Episcopal Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook will be charged with multiple criminal counts stemming from her fatal crash 13 days ago with bicyclist Tom Palermo.
Charges will include driving while under the influence of alcohol, causing an accident due to texting while driving, and leaving the scene of an accident.
Her alcohol blood count was .22 – or nearly three times the legal limit of .08 – when a test was administered more than an hour after the crash, State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced today.
Mosby said that Palermo was in the bike lane on Roland Avenue when Cook veered from the traffic lane while texting and hit him from his rear. This caused Palermo to be thrown to the right side and strike the hood and windshield of her car and “come to a final rest at the west side curb.”
The bishop left the scene as Palermo lay profusely bleeding by the curb and was not seen again for 30 minutes, when she was spotted driving northbound on Roland Avenue by people gathered at the scene. Sometime later she returned from her nearby apartment and surrendered to police.
Both the manslaughter and leaving the scene charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.
Mosby announced the charges at a news conference today and said a warrant will be issued for Cook’s arrest. A grand jury will hear the case and could add or remove charges, Mosby said.
Prior Drunk Driving
The 58-year-old priest was ordained last September as Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the No. 2 position in the diocese.
The Brew first reported that, in 2010, she was arrested for DUI and possession of marijuana in Caroline County where she was Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Easton.
It has since been disclosed by the diocese that only a few top officials in the church were made aware of her drunk driving case before she was nominated for the bishop’s position.
The accident took place around 2:30 p.m. on December 27, when a green Subaru Forester driven by Cook hit 41-year-old Palermo as he was biking on the southbound side of Roland Avenue near Bellemore Road.
Hit and Run
Cook fled from the scene – either for 20 minutes (according to the diocese’s account to the media) or about 45 minutes (according to two witnesses interviewed by The Brew) – before she returned.
Today Mosby indicated that Cook’s absence was closer to 45 minutes.
She said the bishop drove past the scene of the crash about 30 minutes after it took place and continued on to her apartment in a gated community north of Lake Avenue.
She then “left her apartment shortly after her arrival and returned to the scene of the incident,” Mosby said. Cook was reportedly being chased to the gated community by an enraged bicyclist.
Cook was then transported by police to district headquarters, where the alcohol test was administered, Mosby said.
Palermo, an avid bicyclist and bike frame builder, leaves a wife and two young children.
Discipline from the Diocese?
Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton issued a statement following Mosby’s announcement. Speaking on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, he reaffirmed their “respect for the course of action the legal system is taking and prays for a just outcome in this case.”
“Please know that we are deeply heartbroken over this, and we cry for the Palermo family, our sister Heather and all in the community who are hurting,” Sutton said in a comment posted on the diocesan webpage.
He noted that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is handling disciplinary proceedings regarding Cook’s actions that were begun “on or about January 2.” The process is known internally as “a Title IV,” for the section of the Church’s Constitution dealing with discipline.
Cook remains on administrative leave, with full pay and benefits, pending the outcome of the Title IV process, church officials have said.
Delay in Filing Charges?
Addressing the full local media scrum (along with some out-of-towners including The New York Times), Mosby, sworn into office the night before, was conducting her first news conference as state’s attorney.
Several reporters asked her about criticism from the cycling community and the public at large that Cook had received special treatment. (A local public defender observed in an op-ed, for example, that had his typical client caused a fatal accident and left the scene, he would have been arrested on the spot.)
“The course of action which we took is the normal course of action when we deal with manslaughter and homicide cases,” Mosby said, defending the 13-day delay in filing charges and also saying the action was meant to protect the case from a potential double jeopardy claim.
She deflected a question from a reporter who asked if she wasn’t misinterpreting double jeopardy.
Filing lesser charges could preclude filing more serious ones, Antonio Gioia, chief of the conviction integrity unit, said later. “It’s not a good idea to file charges in a piecemeal fashion.”
Other Brew reporting on the Heather Cook case:
Grief and anger at scene of fatal bike crash (12/28/14)
Episcopal Bishop identified as driver in fatal bike crash (12/28/14)
Witness says car left scene of bike crash for 45, not 20, minutes (12/29/14)
Citing “forgiveness,” diocese elected Cook despite 2010 drunk driving infraction (12/30/14)
Online clamor over fatal bike crash includes calls for Cook to resign (12/31/14)
More than a thousand ride for Tom Palermo and safer biking (1/1/15)
OPINION: Justice for all? Why hasn’t Bishop Cook who struck bicyclist Palermo been charged? (1/5/15)
“She said she thought she had hit a bicyclist and was in shock,” priest says of Bishop Cook’s reaction to fatal crash (1/6/15)
Boys Latin students were first to stop to help injured cyclist Palermo (1/8/15)
Episcopal bishop to be charged with DUI, manslaughter and leaving scene of accident (1/9/15)
Bishop Heather Cook’s bail set at $2.5 million (1/9/15)