Sitting a few feet from Heather E. Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who killed her son in a drunk driving hit-and-run in North Baltimore last year, Patricia Palermo spoke with raw fury, aiming her stinging words right at Cook.
“You didn’t make calls to help my son, but you managed to make calls to help yourself,” Palermo said, as Cook broke down, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
Cook, who was in Baltimore City Circuit Court yesterday awaiting sentencing on automobile manslaughter and other charges in connection with the death of bicyclist Thomas Palermo, was spared absolutely nothing during two hours of family members’ testimony.
“I have terrible nightmares. I keep seeing imprints of my son’s precious head on the windshield of Heather Cook’s car,” Palermo said, her voice ragged but firm. “I fear he suffered terrible pain.”
Cook’s attorneys had said, when the 59-year-old plead guilty in court last month, that their client would speak at her sentencing. But for Patricia Palermo, the time for apologies had passed.
“I don’t want to hear from you how sorry you are. This family doesn’t want to hear from you,” Palermo said. “I believe the only thing for which you are sorry is getting caught.”
And yet Cook, when her turn came, did speak.
She stood, turning to face the family seated in the courtroom and paused for a long moment. Before her was the Palermo family, Tom’s widow Rachel Rock Palermo, Rachel’s sister Alisa Rock and the Rock family. In a halting voice, this is what Cook said:
“I am so sorry for the grief and agony I have caused. This is my fault. I accept complete responsibility. I wish there was something I could do or say to make things better. I think about you every day. I have often felt that I don’t deserve to be alive.”
Turning to Judge Timothy J. Doory, she said, “I believe God is working through this. I trust your judgment and fairness. I am ready to accept and do the best I can with your decision.”
Doory sentenced Cook to seven years in prison, saying the fact that she left the scene of the crash twice was significant.
“You know how important it is to be with someone and console them,” he said. “Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision.”
After the verdict, Cook was embraced by longtime companion Mark Hansen and others. She handed her purse to Hansen. Then as she turned to leave, allowing the audience to see that her arms were behind her back in metal handcuffs, her mother Marcia Mary Cook cried out from her seat.
Passing by Tom Palermo’s mother, Patricia Palermo, the manacled Cook said softly to her, “I’m sorry.”
About 50 people were packed into the small courtroom to hear the outcome of the case, which shined a harsh spotlight on the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, as well as the woman they chose to be their first-ever female Bishop.
A search committee had known details of Cook’s 2010 drunk driving incident on the Eastern Shore but failed to share them with the others involved in the process of selecting her.
Cook had been found by Caroline County sheriff’s deputies driving on a shredded tire, with marijuana paraphernalia and liquor bottles in the car and vomit on her shirt.
On a breathalyzer she’d blown .27, more than three times the legal limit. She received probation before judgment.
In the December 27 crash, Cook left her North Baltimore home, drunk and texting, and struck the 41-year-old Palermo as he rode his bike on the Roland Avenue bike lane.
Prosecutors said she left the scene, continuing south on Roland Avenue, and later passed it again as she went north on Roland, returning to her home.
After she returned to the scene more than a half hour after the crash, she was arrested and, according to police, blew a .22 on a breathalyzer, almost three times the legal limit.
Cook pleaded guilty to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, texting while driving, driving under the influence and other charges. She was defrocked and has been living on the Eastern Shore, her lawyer David S. Irwin said.
Dropping Off the Dog
At yesterday’s hearing, some new details emerged about the day of the crash. Cook had been drinking the night before, Irwin said, and was drinking wine that morning.
Rachel Palermo said that she, Tom and their two children had been hiking at the Gunpowder River that morning, before he took his bike ride.
Irwin described how Cook had been driving and “was looking down, when a huge crash happened. . . She did not know it was a person at that second.”
In fact, she didn’t realize it, he said, until she reached Northern Parkway and saw a bicycle helmet inside the car. After driving onto I-83, she got off at the 28th Street exit and came back north.
Irwin mentioned phone calls she made, including one “to her best friend.”
Why didn’t Cook stop as she passed the spot where passersby and others were on the scene trying to help the injured cyclist?
She wanted to drop her 2½-year-old golden retriever, Teddy, at her apartment, Irwin said, noting that afterwards “she came back, showing her basic morality and confessed.”
Prosecutor Kurt Bjorklund put it differently.
“She made sure her dog was okay, but she didn’t care about another human,” he said.
Bjorklund said Cook learned little from her 2010 arrest: “It meant nothing to her.”
Irwin said his client suffered from alcoholism, “a disease,” and that she had no support for it. He said she relapsed one year after that first drunk-driving arrest.
Two witnesses spoke on Cook’s behalf, people she worked with in her days as the rector at a suburban parish in York, PA. in the early 1990s. Cook was “a priest who was compassionate, pastoral and caring,” said Harry Snell III. Cook encouraged her to adopt and infant, Marian T. Koviak said, a daughter she named Heather out of gratitude: “I felt so. . .gifted by her faith in me.”
Irwin said all civil claims in the case had been settled, but a lawyer for the Palermo family present in the courtroom did not provide any details about it.
“It Feels Lukewarm”
The state had recommended a sentence of 20 years in prison with 10 years suspended, plus five years probation.
Cook’s lawyers, meanwhile, had asked the judge in their memo for a sentence of home detention.
In addition to the seven-year prison sentence that Doory ultimately imposed, he specified also that Cook is to serve five years probation, that she must only drive with an interlock device and that she must participate in any alcohol treatment program specified by her court monitor.
(Only the Department of Motor Vehicles is empowered to take away driving privileges, he noted.)
The sentence disappointed family members, who released a brief comment outside the courthouse.
“While no amount of prison time would seem sufficient, we feel the court today could have sent a stronger signal that our community takes driving while under the influence and driving while distracted seriously,” said Tom Palermo’s sister-in-law Alisa Rock. “It feels lukewarm.”
Their statements given inside the courtroom, though, had been scorching.
Punishment of a Sort
“I see the face of the man in uniform who came to the door and told me that my husband was dead,” Rachel Palermo said in a statement read aloud on her behalf by Bjorklund.
Palermo described her struggle to make ends meet without Tom’s income and health insurance. She described what it was like to tell their children, Sadie and Sam, now 7 and 5, that their father was dead.
“The pain in my daughter’s face is etched in my mind,” she said, going on to describe the surprising reaction Sam had. “He hit me and started yelling and ran into the backyard and cried.”
“I will miss his voice saying, ‘Hi Dad! Are you okay,’” said Tom Palermo’s father Carl Palermo in a letter read by his niece.
Patricia Palermo described being physically ill as a result of the loss of her son, how she was hospitalized for four days in April and how she is often overcome by depression and tears.
“It’s like standing in the surf blindfolded,” she said. “You know you’re going to be hit, but you don’t know when.”
Doory told family members that for Cook to hear from them “is itself a punishment that I cannot duplicate.”