Maryland bishop suffragan faces numerous charges in fatal accident

January 8, 2015

ens_episcopalChurch

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby Jan. 9 announces the initial charges against Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook in the Dec. 27 fatal accident that killed a bicyclist. Standing with her are Lt. Colonel Melissa Hyatt and Don Giblin, chief of homicide for the State’s Attorney’s Office. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/ENS

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby Jan. 9 announces the initial charges against Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook in the Dec. 27 fatal accident that killed a bicyclist. Standing with her are Lt. Colonel Melissa Hyatt and Don Giblin, chief of homicide for the State’s Attorney’s Office. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/ENS

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:13 p.m. Jan. 9.

[Episcopal News Service – Baltimore, Maryland] Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook surrendered to Baltimore law enforcement hours after she was charged Jan. 9 with eight offenses for allegedly causing a fatal car accident in which she temporarily left the scene after striking and killing a bicyclist.

Cook turned herself in to police mid-Friday afternoon and was being processed at Central Booking, police told The Baltimore Sun. A court commissioner was expected to determine her bail in the evening, a judiciary spokeswoman said, the Sun reported.

Earlier in the day, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said at a news conference that charges had been filed in district court accusing Cook of four criminal charges. They include negligent manslaughter by vehicle (maximum penalty 10 years and/or $5,000 fine), criminal negligent manslaughter by vehicle (three years and/or $5,000 fine), negligently driving under the influence resulting in a homicide (five years and/or $5,000 fine) and negligent homicide involving an auto or boat while impaired (three years and/or $5,000 fine).

Cook also faces traffic charges of failing to remain at an accident resulting in death, failing to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in bodily injury, using a text messaging device while driving causing an accident with death or serious injury, and driving under the influence of alcohol.

Media representatives crowd the small news conference room in the offices of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby Jan. 9. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/ENS

Media representatives crowd the small news conference room in the offices of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby Jan. 9. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/ENS

Mosby said a breathalyzer test administered to Cook after the accident showed the bishop had a blood alcohol content of .22 percent. The legal limit in Maryland is .08 percent.

Thomas Palermo, 41, the married father of two young children, was pronounced dead on the afternoon of Dec. 27 at a hospital near the accident scene. He died from head injuries suffered in the accident.

Mosby reminded those at the news conference that Cook is presumed innocent until and unless she is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

When Mosby met with the Palermo family Jan. 8, she said she “assured them that we’re going to pursue justice.”

The state’s attorney outlined the accident, citing the statement of probable cause that was filed in court. She said both Palermo and Cook were traveling southbound on Roland Avenue with Palermo in the bike lane and Cook in the traffic lane. Cook, who was texting while driving at the time, veered off to the right and into the bike lane, striking Palermo from the rear. The collision caused Palermo to strike the hood and windshield of Cook’s 2001 Subaru, Mosby said. He was thrown to the right-hand side before coming to a final rest against the curb.

She said the statement of probable cause alleges that Cook did not stop at the scene of the accident, and continued south on Roland. Roughly 30 minutes later she drove past the scene, heading northbound on Roland, but continued past the scene northbound to her residence, according to Mosby. The timeline in the statement of probable cause alleges that Cook was gone from the scene for a longer period of time than what was reported in earlier news accounts.

Cook left that residence shortly after her arrival there and returned to the scene. Mosby said that Cook then was taken from the scene to a police station by members of the Baltimore Police Department where she was given a breathalyzer test which resulted in the .22 reading.

Mosby said that the case will be presented to a grand jury scheduled to be impaneled on Jan. 12. The jury could drop some of the charges and/or add others.

Mosby, 34, was acting on her first full day as Baltimore City State’s Attorney, having been sworn into office the day before.

Just after Mosby concluded her news conference, Diocese of Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton released a statement saying in part: “Please know that we are deeply heartbroken over this, and we cry for the Palermo family, our sister Heather and all in the community who are hurting.”

“Our Lord Jesus would be a healing presence in the midst of this tragic situation, and we are seeking ways to walk in his footsteps in the days and months ahead,” he said. “As we do so we are truly being the church, and we will always be guided by our core Christian values of personal accountability, compassion and respect for the rule of law.”

Neva Rae Fox, Episcopal Church public affairs officer, also issued a statement acknowledging the charges and saying “as this is a legal matter, we will not comment on the charges or the proceedings that will follow.”

“Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori maintains a pastoral and canonical relationship with Bishop Cook,” Fox said. “As a result, Cook will not be permitted to exercise her ordained ministry in the foreseeable future.”

Sutton had placed Cook on administrative leave shortly after the accident and The Episcopal Church’s disciplinary processes have been put in motion. Title IV of the Canons of The Episcopal Church governs ecclesiastical discipline of clergy members. Canon 17 of Title IV outlines the disciplinary process of bishops. Title IV requires confidentiality at this point in the process.

Cook became the diocese’s first female bishop when she was ordained and consecrated Sept. 6. Cook’s biography is here on the diocesan website.

The Dec. 27 fatal accident brought to light a 2010 traffic incident in which Cook was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and for marijuana possession. Cook pleaded guilty to drunken driving in that incident, and the prosecution of marijuana possession charge was dropped. A judge sentenced her on Oct. 25, 2010, to pay a $300 fine and supervised probation. Court records available online do not note the length or conditions of Cook’s probation.

A Dec. 30 statement on the diocesan website said that during the search process that resulted in Cook being elected suffragan in 2014 she had “fully disclosed” the 2010 arrest for which she received “probation before judgment” from the court. “After extensive discussion and discernment about the incident, and after further investigation, including extensive background check and psychological investigation, it was determined that this one mistake should not bar her for consideration as a leader,” the statement said.

The convention that elected Cook on May 2, 2014, however, was not told about the 2010 arrest, Sharon Tillman, the diocese’s director of communications, confirmed to ENS Jan. 9.

Previous ENS coverage of the accident is here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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