Maryland bishop facing manslaughter charge in custody

In a spectacular fall from grace, Maryland's second-highest ranking Episcopal leader and the first female bishop in her diocese was charged with drunken driving and manslaughter after fatally striking a cyclist in late December.

Heather Cook, 58, turned herself in to authorities Friday, according to her attorney, David Irwin. Online court records show Cook's bail was set at $2.5 million. It was unclear late Friday whether she had posted bail. A trial is scheduled for Feb. 6.

The charges came less than a week after the national Episcopal Church announced it had opened an investigation into Cook, whose ties to the church span generations.

On Dec. 27, Cook struck and killed Tom Palermo, 41, while he was riding his bicycle. According to prosecutors, Cook left the scene for 30 minutes before returning, and registered a blood-alcohol content of .22 percent after the wreck. Palermo died of a head injury at a nearby hospital later that day.

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."

But Cook's father, like her, had a history of alcohol abuse. In 1977, the Rev. Halsey Cook told the Old St. Paul's congregation in a sermon that he was an alcoholic suffering a relapse and seeking treatment, calling alcoholism "a rampant epidemic in our society" and a "fatal disease, not only of the body but of the mind and spirit," according to an article that year in The Baltimore Sun.

Heather Cook, too, has had repeated problems with alcohol. In 2010, Cook was charged with drunken driving on Maryland's Eastern Shore after registering a blood alcohol content of .27 percent. Police found wine, liquor and marijuana in her car. The drug charges were dropped after Cook pleaded guilty to the drunken driving offense, and she received probation.

Diocese of Maryland spokeswoman Sharon Tillman said those charges were disclosed to search committee members during a vetting process as the diocese searched for a new bishop. However, the information was not shared with those people — clergy and lay church members — who voted among four finalists. Following a complaint made last week, national church leaders decided to open an investigation to determine whether Cook violated church law in Palermo's death.

The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, bishop of the diocese, said in a statement Friday that the community is "heartbroken."

"We cry for the Palermo family, our sister Heather and all in the community who are hurting," Sutton said.

The church investigation is separate from the criminal probe, which took nearly two weeks to produce charges. Antonio Gioia, the chief of the conviction-integrity unit for the office of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, said Cook was not charged immediately to avoid the possibility of double jeopardy. If Cook had been given a traffic ticket, that might have prevented prosecutors from filing additional, more serious charges.

"It behooves us to take our time and get it right," Gioia said.

Prosecutors say Cook was texting on her cellphone when she veered and struck Palermo from behind in a residential neighborhood in northern Baltimore. The impact threw him onto the car's hood and windshield, and he landed on a curb. Mosby said Cook went to her nearby home before returning. After she was taken to a police station, Cook was given a breath test, according to charging documents.

In addition to felony vehicular manslaughter, Cook was charged with 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. If convicted of all charges, Cook could face more than 20 years in prison.

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