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by Peter Flax
May 5, 2017
Photography by Moncure Lyon, Rachel Rock Palermo, Maile Neel
There will be too much senseless heartbreak in this story, so let’s open with the joy the cyclist surely felt in the last hour of his life. It was two days after Christmas in 2014. The cyclist had spent the early part of the day with his family — his wife, Rachel, and his children, Sadie and Sam, 6 and 4 at the time — and his wife urged him to go for a ride.
The weather conditions were beyond unseasonably warm. That afternoon the mercury would rise to 57 degrees, at least 15 degrees above normal, and the sky was calm and cloudless. Riders in the Baltimore area left their winter jackets and insulated gloves and neoprene booties at home, and took to the streets.
That cyclist was Tom Palermo. He was 41, and boy did he love bikes. He rode a lot, both on the road and the trails. He volunteered as an advocate and loved to watch the pros race — his wife had helped plan a trip to Flanders, where he watched the classics and rode the cobbles in 2003. He had a full-time job, working as a software engineer at Johns Hopkins University, but he started building bike frames as a side gig in 2002. It was a business and a hobby and a labor of love.
Take a moment and imagine Palermo turning right to tackle a roller up Roland Avenue, his ride nearly over. The sun was warm and his steel road bike, which he built himself, was the same brilliant blue color as the sky. Picture him out of the saddle with a smile on his face, freed from the grip of winter, ready to soak in the view of the Baltimore skyline that’s visible from the crest of Roland Avenue.
He never saw it.
What happened next is simple to explain and impossible to understand. He was hit from behind by a car. The driver, who turned out to be a high-ranking bishop in the Episcopal church, was drunk and texting. She smashed into Palermo and left the scene — twice. Her name is Heather Cook and on that brilliant Saturday, she killed Tom Palermo.
The incident caused outrage – in the cycling community, of course, but also with the general public, which often just shrugs when riders get killed. Like a horrific crash in Kalamazoo, Michigan, last June, in which a drugged-out driver killed five cyclists on a group ride, the tragic death of Tom Palermo touched a nerve. Even people who hate cyclists wanted justice to be served.
Now, 29 months after Cook killed Palermo, the very nature of justice is again the subject of agony and debate. On May 9, Cook will be summoned to a room at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, a facility in Jessup that houses 800 prisoners, for her first parole hearing. Cook, now 60, has served roughly 18 and a half months of the seven-year sentence a judge handed down in October 2014. She is eligible for early parole because the State of Maryland does not classify vehicular homicide as a violent crime.
How could such a thing happen? That, it turns out, is not an easy question to answer.
Moncure Lyon was nearly done with his ride. It was a stunning afternoon — he remembers wearing fingerless gloves — and he had 20 miles in the bag. It was about 2:30 pm. The climb up to Lake Avenue gently rises for about a mile, but the grade kicks up in earnest when you turn southbound on Roland. The tree-lined street has a nice bike lane and a wide parking zone that’s often empty and offers a straightforward connection between the city and leafy neighborhoods up north. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular with area riders: More than 1,000 Strava users have recorded ascents on this little climb.
The first thing Lyon noticed as he neared the top were a few teenagers (seniors at nearby Boys’ Latin School who had been on their way to play some soccer), standing on the side of the road with cell phones. Then he saw the bike. And then he saw the rider on the ground. It was Palermo. He was lying with his body on the street and his head on the curb, as if it was a pillow. Lyon had the feeling that whatever had happened had taken place 5 or 10 minutes earlier. If a car had hit the cyclist it wasn’t present.
Lyon dismounted and clattered to the cyclist’s side. “I was talking to him, but he didn’t seem conscious,” says Lyon. “I did a check for his pulse, his breathing — nothing.” Lyon recognized the cyclist — someone he had seen pedaling through the area before.
