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1st female Episcopal bishop of Maryland responsible in fatal hit-and-run

Dec. 29, 2014 - Flowers and messages at the scene of a fatal collision between a car and bicyclist along a Baltimore residential street. The Episcopal Church of Maryland says one of its bishops was driving the car Saturday when it struck cyclist Tom Palermo, fatally injuring him. Baltimore Police are investigating.

Dec. 29, 2014 - Flowers and messages at the scene of a fatal collision between a car and bicyclist along a Baltimore residential street. The Episcopal Church of Maryland says one of its bishops was driving the car Saturday when it struck cyclist Tom Palermo, fatally injuring him. Baltimore Police are investigating.  (AP)

An Episcopal bishop who was the driver in a hit-and-run crash that killed a bicyclist in Baltimore was charged four years ago with drunken driving and marijuana possession, court documents show.

Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, who is the No. 2 leader for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was driving a car that hit Tom Palermo, 41, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, diocese spokeswoman Sharon Tillman said.

Palermo died from head injuries, said Bruce Goldfarb, spokesman for the Maryland medical examiner's office.

Court records show that a sheriff's deputy stopped Cook on Sept. 10, 2010, in Caroline County on the 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 that a strong alcohol odor emanated from the vehicle 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 legal limit in Maryland is .08 percent.

The officer found 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, and the prosecution of marijuana possession charges was 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 and ultimately elected as the diocese's first female bishop.

In an email Sunday, Bishop Eugene Sutton told priests in the diocese that Cook left the scene of Saturday's accident, but returned about 20 minutes later "to take responsibility for her actions."

Flowers and messages at the scene Monday expressed sympathy for Palermo. The busy residential road included a designated bike lane.

Sutton said Cook was on administrative leave "because the nature of the accident could result in criminal charges."

"Together with the Diocese of Maryland, I express my deep sorrow over the death of the cyclist and offer my condolences to the victim's family," Sutton said.

Police confirmed in a statement Monday that the driver of the car left the scene and returned later, but they declined to release her identity or the cause of the crash, saying they were still investigating.

Cook's attorney, David Irwin, said Monday that his client was questioned by police but not arrested.

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.

"Several times I tried to take his pulse, but I couldn't find any response. . He was hit hard. Both wheels on his bike were knocked off and severely out of round," Lyon said.

As other passers-by called 911, Lyon said he went looking for the car based on other witness descriptions. He found it about 100 yards away at a stop 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 talking to a police officer.

Palermo's sister-in-law Alisa Rock said the family is devastated.

"Tom was a loving husband, a dedicated father," Rock said, adding that he was an avid cyclist who often took rides on weekends.