Ex-Episcopal Priest Heather Cook Denied Early Parole for 'Lack of Remorse'

(Photos: Episcopal Diocese of Maryland; Michael Tappe)Bishop Heather Cook (l) and the late Thomas Palermo (r).

Heather Cook, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland who was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2015 for the death of a 41-year-old father in a drunken hit-and-run incident, was denied a request for early parole Tuesday by the Maryland Parole Commission.

Commission Chairman David Blumberg told the Baltimore Sun that Cook was denied parole in part because the two commissioners who ruled on the case felt she "took no responsibility" for her actions and displayed a "lack of remorse" during the 90-minute parole hearing at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

Cook made history in 2014 when she became the first female bishop and second-highest ranking official of the Episcopal Dioecese of Maryland. She was stripped of that position less than a year after she was promoted due to the drunk-driving incident which resulted in the death of Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old married father of two, on Dec. 27, 2014.

Cook reportedly fled the scene twice and was later found to have been drunk and texting as her struggle with alcoholism made national and international headlines.

During her sentencing in October 2015, Judge Timothy J. Doory reminded her of how she walked away from Palermo as he lay dying at the scene of her crime.

"Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision," he told Cook, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Prosecutor Kurt Bjorklund noted that when Cook returned to the scene of the accident a second time she left to take her golden retriever home before turning herself in.

"She made sure her dog was OK, but didn't care about another human," Bjorklund said.

A breathalyzer test would later show Cook had a blood alcohol level of 0.22, nearly three times the legal limit.

(Photo: Facebook)Thomas Palermo, 41, with his children

During the parole hearing, Blumberg said Cook called her alcoholism a disease and the parole process a "brutal irony." She never, however, apologized to Palermo's widow, Rachel,
Blumberg said. 

In Maryland, says the Sun, vehicular manslaughter isn't recognized as a violent offense so persons convicted of this crime become eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence.

Cook will meet the requirement in July. Blumberg explained, however, that many people feel sentences given in cases involving vehicular manslaughter "are very short to start with."

"We got many calls to our office [from people] upset that a parole hearing was already being set," Blumberg told the Sun.

The members of the parole commission considered criteria such as the degree to which Cook showed "appropriate remorse," the level of responsibility she took for her actions and the circumstances surrounding the accident.

The commission noted that Cook drove away from the scene even when "the cyclist's helmet was actually stuck in her windshield," Blumberg said, and "when she went home she did not call 911 or any emergency personnel. She made two calls: one to her boyfriend and one to her co-worker."

The parole board also pointed out Cook's history of drunk driving, noting that in 2010 she pleaded guilty to the offense and was ordered to use a steering-wheel interlock device. As soon as the condition was lifted, however, Cook "went back to drinking," Blumberg said.

Cook's current release date is March 23, 2020. With good behavior, however, she could be released as early as 2019.

Thomas Palermo's widow, Rachel, 42, told reporters that Tuesday was "really about Tom" and "also about those who continue to love him and feel his loss."

"I ask this: if you still talk on your phone or text while driving, please put your phone down," she pleaded. "If you plan to go out and drink, please set up a ride before you go. I want you to think of a 6- and an 8-year-old who wish their dad was still here. I want you to think of me and my pain. I want you to think of Tom's parents and their loss. And I want you to think of your own loved ones."

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