[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.