Deposed Episcopal Church Bishop Heather Cook, who infamously killed Baltimore cyclist Thomas Palermo while driving drunk in 2014, has been released from prison after serving 3 1/2 years of her seven year sentence. IRD covered Cook’s criminal negligent manslaughter charge (among others), sentencing, and deposition from ministry, which are all viewable here.
Cook, who served as Bishop Suffragan for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, functioned as the second highest official in the diocese. Her drunken driving history led to significant soul searching within the denomination and subsequent policy changes enacted by General Convention, including how candidates for episcopal positions are vetted.
Two news outlets went different directions in their coverage of Cook’s release. Writing for Religion News Service, veteran religion scribe Adele Banks authored a feature piece looking at Cook’s expressed desire to make amends and quotes numerous church officials on the topic of substance abuse. Banks writes that Cook, a self-described “poster child for alcoholism,” hopes to advocate for women who are in prison and those who struggle with addiction.
“I believe God doesn’t waste anything,” Cook told RNS, in a statement that is theologically correct but still uncomfortable to hear from her as the convicted offender. It is perhaps not the message I would want to read from her if my family member had been the one killed.
The Baltimore Sun, in contrast, published a hard news story: “Ex-bishop Heather Cook released from prison after serving half of sentence for fatal drunken driving crash”. Unlike the RNS feature, the Sun piece quotes a brief statement from the family of Palermo and their belief that justice has not been served. After his death while riding in a marked bicycle lane that the intoxicated Cook swerved into while texting, Palermo left behind a wife and two young children.
The Sun notes that witnesses said Cook left the scene of the crash and did not return until half an hour later. A Breathalyzer test at the time registered her blood alcohol level at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving.
“The case roiled Baltimore’s close-knit cycling community and sent shock waves through an Episcopal Church already suffering declines in membership nationwide,” Jonathan Pitts reports.
The Associated Press also ran a short news report on Cook’s release, and the Baltimore CBS affiliate WJZ ran a segment which I have included below.