Heather Cook, Maryland’s First Female Bishop, Accused of Fatal Hit-and-Run

244F92AB00000578-2889726-Tragic_Maryland_s_first_female_bishop_58_year_old_Heather_Cook_c-m-5_1419843198355244FA2C300000578-0-image-m-7_1419834114326The 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.

HT_bishop_hit_and_run_sk_141229_16x9_992Cook’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.

244FD48B00000578-0-image-m-23_1419834764024The 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.

69 thoughts on “Heather Cook, Maryland’s First Female Bishop, Accused of Fatal Hit-and-Run”

  1. 1/11/14. This Bishop just charged with DUI ETC PLUS TEXTING.

    I think most saw this one coming. Maybe not the texting. But BLA was .22. Previous conviction was for .27.

    I’ll state my question early (if any law experts read this)

    Given what is known from previous case and the briefest of detail below, how deep are the pockets on the part of the diocese?
    Civil liability? See below.

    What I did not expect to read was that the convention which elected her was not informed of the past conviction and circumstance. The nominating body knew but did not reveal. There was supposed to have been a psych consult prior to nomination as well.

    Now since she was elected a suffragan (subordinate to #1), I wonder if the diocesan bishop (#1 person) had been informed before the presentation to the electing convention.

    Unless I missed a report or it was not mentioned, where is the rehab data from what should have followed the 1st case? Was there rehab. Why not?x

    Truth be told, it’s the insurance company which drives the background searches since the $3 M sex misconduct issue case decades ago in Colorado. The diocese and ins. co. paid…the priest had already filed bankruptcy as I recall.That one was a consensual extramarital affair. Now the BIs are even more intensive.

  2. Darren, many thanks for your treatise. I hope I didn’t appear to be questioning your summaries of the incident. Rather, it’s the going home and coming back coupled with that significant history that really piqued my interest. Some of my questions are more rhetorical in context. For instance, what happened between the incident and the return? Also, the BAL test and results, if taken, may not have been revealed. In today’s DUI sensitivities, I just couldn’t imagine not testing under these circumstances. But then……

    In any case, thanks for your information and observations.

    I hope that the diocese REALLY steps up for the family. I also can only imagine what the bishop’s family is going through. At least two families were devastated that day.

    Some may see evil in the bishop or the accident or in this or that. We who have been in accidents, even as the “victim”, wrestle with these existential questions. Try being a combat vet when you know you killed somebody even though you were in the other’s sights and they missed. Or “out of nowhere” a mortar goes off, you get off Scot-free but the guy next to you completely loses his face. Was the mortar team evil? Humanity is strange. What’s really “strange” is that what was a singular horrible but typical event (one of thousands) almost 2000 yrs ago has had such reverberations.

    We suffer the consequences of our actions and those of others.

    Calvary gave us something not foundationally found in any other place or time– Divine Grace. Something that is not empirically found in the “accidental” versions of our existence.

    Well I digress and am starting to venture into something best reserved for another venue.

    All involved in this death suffer. It’s through living into the gift of grace that real healing will occur. But make no mistake; just as in the Easter event, the scars..the marks.. will remain.

  3. Father Mike,

    First, I need to state once again I do not have the complete collision report in front of me so much of what I am saying here is speculation based upon my prior experience of this alleged crime. I am not intimately familiar with this state’s traffic or case law so I have to apply the state I am most familiar with for some legal interpretations. And this is my opinion based upon allegations.

    As for the blood or breath test, some states have a mandatory blood draw upon probable cause of vehicular homicide (DUI or reckless driving suspected). However this is only available to the state if the officers can show probable cause that the accused was either impaired or operated a motor vehicle in a reckless manner.

    The news article made no mention if the police believed the suspect to be alcohol or drug impaired. If they had reasonable suspicion that she had I am certain they would have performed field sobriety tests on her (if she agreed to them) or tried to articulate her impairment in order to perform the breath or drug tests because it is of paramount importance to such an investigation and in addition they evidence degrades over time due to the metabolic process.

    If there was no immediate suspicion of DUI, the task remains to investigate whether this was a case of reckless driving. This could be not immediately determinate during the collision scene, and hence there might not have been enough probable cause at the time to allow any (if available) mandatory blood draw. So, there is of course a possibility of such a situation where if someone actually had drugs in their system but the officers did not have any reasonable suspicion on a suspect’s sobriety, it can fall through the cracks on a DUI prosecution. But this is not a serious compromise of the ultimate prosecution because reckless driving in itself, outside of a DUI, can be sufficient in most states for a vehicular homicide charge.