With first responders on the way, Lyon spun around to examine the scene. One wheel had been knocked clean off the bike and a water bottle sat far down the road. An ambulance came maybe five minutes later but Lyon says it felt like an eternity. Paramedics started CPR and the police arrived a few minutes later, taping off the area like the crime scene that it was.
Lyon recalls being in a peculiar daze — at once jacked up and in shock. There really wasn’t anything more he could do, so he decided he would ride home. He walked his bike across the street and the grassy median — and suddenly someone said that they thought the car that had struck the rider just drove by. “I didn’t really stop to think,” says Lyon. “I just jumped on my bike and rode down the hill after the car.”
There’s a light at the bottom of Roland; a Subaru was sitting there. “The whole front windshield was imploded with a big hole in it,” Lyon says. “I asked the driver, ‘Are you okay?’ And she replied, ‘Yes, I’m okay.’”
Heather Cook’s windshield. Image: WJZ-TV/CBS Baltimore.
Lyon thought the woman would make a U-turn back to the crash scene, but when the light turned green she continued northbound on Roland. So he took off after her and saw her enter a gated community a half-mile or so up the road. The guard at the gatehouse didn’t seem interested in his breathless story about a hit and run and tried to stop him, but Lyon rode into the complex anyway and started looking for the bashed-up Subaru. After a fruitless circuit around the complex, the guard caught up to him and told him the car he’d been after had just driven away.
Lyon rode back to the crash site. The driver of the Subaru had just started talking to police. He guesses that 40 or 45 minutes had elapsed from the time of the crash. He walked up to the woman and looked her in the eye. “I thanked her for returning to the scene,” he says. “And then I left.”
Paramedics sped Palermo to Sinai Hospital but the blunt force trauma to his head was too great. He was pronounced dead that afternoon.
Lyon, 68, has been quiet and dignified throughout our interview, but after recounting that awful day, a little venom slips out. “What is the deal with people leaving the scene after something like that?” he asks, his voice rising. “What the fuck? For God’s sake, stop and render aid.”
Everyone makes mistakes. Some people make disastrous mistakes. And a few of us, like Heather Cook, make catastrophic mistakes more than once.
A case file released by the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office documents an incident that occurred on September 10, 2010, four years before Tom Palermo would be killed. It was a little before 2 AM on a Friday morning when an officer named Justin Reibly initiated a traffic stop on an empty road on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He pulled over a green 2001 Subaru wagon after he saw it rumbling down the shoulder of the roadway more than 20 miles per hour below the speed limit, with something dragging under the car.
As the officer approached the car, he smelled alcohol and burnt rubber. “I noted that the driver, who was alone, had vomit down the front of her shirt,” Reibly noted in his case report. He walked around the car and saw that the tire was “completely shredded” and concluded that the driver “had been riding on the rim for some time.”
Heather Cook. Image: WJZ-TV/CBS Baltimore.
The driver was Heather Cook.
Reibly asked Cook if she had been drinking and she indicated that she had stopped in Pennsylvania and had a few drinks. Preston is 90 miles from the nearest state border with the Keystone State. The officer conducted a search of the Subaru and found a bottle of wine, a fifth of Jameson whiskey, a silver metal pipe and two bags of what appeared to be marijuana. Later, after she was read her Miranda rights, Cook would admit to drinking the whiskey and smoking marijuana during a long drive from Canada.
The officer then administered a series of standardized sobriety tests. Cook fell to the ground during a walk-and-turn test and again during a one-leg stand test, so Reibly halted the procedure out of concerns that she would injure herself.
He administered a preliminary breath test and Cook’s blood alcohol content was determined to be 0.26. Later, at the station, where more sophisticated equipment is present, she would blow a 0.27. Maryland law sets 0.08 as the threshold for DUI. The case file does not indicate or speculate how much Cook had consumed before this traffic stop, but using the body weight that is noted on her arrest documents, it is not hard to estimate a ballpark figure using online tools designed to help people calculate their BAC before they get behind the wheel. (The precise figures will vary from individual to individual.) According to multiple tools I used, a 250-pound woman would have to consume 15 shots of 80-proof whiskey or two and a half bottles of wine to reach a BAC of 0.27.
