Former bishop convicted of automobile manslaughter denied parole

[Episcopal News Service] Heather Cook, formerly Episcopal Diocese of Maryland bishop suffragan, May 9 failed in her parole bid for early release. Cook is serving a seven-year prison sentence for fatally striking a bicyclist on Dec. 27, 2014, while texting and driving drunk, and then leaving the scene.

The Maryland Parole Commission denied her request after a hearing at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, where Cook, 60, has been serving her sentence since October 2015.

Cook pleaded guilty in September 2015 to automobile manslaughter and three other criminal charges for causing the car-bicycle accident in suburban Baltimore that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who also built custom bike frames. He was married and the father of two young children.

The charges included driving 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. Cook originally faced 13 charges relating to the fatal accident.

Under Maryland law, Cook would have been eligible for parole after serving a quarter of her sentence. She reaches that date in July.

Commission chair David Blumberg told the Associated Press that the commission refused Cook’s request outright, meaning she must serve her sentence until her mandatory release date in March 2020. However, he said if she earns time-off credits, she would get out sometime in 2019. He said the decision of the two commissioners was unanimous.

“Also, she left the scene of the accident,” Blumberg said. “The cyclist’s helmet was actually stuck in her windshield. When she went home she did not call 911 or emergency personnel, she made two calls, one to her boyfriend and one to a co-worker. During the [parole] hearing, she did not accept responsibility. She lacked remorse. She called it ‘a brutal irony.’ And she did not apologize to the victim at any time. She avoided answering the commissioners’ questions, and overall they felt she was definitely not worthy of a discretionary early release.”

The refusal was also based partly on this being Cook’s second alcohol-related offense, he said. Cook was arrested in 2010  for driving under the influence of alcohol and for marijuana possession. She received a “probation before judgment” sentence.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Rachel Palermo, the victim’s widow, said, “To me today is really about Tom. It is also about those who continue to love him and feel his loss. And so I ask this: if you still talk on your phone or text while driving, please put your phone down. If you plan to go out and drink, please set up a ride before you go. I want you to think of a 6- and an 8-year-old who wish their dad was still here. I want you to think of me and my pain. I want you to think of Tom’s parents and their loss. I want you to think of your own loved ones.”

Ahead of the hearing, cycling advocates wrote an open letter to Blumberg asking that the commission deny Cook’s request for early release.

On May 1, 2015, then-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 T. Sutton said he had accepted Cook’s resignation from her diocesan post.

Prompted by Cook’s case, the Church’s General Convention in 2015 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
  • question ordinands at the very beginning of their discernment process about addiction and substance use in their lives and family systems.

Attorneys for Cook and the Palermo family said during her October 2015 sentencing hearing that they had resolved any civil liability arising out of the fatal accident, according to the Baltimore Sun newspaper.

Cook addressed the Palermo family after their testimony at that hearing. “I am so sorry for the grief and the agony I have caused,” she said, according to the Sun. “This is my fault. I accept complete responsibility.”

Cook was taken in custody when the sentencing hearing ended. She had been free on $2.5 million bail.

Comments

  1. Charlotte Anne Wether says:

    Praying for the family of Mr. Palermo for having to relive this tragedy over again.

  2. N.A. Wilson says:

    It seems ludicrous that this woman would even think she’d be paroled. Apparently she still does not realize the seriousness of her crimes, and how her behavior has affected other people for the rest of their lives, and for the rest of her life. God bless Mr. Palermo’s family as they continue to grieve his loss, and may God show Ms. Cook mercy and help her to see the harm she’s caused others.

    • Christopher Jenks says:

      I don’t know whether she thought she’d be paroled or not, but the parole hearing is automatic, whether the inmate wants it or not.

  3. William Russiello says:

    Besides prayer and the other institutional actions, I think our Church should make some special financial consideration for the Palermo family, especially for the children.

    • John Barnard says:

      According to several news stories at the time, the civil liability was quickly settled out of court, which is not surprising given the facts of the incident. The settlement terms were confidential, as is customary. A crowd-funding site raised over $100,000 for the education of the Palermo children. It closed over a year ago.

