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She's out! Heather Cook leaves prison

She's out! Heather Cook leaves prison
Former bishop goes home to her dog and new husband

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
May 16, 2019

JESSUP, MARYLAND --- She's out. After 1,295 days behind bars and razor wire, former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook walked out of the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women on a rainy late spring morning. This time she was not on her way to court to try and lessen her sentence, she was on her way home and to her beloved dog Teddy and her new husband, former Episcopal priest Mark Hansen. She has been released early due to credit accrued for good behavior.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services explains: "Generally, inmates sentenced to the Division of Correction (DOC) are entitled to earn diminution credits to reduce the length of their terms of confinement. Diminution credits reduce the period of confinement, but an offender still serves the remainder of his/her sentence on supervised release."

The former bishop suffragan of Maryland first walked into Maryland's only women's prison on October 27, 2015. What landed her in prison stemmed from a drunken driving hit 'n run incident two days after Christmas 2014 which left a bicyclist -- husband and father of two dying -- on a Baltimore street. Thomas Palermo left behind a young son and daughter and his grieving widow.

As a result, Heather Cook spent four All Hallows Eves (2015, 2016, 2017, & 2018); three Christmases (2015, 2016, 2017, & 2018); four Easters (2016, 2017, 2018 & 2019); and three September 21st birthdays (2016, 2017, & 2018) behind bars. She was born in 1956.

Initially the Episcopal bishop was indicted on 13 charges ranging from of automobile manslaughter, homicide by a motor vehicle while impaired, leaving the scene of an accident, driving under the influence, reckless driving, negligent driving, drunk driving, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of accident resulting in a fatality. In all she could have faced 39 years in prison for her post-Christmas drunken hit 'n run accident.

In a plea bargain the baker's dozen of allegations against the bishop suffragan were whittled down to just four: vehicular manslaughter, drunk driving, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. As a result, she was sentenced by Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory on October 27, 2015 to 20 years with 13 suspended leaving Heather Cook to face seven years as inmate number 442452 in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. Her original release date was scheduled for October 2022.

Life behind bars seems to have been hard on the former bishop. Her first encounter came on (Friday) Jan. 9, 2015 when she surrendered herself and was jailed at the Baltimore City Women's Detention Center under a $2.5 million bond. Monday (Jan. 12) she petitioned the court for a bail reduction. District Court Judge Nicole Pastore Klein denied the request. It was the judge's intention to keep the Maryland bishop behind bars, away from the bottle and off the road.

"To me she represents a grave danger to the community," Judge Klein said at the bail hearing. "Her behavior is erratic, it's impulsive."

But by Thursday (Jan. 15) Cook had cobbled together the needed $2.5 million bail to get out of jail. Five nights behind bars was all she could handle. The bishop wanted out! She remained free until she was sentenced on Oct. 27, 2015. The $2.5 million bond bought her 285 days of temporary freedom at a hefty price tag of $8,771.93 per day.

When the defrocked bishop was sentenced in October 2015, instead spending of seven days and five nights behind bars, she spent 1,295 days behind bars. And during the entire time she was always working on ways to reduce her sentence and get out early.

In May 2017 she sought parole; in July 2018 she wanted home detention; and in November 2018 she requested a sentence reduction. Each time she was denied.

Following the sentence reduction denial in November 2018 the Towson Patch reported: "When the judge [Timothy Doory] denied her request Monday [Nov. 5] to be released earlier, WJZ news station reported she cried and said: 'I can't do it ... I can't do it ... I can't do it ...' as she was led away in shackles."

The Baltimore Brew reported that Cook's attorney, David Irwin, explained the difficulties of life in prison. "The women's prison in Jessup is 'maximum security,'" he said. "It's hard time. There are strip searches before and after visits."

Also, in July 2018 Cook was seeking work release and finally in January 2019 she took a second stab at home detention. Each time she was turned down.

Heather Cook was not the only bishop serving time in prison. Currently Lutheran Bishop Bruce Burnside (born 1953) is serving 10 years in a Wisconsin prison for a similar drunken hit 'n run accident which left a jogger dead.

Records show that the Madison-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America bishop, who was running late for a Sunday church service in Sun Prairie, was driving drunk with a breathalyzer reading of 0.128, texting while driving, adjusting his radio and fiddling with his GPS during his moment of distracted driving which led to the crash in April 2013.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for second degree reckless vehicular homicide in July 2014. He remains in a Wisconsin prison to this day. He is tentatively scheduled to get out in May 2024 followed by five years parole.

Within a week following the 2013 accident which took the life of a jogger Burnside stepped away from his bishopric for the good of his synod (diocese) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because he was "unable to fulfill the responsibilities of the office of bishop ..."

In May 2015 Heather Cook was stripped of her bishopric, and her priesthood just days after her 27th anniversary of her ordination to the priesthood. She was defrocked of all ordained ministerial orders by then Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

As a model Maryland prisoner, someone who never violated any of the prison's many minute rules and regulations, Cook's time behind bars was whittled away by the penal system itself. She reached the halfway point of her sentence on April 22, 2019 -- one day after Easter. Three weeks later, on May 14, 2019, she left Maryland Correctional Institute for Women behind her after serving 50.6% of her original sentence.

However, now on parole, Cook will be kept on a short leash. For five years she will be designated as a parolee. She will be subject to the dictates of the parole system. She's lost her driver's license and will have to depend on others, including her husband, for transportation to the parole office, to the supermarket, to the post office, and to church.

In a Religion News Service interview, released after Cook left prison, the former bishop admitted to being married while in prison to Mark Hansen, a former Episcopal priest who is now the lay pastor of St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Massey, Maryland.

Hansen was stripped of his priesthood in 2005 for "abandoning the communion of the church." He was one of six Episcopal rectors called the "Connecticut Six" who were vocal in their opposition of Vicky Gene Robinson's (IX New Hampshire) elevation to the episcopate.

He has since returned to The Episcopal Church but has not been able to recover his Episcopal priesthood.

Bishop Chilton Knudsen, a recovering alcoholic herself, befriended Cook after she was stripped of her ordination and incarcerated and stepped in Cook's shoes at the Diocese of Maryland as an assist bishop. She performed the jailhouse wedding in October 2017.

From 1998 to 2008 Bishop Knudsen was the VIII Bishop of Maine. As of February 2019, she is the assisting in the Diocese of Washington, DC.

As a part of her parole Cook will also have to submit to scheduled and unscheduled drug and alcohol testing. She also needs permission to travel out of state and will have to pay monthly parolee fees.

The State of Maryland's Division of Corrections estimates that it costs the state $33,310 to keep a prisoner incarcerated per year compared to a yearly cost of $1,422 to put them on parole. A $31,888 savings for the taxpayer.

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

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