Former bishop who hit and killed cyclist while driving drunk pleads guilty to manslaughter

Victim’s sister-in-law calls for strong message to be sent to those who text behind the wheel or drink and drive

Maryland's first female Episcopalian bishop, Heather Cook, has pleaded guilty to manslaughter, drunken driving and leaving the scene in relation to a 2014 incident in which she hit and killed a cyclist. The Baltimore Sun reports that the state will ask a Baltimore Circuit Court judge next month to sentence Heather Cook to 10 years in prison.

Thomas Palermo was riding on Roland Avenue, Baltimore, when he was hit by a Subaru estate at about 2.45pm on December 27 2014. According to charging documents, a witness said that the driver, Cook, was texting at the time and that Tom Palermo was in a bike lane when he was hit.

Cook drove to her home within a gated apartment complex and waited half an hour before returning. She was then taken for a breathalyser test, recording 0.22 per cent – nearly triple the legal limit in Maryland. Prosecutor Kurt Bjorklund said that she only returned to the scene "after prodding from a friend."

According to police reports, Palermo was still alive when emergency services arrived, but died later in Sinai Hospital.

Cook resigned from her post with the Episcopal Church shortly after charges were filed and the church revoked her clergy credentials.

At sentencing next month, prosecutors will ask for a sentence of 20 years with all but 10 years suspended, followed by five years' probation. By suspending half the sentence, a judge could impose the remaining term if Cook violated her probation, the terms of which would include installing an ignition interlock device in her car and continuing to attend counselling for alcoholism.

In a statement, Palermo's sister-in-law, Alisa Rock, said: "It's time for us as a community to send a strong message that we will not tolerate drivers who text on their smartphones, or drive while intoxicated. The next victim could be your parents, your child, your friend — even you."

Cook previously pleaded guilty to a 2010 drunk driving charge. On that occasion, she recorded 0.27 on a breathalyser test, was unable to complete field sobriety tests, had vomit on her shirt and whiskey in the passenger seat. Marijuana was also found in the vehicle. She had been driving the same car involved in the Palermo accident and had been stopped while driving on the shoulder of the road with a shredded tyre.

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