A day before she was to face trial, a former bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges including vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated in the death of a bicyclist in Baltimore last year.
Heather Cook had recently been installed as the first female bishop of the diocese when she veered into a bike lane in the North Baltimore area and fatally struck Thomas Palermo, 41, on Dec. 27.
On Tuesday, Cook admitted to fleeing the scene of the accident. Authorities said that when she returned 30 minutes after the collision, her blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit. David B. Irwin, Cook’s attorney, has said that a bicyclist reportedly tailed Cook’s badly damaged car before she returned to the scene.
In April, Cook pleaded not guilty to 13 counts against her.
“We didn’t want to put the victim’s family through a trial and we wanted closure for them and for us,” Irwin said in a telephone interview of his client’s decision to accept the plea agreement. “We thought it was the best way to proceed.”
Irwin said the state’s attorney’s office is recommending 10 years in jail and five years of probation at Cook’s sentencing next month.
Cook was defrocked in May, four months after her arrest, a diocese spokesman said. The diocese includes 21,500 households in western, central and southern sections of the state.
Cook had also been charged with drunken driving in 2010. Then in the Diocese of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she was found driving on three tires, with vomit on her shirt and too intoxicated to complete a sobriety test, according to a police report.
Dan Webster, a spokesman for the Diocese of Maryland, said Cook’s arrest in December prompted changes this summer in the church, including a review of a policy that allows alcohol at events and adjustments to the selection process of potential clergy members.
Webster said that alcohol will be allowed at church events but that it will not be advertised and non-alcoholic beverages must be available. And during the selection of clergy members, there will be a conversation with candidates about their history of drinking alcohol.
“It certainly raised the consciousness of the Episcopal Church,” Webster said.
Cook was treated for addiction after the collision that left Palermo, a father of two, dead.
Webster said that church members “prayed for the Palermo family and Heather Cook” during a midday ceremony.
Cook’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 27.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.