crimesider

Bishop charged in fatal DUI hit-and-run

Bishop Heather E. Cook

Diocese of Maryland via CBS Baltimore

BALTIMORE - The second-ranking leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland will be charged with vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving and other counts stemming from a hit-and-run crash that killed a bicyclist on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Baltimore's top prosecutor said Friday.

An arrest warrant also will be issued for Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, 58, whose blood-alcohol level tested at .22 after the wreck, nearly triple Maryland's legal limit for driving, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said at a news conference.

Cook's attorney, David Irwin, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.

Cook was driving a car that hit Tom Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two, on Dec. 27. Palermo died from head injuries the same day at a hospital, according to Bruce Goldfarb, spokesman for the Maryland medical examiner's office.

The diocese and police confirmed the driver initially left the scene of the crash, then returned. The diocese and a witness reported that Cook left the scene for about 20 minutes before returning.

In a statement, Palermo's sister-in-law thanked Mosby, who took office Monday.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the events leading up to the senseless hit-and-run accident that claimed Tom's life, and support the prosecutor's efforts to hold Bishop Heather Cook accountable for her actions to the fullest extent of the law," said Alisa Rock, Palermo's sister-in-law and the family's spokeswoman.

Moncure Lyon, 65, of Baltimore, said he was just finishing up a bike ride when he came upon Palermo lying in the street in a semi-fetal position, his head on the curb. As other passers-by called 911, Lyon went looking for the car, based on other witnesses' descriptions. He found it about 100 yards away at a light, he said.

"The windshield was completely smashed in, with a hole on the passenger side, and from the damage of the car, there was no doubt in my mind that was the car," he said. "I asked the lady who was driving, `Are you all right?' Then the light turned green, she said `Yes,' and she left."

When he returned to the scene, he saw the woman there as well, talking to a police officer.

The national Episcopal Church initiated opened an investigation late last week against Cook after receiving a complaint. The decision to move forward with an investigation was made by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other national church leaders, according to diocesan spokeswoman Sharon Tillman. The purpose of that investigation, separate from the civilian criminal investigation, is to determine whether Cook violated church law.

This is not the first time Cook has been charged with crimes related to driving.

Court records show a Caroline County sheriff's deputy stopped Cook in 2010 on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The officer wrote in a report that Cook was driving on the shoulder at 29 mph in a 50-mph-zone with a shredded front tire.

The deputy noted a strong odor of alcohol coming from the car and that Cook had vomit down the front of her shirt. The officer wrote that Cook was so intoxicated that she couldn't finish a field sobriety test because she might fall and hurt herself. According to the report, Cook registered .27 percent blood-alcohol content.

The officer also reported finding two small bags of marijuana in the vehicle, along with paraphernalia, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of liquor.

Cook pleaded guilty to drunken driving then, and drug possession charges were dropped. A judge sentenced her to a fine and probation before judgment on the DUI charge, meaning her record could be cleared if she stayed out of trouble.

Tillman said Cook disclosed the earlier charges when she was vetted by a search committee while seeking the office of bishop. She was elected as bishop in September.

Cook grew up in Baltimore. She was ordained in the Maryland diocese in 1987, and has served on the Eastern Shore, as well as in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to the diocese's website. She was the diocese's first female bishop, elected unanimously in September.