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BALTIMORE, MD: Former Episcopal Bishop leaves Courtroom as a shackled convicted felon

BALTIMORE, MD: Former Episcopal Bishop leaves Courtroom as a shackled convicted felon
Heather Cook begins seven year sentence at Maryland's women's prison

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
October 28, 2015

In a heart-rending, gut-wrenching, emotional sentencing hearing Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 27) former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook (Maryland-suffragan) learned her final fate in the drunken hit and run crash which took the life of Thomas Palermo last December 27. Before the afternoon was over she was handcuffed, shackled and sent to Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup to begin a seven year sentence for causing the bicyclist's death and leaving the scene of an accident. She also faces five years probation once her prison term is complete.

The small Baltimore courtroom was packed with spectators and the news media as the former Episcopal bishop learned her fate. Several Baltimore-area reporters tweeted live as the sentencing hearing unfolded.

Cook arrived at the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse alone. She wasn't even flanked by her attorneys, as she has been in the past. However she had a small contingent of family and friends in the courtroom to offer her moral support as Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory meted out his punishment for her crimes. The "defrocked, distraught and devastated" cleric left the courtroom in white plastic zip tie wrist restraints (handcuffs) and leg irons as her mother Marcia Mary Cook cried. She was placed in a waiting prison van and sent to Jessup to begin her multiyear sentence with 800 other female inmates.

" Fmr Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook arriving at Balto Circ Ct for sentencing in auto manslaughter case," WBAL Jayne Miller tweeted.
"Courtroom packed for Heather Cook sentencing. Marilyn Mosby just arrived."

"Fmr Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook may get 10 yrs when sentenced this afternoon in drunk driving death," speculates Mike Hellgren at WJZ Channel 13 News before the sentencing hearing started.

"Former episcopal bishop Heather Cook to be sentenced 2day for death of Tom Palermo ... could get up to 10yrs," tweeted Megan Knight with WMAR 2 News before court began.

"Cook will go to jail," Hellgren live tweets as it became apparent the direction the judge was going in his thoughts.

"Heather Cook sentenced to 7 yrs in prison," Miller tweeted.

"Cook technically got 20 years, 13 suspended," Hellgren fleshed out.

For more than an hour the prosecution and defense argued back and forth about Cook's impending prison term. Through tears the Palermo family made several victim impact statements.

John Rydell with WBFF FOX 45 news tweeted: "Prosecutor: Heather Cook displayed reckless disregard of human life (in drunk driving death of cyclist Tom Palermo)."

"Palermo's mom to Cook: You sentenced me to a lifetime of grief and heartache," WJZ's Mike Hellgren tweeted.

The Baltimore Brew reports that Patricia Palermo, the bicyclist's mother, said in Court, "I have terrible nightmares. I keep seeing imprints of my son's precious head on the windshield of Heather Cook's car. I fear he suffered terrible pain."

"Here's what Cook said in court," Hellgren tweeted. "Cook addressed Palermo family: 'This is my fault.'"

The WJZ reporter posted a cell phone picture of his reporter's notebook page where he wrote Heather Cook's statement which read: "I'm so sorry for the pain 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 have often felt that I did not deserve to be alive."

The Brew reports that Patricia Palermo replied: "I don't want to hear from you how sorry you are. This family doesn't want to hear from you. I believe the only thing for which you are sorry is getting caught."

Cook then addressed Judge Doory: "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."

"'God didn't do this,' Patricia Palermo said. 'God didn't take Tom. Heather Cook killed Tom,'" The Baltimore Sun tweeted.

"You know how important it is to be with someone and console them," the judge replied. "Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision."

"You left my son to die alone," Patricia Palermo retorted. "You could have given my son Last Rites. Instead, you left him on the side of the road."

More details emerged about that frightful day as the hearing unfolded. It was revealed by Cook's attorney David Irwin that she had not only been drinking the night of Dec. 26 but also the morning of Dec. 27, the Saturday of the fatal car-bike accident and that when she hit Thomas Palermo while her head was down and her eyes were off the road as she was texting, she did not even realize that she had hit anyone or anything. He said she was "confused" ... "inebriated ..."texting" when the fatal accident happened.

It wasn't until after Cook got on Interstate 83 to head towards Maryland's Eastern Shore that she noticed a bicycle helmet in her car. She then looped around driving past the accident scene to see what happened before proceeding to her apartment to secure her pet golden retriever. While there she placed a call to Canon Scott Slater the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland's Canon to the Ordinary, reporting to him that "She thought she had hit a bicyclist and was in shock." Cook eventually returned to the scene of the accident and was joined there by the Episcopal canon.

Baltimore City Prosecutor Kurt Bjorklund explained: "She made sure her dog was okay, but she didn't care about another human."

After imposing the seven year sentence Judge Doory noted: "This is not your final judgment and that would soon come for all of us," indicating that God will ultimately be the final judge of Cook's actions on December 27, 2014.

For the Palermo family Judge Doory's seven year sentence was an empty victory. They were disappointed in the sentence and called it "lukewarm." They were hoping for more. They had hoped for at least 10 years if not the full 20. (Technically Cook received a 20 year sentence with 13 years suspended. She will be serving five years for causing the death of Thomas Palermo and two years for leaving the scene of the accident, giving her a total seven years behind bars.)

"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. It feels lukewarm," explained Thomas Palermo's sister-in-law Alisa Rock following the sentencing hearing.

The defense was hoping that Cook could evade a prison term altogether. Cook's defense team was advocating for home detention and special probation rather than an actual prison term.

One writer for the Baltimore Sun also agreed that justice would not be served by any sort of prison sentence in Cook's case.

"Your Honor, I am beseeching you to resist the urge to waste taxpayers' money in sentencing ex-bishop Heather Cook to 10 years of non-productive, meaningless time in jail," Charlie Chaban wrote in a Letter to the Editor. "Instead, order her to report for the next 365 days to the exact spot on the Roland Avenue bike lane where she killed Mr. Palermo and equip her with a large, legible sign that reads 'I Am a Widowmaker.'"

Chaban felt that it would be more effective to make an example of Heather Cook. "In her case, public shaming may be more effective than prison."

Thomas Palermo left behind his widow Rachel and two young children--a daughter and a son. Since the accident the young family has been struggling to cope with the loss and deal with life without their primary breadwinner.

It was also revealed in Court that any civil claims and liability surrounding then-Bishop Heather Cook, the Diocese of Maryland and The Episcopal Church have been settled. Lawyers for the Palermo family confirmed such a resolution was hammered out but declined to provide details.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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