We recently discussed the case of Heather Cook, 58, Maryland’s second-highest ranking Episcopal leader and the first female bishop. Cook was involved in an alleged fatal hit-and-run in which she 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. She has now been charged with drunken driving and manslaughter. This is not Cook’s first alcohol-related offense.
Cook turned herself in to authorities Friday and her bail was set at $2.5 million. The church (which initially stood by Cook and supported her account) has now put her under investigation. It is a remarkable fall from grace for Cook. 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.
After the accident, 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.
Less than four months earlier, Cook was ordained as the diocese of Maryland’s first female bishop. She attended an Episcopal girls school and had served as a boarding school chaplain, an assistant at a parish in New York and a member of two diocesan staffs. Her father, also a priest, raised his family in the historic Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church rectory in downtown Baltimore. According to Cook’s autobiographical statement, when Cook herself was ordained as a deacon, her father removed “the stole from around his own neck and placed it over mine.”
Cook’s struggle with alcohol has classic elements of a multigenerational addiction. Her father was an alcoholic, admitting in a sermon that he had suffered a relapse and seeking treatment.
She now faces charges of felony vehicular manslaughter, criminal negligent manslaughter, failure to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in serious injury and death, using a text messaging device that resulted in an accident and three drunken driving charges. That could add up to more than 20 years in prison.