. Unhappily, we will always have clergy and lay leaders who have serious drinking problems, but the church was complicit in choosing to “forgive” her her earlier run-in with the law, keep it from the electing convention, and then…even though her problem was apparent between then and her consecration…not deal with it when it could have been. That’s what I hope we will focus on. Whether a disease or some kind of moral lapse (and I tend to think it’s a variable combination of both), it is not unusual in the church and it’s time we stopped being so “forgiving” and care enough about these folks to hold them accountable and help them get help. Certainly, we shouldn’t be nominating them for any responsible position in the church until or unless they deal with their addiction.

  4. Josie Mitchell says:

    There is so much blame to go around starting with 2nd Avenue. Heather was in denial about her addiction when she allowed her name to be submitted, the search and standing committees should never allowed the process to continue once they became aware of prior record, and certainly headquarters should have notified the committee once they did the cori or whatever background check was done. Had she been a person of color would she have been one of the finalist for the position? I have my doubts. How many more lives has to be lost/ruined for changes to be made.

  5. Marilyn Garcia says:

    Almost exactly nine years ago, my brother was killed by a young driver, I’ll call him John, who was high on heroine. He was so clearly unable to function that, at a convenience store stop before killing my brother, the cashier called the State police, stalled John at the store as long as he could, even attempted to take the keys from him while waiting for a police response that never came. John left the store and several of the store employees followed him in their car, knowing he was an “accident” waiting to happen. A few miles down the road, John abruptly swerved into my brother’s lane, hitting him head on at high speed. My brother was pronounced dead at the scene. John was airlifted to shock trauma and was released from the hospital within days. My family later learned that John was a known addict with a long history of problems with the law. He faced charges similar to those being weighed by the judge in this case. John received 4 years in jail and actually served much less than that. I have no idea if he has ever received any treatment.

    I share this story to show that I know exactly what the Palermo family is going through. I feel their same pain every day of my life. One might think that I agree with the desire for the judge to “throw the book” at Heather Cook.

    The problem is, I’ve met Heather Cook and I’ve worked with her. I know that if there was anything in this world she could do to take back her actions of that horrible day, she would. She doesn’t need to be put in jail for the rest of her life to learn what she has done to the Palermo family. She already knows. I can also attest to the fact that her addiction was anything BUT common knowledge. Many people who had worked with her for years were stunned at these events and never would have guessed she had a problem. Such is the nature of addiction. Those who have addictions are masters at hiding them until they’re not.

    I’ve also worked within the Church enough to understand that search committees and standing committees have procedural and legal obligations to maintain confidentiality. Like it or not, EVERY candidate for EVERY job has a legal right to privacy about many aspects of their life, including whether or not they have an addiction problem or have ever been treated for one. That IS the standard of our society.

    I am sure that the anger, second guessing, and finger pointing that is being expressed in this comment thread comes from a place of genuine concern for the Palermo family and the Church. I would hope that everyone here could also find the Christian love in their hearts to have genuine concern for Heather Cook. As for me, I see nothing but tragedy from every perspective; there is no “side” to take here.

    I have forgiven John for what he did to me and my family and I hope the Palermo family can come to forgive Heather. I pray every day that our society learns that drug addiction is a disease and that we will take meaningful steps to treat those who suffer from it. I do not wish that John had received more jail time. I wish that he had received treatment long before he was ever on the same road with my brother.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Marilyn, Heather Cook isn’t going to jail to learn that she killed someone. She is going there because she deserves to lose her privilege, her self-determination, and her liberty. She is going there to be punished.

  6. Jon Spangler says:

    I am an Episcopalian and a bike safety instructor. I also belong to the Classic Rendezvous (CR) bike list, a worldwide group of admirers of hand-made steel framed bikes like the ones Tom Palermo built for many years. Here is a fundraising effort email that Ken Sanford of the CR group has posted there. (The only modification I made was to insert the complete URL for the Palermo family’s trust fund.)

    Tom Palermo was killed by a drunk and texting hit-and-run driver in Baltimore last December. This week the driver plead guilty to four counts including manslaughter.

    Tom worked and met his wife at REI in College Park. He started his framebuilding work here at Proteus, and we still have some Palermo-built Proteus frames hanging on the walls.

    Thanks to a generous donation from John Dean, brother of Proteus founding owner Larry Dean, we’re holding a silent auction of Larry’s personal bike this month to benefit the Palermo family’s educational trust fund. All the auction details and bike specs are here.

    Stop by the shop to see the bike in person, or view photos on our website. Please share this information with anyone who you think may be interested. We’ll send out another email in the coming weeks on auction updates and any other fundraising efforts we may put together. In the meantime, consider a donation to the educational trust fund [https://www.youcaring.com/tuition-fundraiser/children-of-tom-palermo/283939?utm_source=Summer+Newsletter+September+10+2015&utm_campaign=July+9%2C+2015&utm_medium=email] and be an active advocate for better bicycling in your area.

    Ken Sanford
    Kensington, Maryland

  7. Doug Desper says:

    …now, what about those bishops who knew that Heather Cook was drunk prior to her consecration? Who knew about her long-standing destructive habits? Why were they so bent on checking off diversity boxes just to have a woman bishop — who in this case would never have been elected if the whole story was told in the diocese? This “Clergy Privilege” in the Episcopal Church has run amok and has done great damage not only in this matter but so many others that remembering minds will easily recall.
    Living in an alternate reality is no way to live as a Christian in 2015…or ever. Social media and flash communication will win every time over crafted statements of excuse. People have working eyes and ears.
    This should not end with Heather Cook. The ones that kept giving her a pass need to be removed from shepherding the flock. The trust with them has been broken.

  8. Roger D White says:

    Mr Desper is totally correct in his comments. The bishop and the people in his diocese who contributed to this need to be removed for their role in this horrible tragedy. Cook’s attorneys cleverly avoided a trial, which kept this bishop off the witness stand. The Palermo family are left stricken without husband and father, and a civil suit against the bishop and diocese are all they have left to recover something of the income they lost in this tragedy.

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