A spiritual leader’s fall from grace
Prosecutors have outlined criminal charges against Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook in the hit-and-run death of cyclist Tom Palermo, but troubling questions remain
ecember 27 – the terrible day when, texting and severely intoxicated, the Episcopal bishop plowed into a bicyclist pedaling along a Baltimore bike lane and killed him.
Online and in conversations with The Brew, they wrestle with how Cook’s actions that day – in particular, fleeing from the scene of the crash – square with the warm, empathetic, down-to-earth person they knew her to be.
“She’s good people,” said Rev. John Morris, in an online forum, recalling Cook from her days as the rector in charge of a suburban parish in York, Pa.
She was funny and smart, said a woman who knew Cook during her tenure at a Bedford, N.Y., parish in the early 1990s. Looking at her arrest photo posted on the Internet, this person said she wasn’t able to reconcile that image with the Heather Cook she knew.
But these friends, colleagues and members of her family are reluctant to speak out publicly. Morris declined to respond to a reporter’s phone messages. So did a former classmate at St. Paul’s School in Baltimore County, where Cook and her five siblings went to school.
Several said they’re convinced that the public is so furious that no one will listen to anything positive or nuanced about Cook, even if it comes with strong condemnation of her actions.
“I’m not sure I could handle the onslaught of anger,” said one longtime friend.
“Involved in a Traffic Accident”
The source of the anger is not hard to fathom, given the crushing irony of a religious leader of Cook’s stature – a bishop and presumed moral exemplar – acting in such a reckless and seemingly callous manner.
Initial police reports said a 58-year-old woman driving a station wagon had struck 41-year-old bicyclist Thomas Palermo, and left the scene, returning later.
Palermo, a software engineer, bike frame builder, husband and father of two, had survived initially, police were careful to say at the outset. He was pronounced dead at Sinai Hospital.
The next day, in an email to clergy, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland confirmed that the driver was their own Heather Cook, who was consecrated Bishop Suffragan, the No. 2 position in the diocese, last September.
Cook had been “involved in a traffic accident” and initially left the scene, wrote Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, noting that she “returned after about 20 minutes to take responsibility for her actions.”
It was not Cook’s first drunk driving arrest.
In 2010 on the Eastern Shore, while Canon Ordinary for the church’s Easton Diocese, she’d been arrested on multiple drunk driving and drug possession charges.
There had been a fifth of Jameson Whiskey and a bottle of wine in the car, two baggies of marijuana and a silver metal smoking device as well.
There was vomit on her clothes, and one car tire was shredded to the rim.
On the breathalyzer, Cook registered a .27, more than three times the legal limit, indicating she was severely intoxicated. The sheriff who arrested her stopped the field sobriety test because he was afraid she might injure herself.
For the drunk driving charges, she received probation before judgment, paid a fine of $300 and completed a six-month treatment program. The drug charge was eventually dropped.
Severe Intoxication, Again
In the crash four years later on December 27, Cook was again driving while drunk, this time registering .22 on the breathalyzer.
Prosecutors spelled out the details when Heather Elizabeth Cook was jailed on charges of manslaughter, DUI and leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
Cook said she had been texting when her green Subaru Forester (the same car that was involved in her 2010 arrest) struck Palermo at about 2:30 p.m.
She never put on the brakes before the crash in the 5700 block of Roland Avenue, according to prosecutors. The force of the blow knocked Palermo onto her car’s hood and then against the windshield before he tumbled off the vehicle onto the street, severely injured but alive.
The bishop kept driving, eventually returning to her apartment less than a mile from where the crash occurred. She came back to the crash scene after an interval of at least 30 minutes, according to prosecutors, and surrendered to police only after several people had advised her to do so.
Where Cook Was Headed
Some elements of the story, filled in by other sources, help to answer the questions that have nagged Cook’s friends and the public at large since then. They begin to flesh out not simply the timeline that day, but the life path that led Cook to such a fall from grace.
One unanswered question so far has been just where Cook was going on that sunny Saturday two days after Christmas after consuming the equivalent of nine or ten alcoholic drinks.
Those listening closely at the end of a recent public gathering of local Episcopal clergy and laity heard an answer: She was not headed off on church business that day, according to her superior, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton.
“She was going,” Bishop Sutton said, “home to the Eastern Shore.”
Records show Cook still owns the home she bought across the Chesapeake Bay after her appointment as Canon to the Ordinary at the Diocese of Easton.
The house is about 100 miles from Cook’s gated apartment community in North Baltimore, so it appears she was embarking on a nearly two-hour drive while extremely intoxicated.