Exactly one month later, Cook and her attorney stood before a District Court judge in Kent County and plead for leniency. According to court documents, her attorney indicated that she already had enrolled in voluntary counseling and installed an ignition interlock system in her car. The judge gave Cook a warning and one year of suspended probation. At the hearing, she told the judge that the incident represented a “major wake-up call in my life.”
Maile Neel wanted a new bike. She was really getting into randonneuring and she wanted something “less industrial” than the custom Seven she already had. Neel lives in Maryland, but she booked a ticket to Portland, Oregon, so she could attend the 2008 North American Handmade Bicycle Show to figure out who would build her new bike.
Neel already had set up appointments with a few well-known builders — Peter Weigle and Darrell McCullah, for instance — but a friend at a local bike shop told her about a guy in Baltimore, Tom Palermo. So she swung by his booth at the show.
While many builders had relatively elaborate booths, Tom’s was stark — with a plain banner and two bikes on display, one complete road bike and a naked frame. But Neel was impressed. “That naked frame really showed the quality of his work,” she recalls. “And he was extremely thoughtful. I have a no-asshole rule in life, and he definitely passed that test.” Neel gave Palermo a deposit before she left Portland.
Back home, she drove over to Palermo’s house so they could talk about the bike. She remembers meeting Tom’s wife, Rachel, who was pregnant at the time. Neel and Palermo went for a short ride; he wanted to see how she sat on her Seven. Neel described the bike she was dreaming of. “I told Tom that I wanted a bike that had touring geometry — not super aggressive, with spoke hangars and lots of braze-ons — but wasn’t a heavy touring bike,” she says. “And then he built me exactly what I wanted.”
Maile Neel and Tom Palermo at the 2010 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond, Virginia. Photo courtesy Maile Neel.
Neel made another trip to Baltimore later that year to pick up the bike. Rachel was there, and so was a baby. “He seemed like an absolutely loving husband,” says Neel. “He was so obviously interested and supportive of what she was doing in life. Their relationship seemed so magical.”
Soon after Neel got to the house, Rachel had to run out, so the builder talked his customer through her new bike as he held and cared for the baby. Neel chokes up as she recalls the memory. “It was such a sweet scene,” she says.
Neel fell in love with her Palermo bike. She took that bike, the frame lustrous maroon with unpainted lugs, and rode Paris-Brest-Paris. She flew the bike to Australia and completed a 1,200-kilometer brevet. Neel spent hundreds of hours sitting on the bicycle that Palermo made for her.
Neel remembers being gobsmacked when she read online that Tom had been killed. “It was beyond awful,” she says. “I remember that afternoon, too — it was a beautiful winter day. It should be a joyous thing, not the last time you see your wife and kids.”
And then, out of the blue, Neel got an email from Tom’s wife a few weeks later. “She obviously was going through his email and sending notes to his clients,” says Neel, now weeping on the phone. “She said that she and kids missed Tom terribly. But she wanted me to know how much Tom loved working on my frame.”
On November 9, 2014, Bishop Heather Cook gave a 14-minute sermon entitled “Be Prepared” at the All Saints Church in Fredericksburg, Maryland. She stood at a lectern inside the 155-year-old gothic revival structure and offered the congregation a somber talk about personal responsibility.
“Things happen suddenly, and we are either prepared in the moment or we’re not, and we face the consequences,” Cook said. “We can’t go back. We can’t do it over. In real life there are no instant replays.”
At this moment, six weeks before Tom Palermo would be hit and killed, Cook was widely seen as a rising star in the Episcopal Church. She had been ordained into the priesthood in 1988 and spent the intervening decades serving congregations and ascending the church hierarchy. Just two months before this sermon was delivered, Cook had been ordained as a bishop, the first woman to be elected to that role in the history of the Maryland diocese. She had been up against three other candidates and was elected to the second highest church position in the state after a fourth round of voting on May 2. Though a few senior officials in the Episcopal Church had been aware of her past history with alcohol and drugs, the majority of church members who voted had no idea of her past struggles.
