“She used to be the second highest ranking Episcopal Church member in the state diocese, but now Heather Cook is a prison inmate.
The former Episcopal was sentenced Tuesday to serve seven years of a 20-year prison sentence for the collision that caused the death of bicyclist Tom Palermo. A judge ordered the remaining 13 years be suspended.
It was a difficult day for Palermo’s family, who spoke at Cook’s sentencing hearing.
“This tragedy will not define Tom or our family, our resolve is strong as we hold Tom in our hearts,” Palermo’s sister-in-law Alisa Rock said.
They didn’t say much after court, but for two hours inside, Palermo’s family gave emotional and powerful statements, sobbing and asking the judge for a harsh punishment.
Cook was texting and drunk by nearly three-times the legal limit when her car slammed into Palermo from behind as he was biking down Roland Avenue December 27, 2014. The now-defrocked religious leader kept on driving, only to come back to the scene 30-minutes later.
Early last month, Cook pleaded guilty to auto manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, drunk driving, and texting while driving. But in the end, her fate was up to the judge.
Palermo’s mother took the stand and said Cook sentenced her to, “a lifetime of grief and heartache” that day, and she urged the judge to impose the 10-year sentence requested by the prosecution.
“While no amount of prison time would ever seem sufficient, we feel the court today could have sent a stronger signal that our community takes driving while under the influence and driving while distracted seriously,” Rock said. “It feels lukewarm.”
Cook, 59, also spoke for the first time Tuesday, apologizing to Palermo’s family for the pain and agony she’s caused.
“This was a tragedy in every sense of the word,” Baltimore State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby said. “I believe that there was some sort of measure of justice that was imposed today.”
Palermo was a husband and father of two. The 41-year-old’s death outraged the local cycling community and shook the church. Executive Director of Bikemore, Liz Cornish, says the group agrees this was the court’s chance to send a clear message.
“She will be serving jail time, which I think was really important for folks to understand there are consequences for these types of egregious actions,” Cornish said.
The incident has also highlighted that Baltimore can do more to make the streets safer for everyone using them. It can’t repair the damage done to the Palermo family, but some hope it could save another life.
“Moving forward, we need to be certain that we are designing roads that accommodate all users and that as people that are using the roads we care about other human beings that are there with us,” Cornish said.
Cook resigned from her position with the church in May.”