BALTIMORE – A former Episcopal bishop pleaded guilty Tuesday to manslaughter, drunken driving and leaving the scene at which she killed a cyclist.
Under an agreement with prosecutors, the state will ask a Baltimore Circuit Court judge next month to sentence Heather Cook to 10 years in prison.
Cook, then a newly installed bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, struck 41-year-old Tom Palermo on Dec. 27 in a bike lane near her North Baltimore home. The impact threw him on to the hood and into the windshield of her vehicle. Cook fled to her home before returning to the scene. When she was tested at a police station, her blood-alcohol content level was 0.22 percent; Maryland's limit is 0.08 percent.
Prosecutor Kurt Bjorklund said Tuesday that Cook left the scene of the accident for 30 minutes, during which time she went home and only returned to the scene "after prodding from a friend."
Palermo died of severe blunt force trauma to the head, and left behind a wife and two young children.
Cook, 58, entered her pleas the day before her trial was scheduled to start. She pleaded guilty to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, driving while intoxicated and texting while driving.
Cook resigned from her post as the diocese's second-highest ranking leader shortly after charges were filed, and the Episcopal Church revoked her clergy credentials.
The plea deal calls for the judge to sentence Cook on Oct. 27 to a maximum of 20 years in prison with 10 years suspended, as recommended by the state. That recommended sentence also includes five years of probation.
Cook had pleaded not guilty in April to 13 counts against her.
On Tuesday Cook appeared calm and composed in a tan button-down dress. Flanked by her attorneys, David Irwin and Jose Medina, she spoke quietly and said little beyond acknowledging the entry of her pleas.
She was free on $2.5 million bail and has been receiving treatment for alcoholism.
Cook's arrest raised questions within the church about how much of her background was known by those who elected her suffragan bishop in 2014, particularly as Palermo's death made more widely known a 2010 drunken-driving conviction on Maryland's Eastern Shore. And the head of the diocese, the Right Rev. Eugene Sutton, disclosed after Palermo's death that in the run up to her Sept. 6 consecration as bishop, he advised the head of the national church that Cook may have been inebriated at a celebratory dinner.
The church's top legislative body is reviewing its 30-year-old policies on alcohol and addiction. Leaders of the Episcopal General Convention, meeting this summer in Salt Lake City, put the topic on their agenda after Cook's case drew national attention.
The church, which has about 1.9 million members, is headquartered in New York City.
Cook was the first female bishop in her diocese. Her ties to the church span generations, including a father who was also a priest and had a history of alcohol abuse.