In any case, it is chilling to look back on that sermon, delivered 41 days before the bishop would hit and kill Tom Palermo. She actually deployed a driving analogy. “If we routinely drive 55 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, we won’t be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us,” said Cook, draped in the vestments reserved for bishops. “And my perception is that we live in the midst of a culture that doesn’t like to hold us responsible for consequences.”
On January 26, 2015, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland sent Cook and her attorney a formal letter, asking for the bishop to submit her resignation. “We continue to hold you in our prayers,” the letter concluded.
They met when they were 14. Palermo and Chris McKenna were in the same freshman homeroom at St. John’s Prep. Back then neither one of them rode, at least not like they would as adults. Palermo had grown up in the Philly suburb of Riverton, New Jersey — but he went into the city for high school. Palermo and McKenna became friends during those adolescent years, but lost touch after that.
Facebook brought them back together, years later, after someone in their graduating class started a group. The quickly discovered they had both forged similar careers and become passionate cyclists.
Thanks to social media, a friendship was rekindled. McKenna says Palermo loved to post wry stories about his day job, and the two bantered about cycling. They exchanged jokes and admiration about a meme featuring Sean Kelly’s legs on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège podium. Palermo forwarded a link to a video from the 2003 Tour of Flanders in which he fleetingly could be seen cheering the madness on the Oude Kwaremont. McKenna says Rachel, who planned that trip to Flanders, was a “super cool chick.” One time she posted a story to Tom’s timeline — about how the Belgian city of Bruges had approved a plan to build a beer pipeline — and the couple exchanged playful comments about visiting the region again. “She was beyond supportive of Tom’s love of cycling,” says McKenna. “She was involved in it.”
Tom Palermo, with this children Sadie and Sam. Photo: Rachel Rock Palermo.
After years of digital repartee, McKenna and Palermo finally got to share a ride in the spring of 2014. They did the Hell of Hunterdon, a hilly, gravel-heavy ride in central Jersey. McKenna couldn’t believe how beautiful Tom’s bike was, that he had built that “drool-worthy” frame himself. “I remember riding next to him, I remember seeing him on his bike with a big smile,” says McKenna. “And we talked about doing another ride together.”
That never happened. A friend of McKenna’s posted the news of what had happened to Tom on Facebook. He couldn’t stop thinking the loss suffered by Palermo’s family, especially the kids, but even for a casual friend, the grief of Tom’s death hit him hard. “It was totally awful,” says McKenna, searching for words for a long moment before giving up.
McKenna took the time to write a letter to the judge before Cook was sentenced. “I’m not a big law-and-order guy, but I wrote the judge and told him to give her the maximum,” McKenna says. “She’s a recidivist drunken driver. The longer that she’s in jail, the longer the roads will be safer.”
A Baltimore grand jury indicted Heather Cook on 13 counts in February 2015. Police officials reported that her BAC had been 0.22, roughly three times the legal limit in Maryland. There also were charges that she had been text messaging during the incident, that she had left the scene of a fatal crash, and that vehicular manslaughter had been committed. Multiple news reports published at that time indicated that Cook could face at least 39 years if convicted of all of those charges.
In April, Cook plead not guilty to the charges. After some unremarkable legal maneuvering, a trial date was set for September 9, 2015. The day before the trial was set to begin, prosecutors and Cook’s attorney announced that a plea deal had been reached. As part of that agreement, Cook plead guilty to four charges — vehicular manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, driving while intoxicated, and texting while driving — while prosecutors promised to ask the judge for a 20-year sentence, with 10 of them suspended. There were reports that state prosecutors were hoping to shield the Palermo family from the emotional hardships of a drawn-out trial.