The Eastern Shore is also the home of defrocked Episcopal priest Mark H. Hansen, whom Cook has described in an autobiographical statement as her “steady companion.”
Despite his 2005 ejection as the pastor of an Episcopal church in Connecticut stemming from his opposition to a gay priest being appointed bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, Hansen now has a position as a lay pastor at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Massey, Md.
On January 15, Hansen posted 10% of the $2.5 million bail for Cook, allowing her to leave the Baltimore Detention Center.
The bishop’s lawyers released a statement saying she immediately returned to Father Martin’s Ashley, a residential treatment center in Havre de Grace, where she had checked into a day or two after the crash.
The lawyers earlier told a judge that Cook “does admit to an alcohol problem.”
No Indication she was an Alcoholic, Bishop Says
And that was one of the main questions that’s been posed to Bishop Sutton – was he or members of search committee who placed Cook forward as one of four candidates for Maryland’s Bishop Suffragan aware that she was an alcoholic?
In a meeting with parishioners at the Holy Comforter Church in Lutherville on January 14, Sutton answered the question this way:
“In the [search] process, that was never said to us, although questions were asked. I can say without a doubt that there were dozens and dozens who looked into this, regular clergy people from all across this diocese. They made the best decision they could based on the information that they all had.”
Sutton acknowledged that he had been aware of her DUI and drug arrest in 2010. He said he relied on the Easton Diocese – and its bishop, The Rt. Rev. James J. “Bud” Shand – to have taken appropriate action at the time.
“The handling of that DUI in that diocese was handled by that diocese,” Sutton said at Holy Comforter Church. “My process in that was to say, ‘Has everything been checked, checked, checked? Yes. OK.’ My own checking out with those of dioceses, I was assured there was no problem.”
“There was no indication,” he added to another questioner, “that she was alcoholic. That this was a one-time event.”
Wine at the Christmas Party
In the days before the fatal crash, Cook attended Bishop Sutton’s Christmas Party at Clover Hill, the historic house behind diocesan headquarters at 3 East University Parkway in Baltimore.
Wine was served at the December 21 gathering, but no one who agreed to talk to The Brewcould say whether Cook was drinking. One person, however, said that she was struck by the fact that Cook did not circulate among the guests, as one might expect of a newly appointed bishop, but instead stayed glued to her chair.
On December 22, Cook was an officiant at the celebration of the new rector of St. Alban’s Church in Glen Burnie. The rector, Rev. Paula Datsko Barker, told The Brew that “Heather Cook looked well and performed her functions as a bishop in an exemplary way.”
The following day, Christmas eve, she offered communion at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore. Bishop Sutton said she was off-duty on Saturday, December 27, when she started on her never-completed trip to the Eastern Shore.
“I Found +Bud”
Cook loved the decade (2005-14) that she worked in Easton, she said. It served as a haven after a rough patch in her career that she likened to the tribulations of the biblical Israelites – “a wilderness wandering before God leads us home.”
She explained to the Easton diocese newsletter that “I was in a tough place [in 2005], having been told that my position as Canon for Mission in the Diocese of Central New York was being cut from the budget. I wondered what on earth God was up to, but within six months, there was a happy resolution, for I was led here.”
“During my wilderness,” she continued, “some strong things were forged in me: the difficult transition from parish to diocesan ministry – an entirely different way of thinking – had been traversed, and I was ready to step into something new.
And then came the turning point: “I found +Bud.”
She praised “Bud” Shand, Easton’s Bishop, whom she characterized as a soul mate, noting that among the many things they had in common were “summer homes in Canada a mere hour apart.”
Her job interview with Shand went way over the allotted time. “[W]e wondered how it was possible we hadn’t met before. His assistant rector was the sister of my parishioner who had been sponsored for ordination from my parish in York, Pa.; my clergy assistant was his classmate in seminary.”
He told her that what “he appreciated in me was the perspective I brought, having served in a number of dioceses,” while she was immediately attracted to his warmth and a “native intelligence that is sometimes less obvious because he doesn’t flaunt it.”
“A man of the people,” she concluded.
Shand retired last summer, shortly before Cook was elected Bishop Suffragan in Maryland. Contacted at his home in Queenstown, he declined to speak with The Brew about his handling of Cook’s DUI or the appointment of Hansen as lay pastor. “I am not making any comments right now,” he said.
Hansen, approached last Sunday at St. Clement’s where he was leading a Bible study for about six people, also declined to talk to The Brew.
Bishop Henry Nutt Parsley, elected to succeed Shand, had been scheduled to make a Sunday visit to the congregation, but was nowhere to be seen. Hansen, dressed in a starched white shirt, tie and vest, told the reporter to leave the premises.
