Maryland’s First Female Bishop Charged With DUI and Manslaughter In Fatal Accident

bal-bishop-heather-elizabeth-cook-booking-photo-20150109-1We 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. 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.

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.

48 thoughts on “Maryland’s First Female Bishop Charged With DUI and Manslaughter In Fatal Accident”

  1. Paul,
    Agreed, however it would be extremely rare for someone who blew a .27 and was not an alcoholic to be conscious, let alone driving a car, albeit badly. Several medical professionals that I have spoken with said that in general, if someone has a BAC that high, and isn’t passed out, there is a very good chance that they are a regular abuser of alcohol

    1. Crumedgeon – whether they are an alcoholic or not has nothing to do with the BAC level and their toleration. You could have an 18 year old 100 pound female college freshman at her first kegger who was not counting drinks and got to a .27 in no time at all. Does that make her an alcoholic? No, not at all. Just an 18 year old female with poor judgment.

  2. Canon,
    You are so right with your assertions that there need to be some rolling heads in the Diocese of MD. The more of the story that is revealed. The more bizarre it gets.

    The story coming out now is that only the chair of the committee and the diocesan bishop were aware of then Canon Cook’s DUI offense. The level of detail that they knew has not been disclosed. Apparently, the remainder of the vetting committee was told that ‘one of the candidates had a past DUI’, but the identity, severity, and date of the offense was not made known to them. And somehow they were ok with that????? The Bishop and the chair of the committee allegedly encouraged Canon Cook to disclose her DUI when she made her ‘meet and greet’ rounds prior to the election. She chose not to do so (can you say red flag?)

    I cannot imagine being a member of the committee and not inquiring about details of the timing and severity of the DUI, as well as the course of treatment that the candidate may or may not have undergone. How odd. To me, it smells of coverup.

    I also find it interesting that her former diocesan bishop, who retired in June, has been completely absent from the scene. Given that she was a member of his staff during her 2010 arrest, it would be worth exploring why she was able to remain as such after such a grisly incident, or even why she was also given the charge for care of a congregation in addition? Did he provide appropriate disciplinary action for a member of the clergy that has been arrested? Did he notify the diocesan standing committee? Was any effort made on his part to assure that she received the appropriate care so that the was unlikely to reoffend? What was his relationship with the judge who dismissed the charges? How could he recommend her for elevation knowing this history? What about the rest of the diocese? Did no member of the clergy confront the bishop about this issue? (I know for a fact that at least one did—not me in case you are curious)

    Since Bishop Sutton has revealed that he was aware of her arrest record, did he do his due diligence and determine the nature and severity of the offense? If so, what compelled him to believe that an individual who blew a .27 was not an active alcoholic?

    1. Crumedgeon – the amount of alcohol in the system is not an indication of what alcoholism is, it is the patternof drinking to excess.

      However, I will agree that the Bishop should have demanded substance abuse counseling after blowing a .27 at her age.

  3. Isaac

    1968 in Montana hitch hiking and p/u’d by Border Patrol then dropped off back in Canada. I grew up near the border till 1962…… Did you look like a hippy….REALLY not good up there in those days. Maybe suspected as one of our draft dodgers sneaking back to touch “home”?

    That trooper must have been REALLY board!!! Or his supervisor had just chewed him out for not kicking Canadians back??

  4. I do not think that anyone in America should go to college. And if you go, go to some school that does not have sports. Compete with China in math and science, not Kent State in dead students or Penn State with pedophile coaches.

  5. No Bill, Baylor is not elitist liberal. Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Penn, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, UCLA, UC-Berkley, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Iowa, Maryland, UNC, KU, UK, Georgia, MIT, Swarthmore, Duke, Tufts, Bowdoin, Colgate, UNH, Oberlin, Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, USC, UC-San Diego, BU, BC, Northwestern, USD, Florida, FSU, Ohio State, Oregon[playing each other tonight], OSU. You know what Billy, I could go on forever. Did I make my point? Probably not, you are thick as a brick. A great Jethro Tull song as well. And, for a conservative university you would have used BYU. Now, just stop w/ the stupid questions. The OVERWHELMING majority of colleges in this country are liberal, elite, PC, whiners, weenies. I just regret giving you 4 minutes of my time. You aren’t worthy of 10 seconds. You’re welcome.