News reports also indicated that a civil case involving the family, Cook, and the church had been settled; the details of that settlement are not known. The Palermo family declined to comment on any of the legal proceedings.
At a sentencing hearing held a month later, Judge Timothy J. Doory sentenced Cook to seven years in prison. The Palermo family and Cook were given an opportunity to speak. Patricia Palermo, Tom’s mother, told the court how she had repeatedly asked God why he let her only son die until she had a revelation. “God didn’t do this,” she said. “Heather Cook killed Tom.”
Cook, who broke down crying when Palermo’s mother spoke, then offered a short statement. “I am so sorry for the grief and the agony I have caused,” she said. “This is my fault. I accept complete responsibility. I believe God is working through this.”
Many people — those in the cycling community, friends of Tom’s, and his family — expressed disappointment in the final sentence. At the time, no one appeared to be thinking of the implications the plea bargain and sentence would have on Cook’s potential parole — they simply were reacting to how such a violent and disturbing incident, one involving a repeat DUI offender who had been texting and left the scene and was indicted for 13 serious counts, had yielded a modest-seeming prison sentence.
Image: WBAL-TV/NBC Baltimore
“This is a case that you don’t plea bargain,” says Peter Wilborn, an attorney who specializes in bicycle law and practices in Maryland and South Carolina. “I mean, I can’t imagine a more egregious situation. She was as drunk and fucked up as you can be without dying. There should have been no fear to prosecute. I don’t know how the sausage was made in this case, but it seemed strange to only ask for 10 years with 10 years suspended. The prosecution essentially told the judge that 10 years was enough. I would have asked for 20 or 25 years.”
Wilborn never met Palermo in person but knew who he was. They used to interact online in the former Serotta cycling forum and shared a common friend in the Baltimore riding community. “People have these clichés in their heads about road cyclists but Tom was the antithesis of those,” says Wilborn, who got into cycling law 20 years ago after his brother was killed while riding. “Tom was a kind man who worked with his hands.”
Asked about why the judge reduced the sentence from 20 years (with 10 suspended) to seven, I can almost hear Wilborn shrug on the phone. “The judge acted a little weird, like his point was to take it seriously but also show some empathy, but he did nothing wrong,” says the attorney. “Judges do what judges do. If someone gives them some room to wiggle, then they wiggle. “
In any case, after she received her sentence, Cook was remanded into state custody and sent to prison.
Six months after Cook had been convicted and sentenced, I wrote her a typewritten letter. It was the first time I’d ever sent a note to someone in prison. In it, I identified myself as a longtime cyclist, a professional journalist, and a wayward Jew turned atheist. I told her a little bit about myself and all the questions I had about her situation. I told her I was interested in what she had to say.
My motives for writing that letter were complex. I was angry about how she had killed Palermo and curious about how she could reconcile her actions with her faith. I thought that I might write a book about what she had done — and what happened to her and the Palermo family after she did it. I wanted to see if or how she would take responsibility for her crime.
Cook wrote me back. It was a handwritten note, and after I read it, I knew that she and I would never be pen pals. She indicated that she had read my letter many times and thought hard about what I had said. She seemed eager to hear more about my own religious wandering and to offer counsel on that topic. She declined to directly address the circumstances that had landed her in prison or her own struggles with faith. She indicated that she’d like to keep exchanging letters if we could agree that none of it could be published.
I reread that note many times and thought hard about it. I never wrote her a reply. My gut told me that the main reason she wanted to exchange letters was to minister to me, to fill a role that had given her meaning and a kind of power for many years. Also, I was reminded that I’m not Truman Capote — I was far more horrified by what she had done without properly accepting responsibility than I was interested in teasing out her story.
I keep the letter on my desk at work in a prominent place, a reminder of something I don’t really understand.
