The second highest Episcopal minister in Maryland, Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, is under fire for an alleged fatal hit-and-run. Cook hit bicyclist Tom Palermo, 41, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and left the father of two young children dying of a head wound on the side of the road. She returned 20 minutes later.
In a Sunday email, Bishop Eugene Sutton told priests that Cook left the scene of Saturday’s accident, but returned about 20 minutes later “to take responsibility for her actions.” However, Sutton said that Cook was on administrative leave “because the nature of the accident could result in criminal charges.”
Moncure Lyon, 65, of Baltimore, said that he tried to help Palermo and then went looking for the car. He said that a Subaru drove by with a broken windshield and he jumped on his bike to follow it. Lyon, 65, caught up with it at a stoplight and continued to follow as the car entered a nearby gated apartment community.
Four years ago, Cook was involved in a DUI. Police reported that Cook was found driving on the shoulder of the road at 29 miles an hour in a 50 mph zone with a shredded front tire. After smelling alcohol, the officer proceeded to give a road sobriety test but stopped because Cook was so drunk that there was a fear that she would hurt herself just doing the sobriety test. She later registered a .27 blood alcohol reading (the legal limit is .08). In the car, the police found found two small bags of marijuana in the vehicle, along with paraphernalia, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of liquor.
Cook pleaded to the DUI and, in exchange, the pot charge was dropped. (She disclosed the charges when she interviewed for the bishop position).
The fact that Cook returned after being approached by a witness would seem a material factor in judging whether she was fleeing. However, we have seen considerable variation in how hit-and-runs are addressed, particularly in a couple of cases involving police officers (here and here) and a recent case involving a leading college football player. Some of these cases involved the culprits eventually returning to the scene, but there remained criticism over the failure to charge for leaving the scene in the first place. Cook’s case raises such a question as to whether she decided to return after being confronted by a witness. The facts remain somewhat fluid and we will likely learn more in the coming days. With the shattered windshield, there is also the possible claim of being disoriented. Police have not said at the time of this posting whether alcohol or drugs were involved or whether Cook was given a sobriety test.
Cook’s father was the rector of Old St. Paul’s. She attended St. Paul’s School for Girls and earned a master’s degree in divinity in 1987 from the General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1987. Last September, she became Maryland’s bishop suffragan — the No. 2 leader of the diocese. Her selection gave Cook a certain celebrity status inside and outside of the church — a symbol for many of the breaking of a glass ceiling for women ministers.
The fatal accident has been devastating for Palermo’s family, leaving two young children without a father. He was an avid bicyclist and a memorial bike ride is being planned by his many friends and family to celebrate his life.
The family will of course have the option of a civil lawsuit for wrongful death based on theories of negligence. Depending on the state, the statute of limitations is usually 1 or 2 years to file. That allows for the completion of criminal investigatory steps and a possible criminal charge, which can yield valuable discovery. However, such evidence can also lead to defense theories of comparative negligence based on where the bicyclist was in the road and other factors.