  4. Rick Smith says:

    Ms. Cook is a very lucky lady she should have gotten 20 years without the possibility of parole. Just hope the church is a little more careful on background checks cause she should have never been elevated to Bishop.

  5. Grace Cangialosi says:

    The article says her mandatory release date is March of 2020. If she didn’t begin serving time until October of 2015, that would only be 4-1/2 years, although her sentence was for 7 years. Why is she not being required to serve the entire sentence? As it is, even seven years seems an inadequate penalty for taking a man’s life.

  6. Steven Catanich says:

    The lack of remorse and unwillingness to accept responsibility is a pretty good indication that she is a long way from being penitent for her actions. I believe that the Parole Commission did the right thing, and I hope that steps are being taken so that people with such personalities are not permitted to become bishops.

  7. Jon Spangler says:

    Ms.Cook should never have reached either the leadership position she did in our church or the levels of inebriation and addiction that resulted in Thomas Palermo’s death. How many people in the church enabled her drinking along the way or failed to call her to account before she became a murderer?

    I hope Ms/ Cook is receiving the kind of counseling and treatments needs while she serves her time. Punishment alone, as the Gospel tells us, is never enough. We are all called to be redeemed.
    The grief she has caused is immeasurable and is far more than enough without her becoming yet another victim of our prison-industrial complex.

    There are so many victims of drug and alcohol abuse in our country and the Episcopal Church has often seemed to perpetuate that abuse. I hope that our culture and our church are both moving towards greater enlightenment and action to prevent this colossal damage to our humanity.

    I wonder just how thoroughly we are implementing the three resolutions adopted in 2015–and all the previous initiatives that supposedly addressed our corporate overconsumption of alcohol?

    • Dick Williams says:

      I feel like noting a similar sentiment for each time any of us let pass racist and
      gay slurs/slights. Of course these don’t deprive the recipients of their children, but it is a slaying to a degree.

    • Grace Cangialosi says:

      Well, if our diocese is any example, we’re not doing more than giving lip service.

  8. Susan Mangam says:

    St. Paul reminds us that we are all sinners. So let us pray with compassion for healing for the Palermo family and for Heather Cook.

  9. Anne Bay says:

    I have read a lot about Ms. Cook and her history of Alcoholism. Both her family and the church did a huge amount of enabling. And apparently by her behavior at the parole board hearing she is still in denial of her disease and has not come to grips with the reality of what she is in prison for or for her disease. The Disease of Alcoholism is baffling , cunning, and powerful and she is living testimony to that. Jon Spangler is exactly right when he states “how many people in the church enabled her drinking.etc.”. I can tell you after reading her history: A whole lot!! Two young women who were students at a school where she was on staff many years ago testified she was often drunk and part of her duties was to drive students to where they needed to go, and these young women said they were always scared to ride with her, but didn’t know what to do. Ms. Cook had a prior DUI but the judge let her off easy, partly because she had a good lawyer and partly the judge said in essence, she probably learned her lesson and Ms. Cook told the judge she would never do that again. Ms. Cook’s father was an Episcopal Priest, a recoverying Alcoholic, who had been through several rehabs for the Disease and he died a sober Alcoholic. So her family never received any treatment for co-dependency and had money (her brother is a doctor) and covered for her when need be. Her “boyfriend” is an Episcopal Priest and is the one who put up 2.5 million dollars so she wouldn’t have to stay in jail while her case was being held. He is one of the calls she made when she fled the scene of hitting Mr. Palermo. (instead of calling 911). Talk about enablers!! Also, on the eve of her consecration as bishop she showed up clearly intoxicated at her pre-consecration dinner!!! The report was that she was so drunk she couldn’t stand up and sat in a corner of the room leaning on a table!! Both her Diocesan Bishop saw this and the Presiding Bishop witnessed her being drunk there. Why in the world would they allow a person showing this behavior the day before the consecration to go ahead and be consecrated I will never understand. I read the contriteness sharing the Diocesan said to his diocese on this, but that doesn’t bring back Mr. Palermo. Ms. Cook is not unique. She’s an Alcoholic by all indication. During the parole hearing she didn’t apologize to the family, she didn’t show remorse, she didn’t take responsibility for the death of Mr. Palermo. Mr. Blumberg said she said it “was a brutal irony”. ??? What in the world does that mean? Clearly she is in deep denial of her involvement in the death of Mr. Palermo, her Disease, and has no intention of admitting she needs to be in rehab for her Addiction. My concern is that upon release, even if it is 2020, if she hasn’t come to terms with the reality of this tragedy, she will potentially be a danger to herself and to the public. This is a serious Disease. As far as I know she might be attending meetings in the prison,/and or getting therapy. However from what the Parole board shared, she is the same as when she killed Mr. Palermo. No practicing Alcoholic functions without lots of enabling. Hopefully the three new guidelines that General Convention added in 2015 to address Addiction will assist in the future of preventing what happened to Mr. Palermo and help families of Alcoholics get the professional help they need. In Ms. Cook’s case, it won’t undo this sad tragedy for the Palermo family. His wife spoke at the hearing and everything she said is exactly what needs to be said.