    It really boils down to whether or not the officers at the collision scene could articulate alcohol or drug impairment if they can’t it pretty much ends the DUI issue. (if there was one)

    Now the state is faced with whether or not this woman was operating the vehicle in a reckless manner or in violation of the traffic laws at the moment of when the collision occurred. There are three potential outcomes to this investigation and most others.

    1) The car driver did not commit a traffic offense. Either the cyclist did and the collision happened, it did not fall within the bounds of an offense (this very seldom occurs) or the vehicle did cause the accident but an event or situation caused the collision but the driver is not in legal jeopardy; such as for example another vehicle struck the this woman’s car and it was shoved into the cyclist.

    2) The car driver committed a minor traffic violation that resulted in the collision. Here it could be the case where the driver perhaps crossed illegally into the bicycle lane and did not yield to the cyclist, resulting in a deadly collision. In this case the driver could be guilty of a traffic violation but this is insufficient to make the death of the cyclist a criminal offense. It does carry a higher fine, and a driver in similar circumstances could get sued by the estate of the cyclist but since there was no criminal action on behalf of the driver she cannot be charged with a crime.

    3) The driver committed a crime (reckless driving, negligent driving, DUI, robbery or other crime, and as a proximate result of this crime the death of the cyclist occurred. That is what the investigation here is probably seeking to determine.

    I presume some have wondered why the police did not hook up this woman at the scene of the collision. A possibility with similar cases is that the felony hit and run might be certainly cause for arrest, unless there is issues of impairment which would make it easy for a vehicular homicide charge, arresting her for the felony hit and run before the collision investigation is complete could create a legal situation where the defendant could immediately plead guilty to the felony hit and run and as a result of this the state would be barred from introducing large amounts of evidence into a later vehicular homicide investigation. This is because, at least where I am familiar, the state is prohibited from introducing evidence gathered in past convictions to the jury of a current case.

    While that might seem frustrating, especially to those close to the person who died, but it is much better for all concerned and for the investigation.

    Like I said, I don’t know if this woman is a suspect in vehicular homicide, I mention it because it could be a pertinent possibility in the future. In my opinion the photos of the windshield indicate to me that it was a higher speed collision but since the arterial where the collision happened is a 35 mph zone, it is going to take a detailed reconstruction and a forensic analysis to complete. Plus, it is good to tie some trace evidence on the windshield to positively tie the windshield to the cyclist. As certain as it might seem to some that the cyclist smashed against the windshield due to circumstance, extra evidence gathering is important because a jury could be swayed in another direction. Plus, it is important to not rely on a confession of a suspect alone because they might recant or for whatever reason the confession gets suppressed pre-trial and is not available to the jury.

    Generally, unless there is a flight risk, it is better to be patient and perform a diligent investigation for not only the state, but for the defendant herself and because it can be used in a possible civil suit in the future.

    Hope this helps

  4. Darren and others provide food for thought. There is one comment about the police evidently not finding anything in the car. Remember, this was after she went home.

    I wonder if the report of the eye witness’s doesn’t raise even more questions if I’ve got the sequence correct.

    Specifically, I’m wondering about the eye witness account and correlation with the bishop’s direction at the time he noticed the windshield.

    She hit the man and kept going; the witness tended to him; then went looking for the car, saw the car go by and followed it to the gated community. If I have the sequence correct, she had to have turned around, passed the witness who then pursued her as she went home. 20 minutes after the hit she arrived back at the scene. Why did she go home? What did she do there before she came back to the scene? Is there a possible correlation to 2010 Incident and car contents? BAL .27 and marijuana with equipment…..substance abuse. Alcoholic? Curiouser and curiouser.

    The report leaves out any mention of a breathalyzer or blood test — yes or no. Why?

    Anybody have another interpretation of the eye witness account as reported?

  5. Fr Mike/Canon…I think it is assumed since most states require “with traffic” these days. If any do not, somebody let us know. I worry more about the wobblers in front of me on surface streets that I doubt can see me clearly. It’s a guessing game of what odd maneuver they will attempt…like a swinging right turn across traffic in front of you. Very rarely, I repeat, very rarely, do I see a cyclist use the hand signals required of all drivers that do not have turn signals.

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