Maryland classifies 24 offenses as violent crimes, but vehicular manslaughter is not one of them. Arson, carjacking, assault with intent to rob, and the use of a handgun in the commission of a felony are all codified as violent crimes. The designation has implications beyond semantics — people convicted of violent crimes are not eligible for parole in Maryland until they have served half of their aggregate sentence.
It would take some depraved creativity to imagine a more violent crime than the one Heather Cook committed on December 27, 2014. While drunk with a BAC nearly three times the legal limit and text messaging on her phone, the DUI repeat offender smashed a 3,195-pound Subaru Forester into Tom Palermo and then drove away. The muscles in my shoulders cord up as I type that.
“I generally have faith in the justice system — but this just doesn’t feel right,” says Kim Lamphier, advocacy director at the statewide non-profit Bike Maryland. “Given her history, and how high her blood alcohol level was, I think it’s fair to examine the issue of intent in this case. And she demonstrated this unwillingness to take responsibility by leaving the scene that is beyond belief. A bunch of kids stopped to help. Think about it: a 17-year old understands this kind of personal responsibility, but she drove away.”
Not surprisingly, Lamphier and Bike Maryland are urging the parole board to deny Cook parole.
Others who knew Palermo are less diplomatic about the situation. “I mean, the mere idea of her getting paroled early, it’s criminal,” says Neel. “The woman is a murderer.”
I get a similar reaction from Lyon. “It’s an outrage,” he says. “I was there. Trust me, it was a violent crime.”
Why does Maryland identify the crime that Heather Cook committed as a non-violent offense? Why are people who kill other people with a car less culpable than people who kill with other weapons? To find answers, multiple people in the field pointed me to the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. I made multiple attempts to contact the state’s chief legal officer with questions about Maryland’s existing legal code but got no response.
Still, I was starting to realize that as much as I felt disgusted by the idea of Cook securing an early release, I didn’t have a clear idea of what justice would look like at this point. Could some specific amount of prison time make things whole? The more I thought about that, the less certain I felt.
An example of Tom Palermo’s craftsmanship, in this case utilizing unpainted lugs. Photo courtesy Maile Neel.
Bike Attorney Peter Wilborn also believes that 18 months sounds too soon to release Cook, but he’s reluctant to call it an injustice. “The punishment never seems like enough — it just never seems like enough,” he says. “More time in prison won’t bring Tom back. That’s why as a lawyer I want define victory beforehand and discuss that with the family. You need to know what you actually are going for. In a case like this, I’d say a win is a conviction and some jail time.”
Wilborn inhabits a world where he often is handling cases where a cyclist gets hit and the incident is classified as an accident. “My world, sadly, is battling in court to transform an accident into a crime,” he says. “I’m dealing with people who were speeding slightly and slightly inattentive, so if they hit and kill someone we have to battle to make people see that it was a crime. This one, at least, has always been a crime.”
Nobody knows what will happen at the May 9 parole hearing. Palermo’s family declined to comment on the matter. I tracked down attorney Hunter Pruette, who will be representing Cook at the hearing. He initially declined comment, but I persistently pushed questions at him until I got a response.
“We’re looking forward to the parole hearing,” he offered warily. “I have experience dealing with some of the commissioners on that parole board and I have found them to be fair and genuine. I expect them to reach a decision about my client based on the rules spelled out by the law.”
The problem, I’d argue, is that the rules spelled out by the law need some fixing.
The first few days of 2015 were hard. There was a memorial mass held a week after Palermo’s death at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson. There was a funeral in which he was laid to rest. And on New Year’s Day, more than a thousand cyclists turned out for a memorial ride.
The ride started at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, an Episcopal church in Baltimore, and ended on Roland Avenue at the spot that Palermo was killed. There, friends and relatives and leaders in the cycling community spoke to the huge crowd and then a ghost bike — a lugged steel road bike with an aggressive saddle differential — was chained to a street sign near the corner of Roland and Drohomer Place. A light blue sign was hung off the seat post that reads “We love you daddy!”