Asked if he wished to talk about the Cook case or offer condolences to the Palermo family, he said crisply, “No comment,” and resumed the Bible study class.
A Secluded House
The diocesan headquarters building in Easton where Cook had worked for nearly a decade is a tastefully landscaped brick structure behind the diocese’s historic Trinity Church.
The house where Cook lived is a world apart. Tucked 25 miles southeast of wealthy and quaint Easton, it is sited on a remote road behind a split log fence.
It’s a one-story prefabricated building with an unkempt look. Part of the front gutter hangs from the roof. The downspout lies on the ground. The front vinyl siding is streaked with mold. (See photo at top of this story.)
Aubrey Speake lives next door. She told The Brew that she knows very little about her neighbor of nearly a decade.
She described her as “a good person who kept to herself.” Their dogs sometimes played together and that was among the few times she ever talked to Cook.
“She’d do anything for you,” Speake continued, adding that Cook is not living in the house now because “she’s in rehab.”
Source of Bail
Hansen’s rented home in Millington, Md., is also modest. Following the disclosure that he bailed Cook out of jail, writing a bail bondsman a $35,000 check and signing a $215,000 promissory note, speculation about his financial wherewithal has run rampant online.
Unsubstantiated rumors have circulated that he obtained the funds (and even that he wrote the check directly) from the St. Paul’s Cathedral Trust in America, of which he is executive director.
Sources with knowledge of the matter told The Brew that the bail money came from another source: Cook’s own family.
Her brother, William Pierson Cook IV, a Harford County orthopedic surgeon, was intimately involved in negotiations with the bail bondsman who arranged for her release, according to sources who spoke with The Brew on the condition of not being identified. Several phone messages left for Cook were not returned.
Considering the strong bond among members of this large family with deep roots in Baltimore and the Episcopal Church, it’s not surprising that one would rally to her aid.
Powerful Family Stories
The eight of them – Heather and her five siblings, with their mother, Marcia Mary Cook, and father, the Rev. Halsey Moon Cook – posed for a 1964 black-and-white Baltimore Sun photo viewable online but now, for potential buyers, “out of stock.”
They’re assembled in the living room of the rectory of the church where Rev. Cook presided, Old St. Paul’s Church, a 160-year-old Episcopal institution where generations of prominent Baltimoreans worshiped, including Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
Thirteen years later, in a Sunday sermon, Cook told his congregation “I am an alcoholic,” discussing his addiction at length in the newspaper. In 1981, as he stepped down from the position and retired from the ministry, he said was proud of his accomplishments but wearied by the stresses of the job, changes in the church and the “personal cost which has left me temporarily fatigued.” He died in 1989.
Heather Cook has spoken fondly of the summer ritual of gathering at their family place in Lansdown, Ontario in the Canadian Thousand Islands, of golden retrievers and their father reading aloud from “Chronicles of Narnia.”
In 1978, she completed undergraduate studies at King’s University in Ontario. In 1987, she completed a master’s program in divinity at General Theological Seminary in New York.
Ordained in the Maryland diocese, she moved to a job in Staunton, Va., as chaplain of Stuart Hall, an Episcopal girls’ boarding school. Then came postings at various church postings: St. Matthew’s in Bedford, N.Y.; St. Andrew’s in York, Pa.; the Diocese of Central New York in Syracuse and then the Diocese of Easton.
Before seminary, she describes in an autobiographical statement a wide-range of youthful interests and travels, working as “an au pair in Spain, on a kibbutz in Israel and as a grape-picker in France.”
In 2005, the Cook siblings gathered in Chicago for a performance by the band U2. They chose the concert for a get-togehether because it was Heather’s birthday and “she loves U2,” wrote Cynthia Cook Barlow, a Toronto-based speaker and consultant on personal development and communication.
Barlow describes, in a blog on her company website, how the siblings bopped to the music, bonding around the experience, with Heather “wagging her head, eyes half-closed.”
Their familial bond was so obvious, Barlow continued, that a stranger asked them, “How do I get in your family?”
Last September, the siblings and mother Marcia Cook, a member of the Theater Arts faculty at Sewanee, the University of the South, assembled for the elaborate ceremony in which their then 57-year old sister and daughter was made Bishop Suffragan.
Barlow described the experience in her blog:
“As her family came forward and ‘dressed’ her, placing her new garments on her that identify an elevated status – a ring with her ‘standard,’ a large heavy silver cross she had designed and which her family gave her, along with a chasuble, stole and hat – I couldn’t help but remember her as a four-year old girl with long golden hair, sitting on a rock at our summer cottage, dangling her toes in the water,” she wrote.