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BALTIMORE, MD: Early parole rejected for former Bishop Heather Cook

BALTIMORE, MD: Early parole rejected for former Bishop Heather Cook

By Jonathan Pitts
May 9, 2017

Heather Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who is serving a seven-year prison sentence for a drunk-driving crash that killed a Baltimore bicyclist in 2014, saw her request for parole "denied outright" by the Maryland Parole Commission late Tuesday morning.

Commission chairman David Blumberg said the two commissioners who ruled on the case told him one reason they denied Cook parole was that she "took no responsibility" and "showed no remorse" for her actions during the 90-minute hearing.

Blumberg said Cook will no longer be eligible for parole.

Blumberg, who was not present at the meeting but spoke to the commissioners immediately afterward, said they informed him that even though Cook, 60, spoke at length, she never apologized to Rachel Palermo, the widow of Thomas Palermo, the father of two Cook killed while driving drunk and texting on Dec. 27, 2014.

Palermo sat a few feet away from Cook during the proceeding.

Blumberg said parole officials in vehicular manslaughter cases typically consider four main criteria during such hearings: the degree to which an offender takes responsibility or displays "appropriate remorse," the continuing impact on victims and the question of public safety.

Heather Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who pleaded guilty to four criminal charges in connection with a drunk-driving crash that killed a married father of two, will remain in prison after her request for early release was rejected Tuesday.

Though the hearing was "unusually long," it took "a very short amount of time" for the commissioners to agree to deny parole in the case.

Given good behavior, including sufficient involvement in prison social programs, Cook could be released as early as sometime in 2019, Blumberg said, but he estimated the likeliest date of release would be on March 23, 2020.

If she's released any time before her mandatory release date of October 21, 2022, Cook would be under supervised mandatory release until that date.

Rachel Palermo was the first to speak after the hearing.

Her voice choking with emotion, she told a small group of reporters that "today is really about Tom" and "also about those who continue to love him and feel his loss."

Then she made a plea to anyone listening to avoid the kind of behavior that led to the crash that killed her husband.

"I ask this: if you still talk on your phone or text while driving, please put your phone down," she said. "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. And I want you to think of your own loved ones."

Because Maryland law does not classify vehicular manslaughter as a violent offense, Cook was eligible for parole upon serving 25 percent of her sentence. She is set to reach the milestone in July.

Tuesday was Cook's first opportunity at parole since she was sentenced and imprisoned on Oct. 27, 2015.

Palermo, a senior software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who built bike frames, was well known in the local cycling community.

Cook, then the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was driving south on Roland Avenue two days after Christmas 2014 when she drove her 2001 Subaru into a bike lane and struck Palermo, 41. Palermo was cycling in the same direction and apparently never saw her vehicle coming.

Witnesses said she left the scene and drove to her nearby apartment complex before returning 30 minutes after the crash.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said a breathalyzer measured Cook's blood-alcohol level at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit in Maryland.

Cook had pleaded guilty to a drunk-driving charge on the Eastern Shore in 2010 in which she registered a blood alcohol level of 0.27 percent. In that incident, police said they found marijuana and empty liquor bottles in her car and that Cook had been driving on a shredded tire.

The Palermo case roiled the city's cycling community and the national Episcopal church.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland had elevated Cook to the position of bishop suffragan in May of 2014. Katherine Jefferts Schori, then presiding bishop of the national church, had presided at the ceremony in which Cook was consecrated as bishop.

Diocesan officials said the search committee that selected Cook was aware of the 2010 case, but committee members were unfamiliar with its details.

The panel left it up to Cook to tell her electors about it. Officials have said she alluded to the case in parish meetings but only in vague terms.

Cook, the first female bishop in the diocese, resigned her position on May 1, 2015. The Episcopal Church deposed Cook as a bishop in a separate action the same day.

She entered her guilty pleas that September.


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