  6. I knew it would’nt take too long before someone deemed the Episcopal Church not truly Christian or not Christian enough. “Post Christian, liberal Christian”, labels given Christian religions not up to fundamentalist standards. Glenn Beck said, run run run away from these “social justice” churches!

  7. NS,

    Do you consider Baylor U., the world’s largest Baptist University, a campus of what you call “elitist liberals”? If so, then, as with most of your uninformed opinions, you are as wrong as usual.

  8. I suspect the Episcopalians were here guided by the error of “cheap grace,” which afflicts most post-Christian denominations, and many liberal Christians as well.

    That is, they let her off easy. Criticism, asking forgiveness, reform, and penance are hard. Instead, these days, everybody is forgiven, and that’s the end of it.

    “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

    Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has.

    …It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

    ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

  9. Karen, You are correct, the alcoholic is indeed impaired. But, as you said, you would be passed out @ .28, this woman is conscious, speaking and texting. Tolerance is science; a person can build a tolerance to drugs, alcohol, etc. wherein it takes more of the substance to reach a designated effect. I could drink 4 beers as a teen and get drunk. I drink 4 beers now and I’m as sober as Father Morrissey..maybe a bad example.

    Karen, The alcoholic state of Wi. is not anything to emulate. We do not even consider a 1st offense criminal, it is a civil violation. The Madison paper reports almost daily, people getting their 8th, 10th, 18th[highest I’ve seen] offense. I feel; safer now that I’m in California for the winter.

  10. Isaac – yes there are enormous financial penalties for DUI in CA, but they’ve taken the teeth out of criminal penalties, as long as no one died.

    I am all for making DUI the serious offense that it is in all states.

  11. We must remember that the majority of Episcopalians are not drunks.

    Actually, I have no idea if that’s true, but it seems like a nice thing to say.

  12. In California and other states when one gets a DUI the consequences are much more than a kick in the side of the head: large fine in the thousands, loss of low insurance premiums-I believe the DUI has to pay two or three times the rate for a number of years, various sorts of schooling, sometimes and more often than not community service, and in some states at least a night in the slammer with the other drunks. It may be that some states are more or less severe but if I am not mistaken, a DUI is a felony and therefore the fingerprints come up when asked to. (A side story, in 1968 a buddy and I were hitchhiking in Montana, taken in by a border patrol, finger printed, and tossed back into Canada. In 2007 when I began a teaching career, the finger prints came up. They came up before that when I got my Green Card. The agent asked my wife to leave the room, leaned over and looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you sure you have never been arrested?” It all worked out. We all laughed. I ain’t leaving.)

    Personally, I feel that the felony thing should be dropped until the second time depending on what happened. A first time driver on his or her way home from happy hour never understands until pulled over. I am not familiar with the statistics but it wouldn’t surprise me if a sizable number of first time DUIs do actually get the kick in the side of the head.

    If a person is inclined to and gets caught a second time, then this is where society should step in with the big guns. Perhaps mandatory treatment, etc along with a year of weekends in jail would make the point. In Norway as far back as the ’70s while a country that doesn’t incarcerate nearly at the same rate as the US or in as severe a fashion, a DUI meant a year of weekends in jail, no criminal record, but for a year, it gets to sink in. The objective should be to make them stop and prevent others from DUI, not simply punishing.

    In the case of the bishop from Maryland, she is a criminal and should be locked up for at least ten years if only to express equality before the law.

  13. Canon – that is a great idea, to address the trust issue with the community first and foremost by taking responsibility, and having consequences for those who failed to disclose.

  14. If an Episcopal priest gets caught in a brief fully consensual adult extramarital asignation, he will be at least suspended. If with a member of his church, lose his orders…defrocked.

    “We” elected a drunk and drug using priest as bishop. My God…..27 BAL !?!?! If the diocesan bishop had knowledge, he should resign NOW. Now, not next week…..NOW. The members of the nominating committee should be banned from any official office or committee for 5 years.

    Act now, act fast, act hard….show the community ….forget the courts.

  15. Nick – I have no doubt that an alcoholic can heel-toe it at a BAC that would render me unconscious, but I know you agree that they are impaired while driving, even when they would swear they are fine.

  16. And yes, I agree that we should ensure that she is treated equally under the law, regardless of her religious profession.

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