Hundreds of cyclists showed up for a memorial ride on January 1, 2015. Photo: Teresa Duggan.
Later that year, city officials removed the ghost bike. But Tom’s wife, Rachel, made some calls and the bike was put back where it belongs. It is still there. Lyon says he passes it every day on his way to work. “I think about Tom every time I see that bike,” he says. “And on days like Christmas and Valentine’s Day and especially Father’s Day I get choked up.”
At some point, Rachel taped a one-page tribute to the pole. In the remembrance, she called out his many loves: hiking, camping, her chocolate chip cookies, Evolution Lot #3 IPA, cooking family-style meals, watching Star Wars with his kids. She described how she and Tom met each other in 2002 as coworkers at REI. “Tom put his family first in all things,” she wrote near the bottom. “He was the only son of his parents. He was a loving father. He was a kind man. He was my best friend.”
How can anyone fathom the loss in a tragedy like this? There are two young children growing up without a father. There is a woman who must raise them alone, without her partner and best friend. There are parents who must mourn a child. There are friends who lost a light in their life.
All of that is beyond horrible but the repercussions spread further.
Near the end of our conversation, Lyon admits that he’s not really riding anymore. He got hit by a hit-and-run driver a few blocks from where Palermo was killed — and even though the injuries were minor, he’s scared. “I miss riding,” he says. “Maybe this can be a cathartic moment for me to get back at it.”
Same with Palermo’s high-school buddy Chris. “Since that crash I’ve done most of riding on dirt,” he says. “It’s not as much fun to ride if you’re actually worrying that some drunk driver is going to hit you. I’m getting back into road biking but it hasn’t been easy. What happened to Tom impacted me greatly.”
And Neel? She’s not riding that custom Palermo anyone. She got hit from behind by a hit-and-run driver who left her on the side of the road with a broken pelvis. She knows a couple who got hit out near the beach while they were riding their tandem. “I still have the bike — I still love it — but I lost my courage to be on the road,” she says. “I ride a little on a bike path but it’s not the same. I think the world is just getting too crowded now, and people are in too big a hurry, they’re just not as patient as they should be.”
This is yet another crime that Heather Cook has committed — making people afraid to pursue an activity that brings them joy. This is another reason that Heather Cook should remain in prison — or, if she is released, that she should never again be allowed to drive a car.
It showed up a week or two after Tom died. It was a frame — Tom’s last frame. He had sent it to get painted and it suddenly was at the front door in a box. Rachel didn’t know what to do, so she called Chris Bishop.
For a while, Palermo was the only bike builder in Baltimore but then Bishop got in the game. Bishop has gone on to accolades in the handbuilt bike universe, known for his meticulous craftsmanship, but they were both just coming up when they met. “We used to hang out a lot and talk about building bikes,” he says. “We had each other’s backs — invariably one of us would run out of flux or silver or something and we’d help each other out.”
Bishop says without any negativity that Palermo was a “conservative” builder. “What I mean is that he did things by the book,” Bishop says. “Tom was particular about making things right.”
After that call from Rachel, Bishop went over the house. “It was really emotional,” he recalls. “Just seeing the kids hit me hard.” Bishop grabbed the frame and fork and went into Tom’s workshop to find the wheels and other components he’d need to build the bike.
Bishop took that green frame home to build the bike. “It was a rando bike — with canti brakes and fenders,” he says. “Those are the toughest bikes to build but everything fit together perfectly. The way it came together says something about Tom.”
Bishop had extensive contact with the customer because Tom hadn’t ordered everything for the complete bike. It took weeks to complete the spec.
But in the end, that buyer never got it. “Rachel decided to keep that bike,” says Bishop, who mentions that he’ll soon be heading back to the house to help her sell all the lugs and tires and tools that are still sitting in Palermo’s workshop. “Tom’s last bike is right where it belongs.”
Tom Palermo. Photo: Rachel Rock Palermo.