    • Kurt Wochholz says:

      I have always felt that negligent homocides while driving should always preclude ever being allowed to drive again. If she is eventually allowed to drive again I am afraid that more DUIs are inevitable.

      • Mary Herring says:

        Great idea! It’s a natural consequence that someone convicted of murder with a gun cannot possess a gun after he/she is released from prison. Courts should demand a parallel consequence for people convicted of a death caused he/she caused while driving under the influence. I would a little feel more at peace about my nephew’s death in a pedestrian hit and run by a woman DUI if I knew that she would never be licensed to drive again.

    • Doug Desper says:

      Thank you Anne for summarizing the progression of events before Heather Cook’s consecration and keeping those issues in the forefront. It remains not whether but to what extent Episcopal Church officials (diocesan and above) were either oblivious or negligent regarding Ms. Cook. Two years later there doesn’t appear to be any sense of urgency to find out. Every Standing Committee across the Church that consented to Ms. Cook’s election should be pressing for answers.

    • Melanie Barbarito says:

      I simply cannot understand how her history did not come to light during the Diocese of Maryland’s search process and background checks.

  10. Lloyd Newell says:

    For sure she will be on the wagon for 5+ years. Back ground checks seem to be a joke in this case. Prayers for the Palermo Family.

  11. Adelaide B Kent says:

    The statistics of ACOA’s are appalling . Seven out of eight suffer from the disease themselves. Any alcohol abuse in a family should be a red flag. Ordinands should receive counseling and support so that no untreated clergy are put

  12. Roger D White says:

    this is one of the most shameful and despicable tragedies I can recall. My heart continues to go out to this family in the face of this loss of husband and father. cook should remain locked up for much longer than Maryland law permits. Recall that both shori and sutton knew the night before this “consecration” that cook was drinking excessively at a dinner. Both of them could have prevented this from proceeding but neither did anything. I have always held them accountable for this but they never even received a hand-slap. Both of them should be ashamed of themselves and remove their collars. I no longer go to church and this deplorable act of manslaughter and how the coward bishops acted influenced my decision not to return.

  13. It is obvious that prison is not working to change this lady. If it did, she would have expressed remorse, accepted responsibility, and apologized to the victim’s family. When she exists prison, she is likely to do the same thing again…she has not changed! Prison is not going to change her. All prison does is protect the public while she is out of circulation. If anything, this situation illustrates why punishing crime does not work and why fixed term sentences do not protect the public. The proper disposition of this case would be to confine Heather in a locked-down, inpatient treatment facility to change her behavior. And she should not be let out until she changes. If that is never, so be it.

  14. Pam Darling says:

    It appears that the parole commissioner’s statement to the press was based on brief comments from the two commission members who attended the hearing. I would like to know more of what Heather actually said than the third-hand report in the Baltimore papers.
    She apologized and expressed plenty of remorse at the end of her sentencing hearing, so I find it a stretch to believe that she abandoned those sentiments during imprisonment.

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