The Bishop, the Cyclist and a Death on the Road
BALTIMORE — Two days after Christmas, Thomas Palermo took advantage of a rare moment of free time to do what he loved most: ride his bike up a busy road popular with cyclists for its challenging hill and wide bike lanes, the afternoon sun warming his face. About the same time, the police say, an Episcopal bishop got into her car, her blood-alcohol level far above the legal limit, and drove toward him.
Not long after, Mr. Palermo, 41, lay dying in the street, killed, the police say, by the drunken, texting bishop with a history of driving while intoxicated who left the scene, returning only after nearly half an hour. On Friday, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City announced charges against Suffragan Bishop Heather Cook, one of the highest ranking officials in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, including criminal negligent manslaughter, driving while impaired and texting, and leaving the scene of an accident.
“This is an extremely tragic incident,” said Marilyn J. Mosby, the state’s attorney, in one of her first official acts since winning election last fall. Ms. Mosby said she had met with Mr. Palermo’s family and had “assured them that no one is above the law.”
Ms. Mosby said Bishop Cook, 58, elected last year to the No. 2 position in the diocese despite having pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in 2010, was found to have a 0.22 blood-alcohol level when brought to the police station after she returned to the crash site. The legal limit in Maryland is 0.08.
The handling of the case has become a flash point for several issues — including the fairness of the criminal justice system, which some critics said failed to move as quickly as it should have to charge Bishop Cook; the due diligence in vetting a high-ranking woman in the church; and bike safety.
On Friday, Mr. Palermo’s sister-in-law, Alisa Rock, placed a fresh bouquet of flowers at a makeshift memorial where the accident occurred. “We are grateful for the attention that has been given to this case,” said Ms. Rock, the sister of Mr. Palermo’s wife, Rachel Rock Palermo. “This should have been a safe place for him to be.”
According to investigators, on Dec. 27 Bishop Cook was driving behind Mr. Palermo and, distracted by texting, veered into the right lane and struck him. Mr. Palermo, the father of two children, Sadie, 6, and Sam, 4, died at a hospital shortly after.
Bishop Cook left the scene of the accident and went home and called a church official, who joined her back at the scene roughly 20 minutes later, law enforcement officials said. She was then taken to a police station, where she was given a breathalyzer test and released.
Bishop Cook was quickly placed on administrative leave by church officials, and barred from all ministry activities while the police and internal church investigations continued. On Friday, the Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, said in a statement that the church “reaffirms its respect for the course of action the legal system is taking” and that it would “always be guided by our core Christian values of personal accountability, compassion and respect for the rule of law.”
It is unusual for the state’s attorney to announce charges before an arrest. “We have not yet even received a formal statement of charges,” said David Irwin, Bishop Cook’s lawyer. “We are in the process of working out her processing.” Late Friday, Bishop Cook turned herself in.
The case has attracted attention and generated questions about fairness in a high-crime city with a reputation for aggressive law enforcement tactics. The police declined to arrest Bishop Cook immediately or to reveal more than the most basic details of the accident.
“If one of my clients, who are mostly African-American men, hit Palermo, charges would have been immediately filed against them,” wrote Todd H. Oppenheim, a lawyer in the Office of the Public Defender, on the news website baltimorebrew.com.
However, the police and prosecutors are often careful to take their time in cases of vehicular homicide, to prevent the accused from pleading out to lesser charges and avoiding harsher ones under the double jeopardy laws, according to law enforcement officials.
In 2010, Bishop Cook pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge in which she registered a 0.27 blood-alcohol level, received probation and was ordered to pay a $300 fine. Church officials said that while that charge was revealed during her election process, it was weighed against her broader qualifications and ultimately the notions of forgiveness and second chances prevailed.
In a sermon last year, Bishop Cook spoke about traffic safety and the consequences of unsafe driving. “My perception is that we live in the midst of a culture that doesn’t like to hold us accountable for consequences,” she said, “that somehow everybody gets a free pass all the time. Well, we do in terms of God’s love and forgiveness, but we don’t in many of the things that happen, and it’s up to us to be responsible.”
Mr. Palermo, a software engineer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, was well known in the Baltimore cycling community. He built custom bikes, advised friends and colleagues on cycling and advocated bike safety.
“In their house, there wasn’t football or baseball on the TV, it was the Tour de France,” Ms. Rock, his sister-in-law, said. “Tom was just a great guy who loved my sister and adored his kids. He was passionate about bike safety and bike access. This is a big loss for all of us.”
On New Year’s Day, hundreds of cyclists rode to the accident site to celebrate Mr. Palermo’s life. The street has one of the city’s oldest bike lanes, often filled with commuting and recreational cyclists and now featuring memorials. One is a bike wheel and seat attached to a post on the median, the seat scrawled with words including, “Bishop Cook is a killer.” Nearby is a pile of flowers and dozens of candles.
As in cities like New York and Washington, cyclists in Baltimore have pushed for greater safety measures for cyclists and tougher punishments for those who hit them. The death of Mr. Palermo has ignited a more intense movement for improvements to bike lanes and tougher laws for drivers here.
“This type of thing is your worst fear,” said Jed Weeks, president of the board of Bikemore, a Baltimore cycling advocacy group. “You are in a bike lane and you are struck and killed from behind by someone who doesn’t even remain at the scene. That worst fear realized has galvanized us.”