HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — Police are searching for a man suspected of fatally shooting a Maryland judge who had awarded custody of the suspect’s children to his wife on the day of the killing, authorities said Friday.
The judge was shot in his driveway Thursday evening while his wife and son were home and just hours after he ruled against the suspect in a divorce case, authorities said.
Washington County Sheriff Brian Albert said authorities are “actively working” to apprehend 49-year-old Pedro Argote for the “targeted attack” of Maryland Circuit Court Judge Andrew Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, 52, was found with gunshot wounds around 8 p.m. Thursday outside his home in Hagerstown, authorities said. Wilkinson was taken to Meritus Medical Center, where he died of his injuries.
Albert said at a news conference Friday that Argote is considered “armed and dangerous.” Albert declined to identify that type of weapon used in the slaying but said Argote legally owned a handgun.
Judges across the U.S. have been the target of threats and sometimes violence in recent years. President Joe Biden last year signed a bill to give around-the-clock security protection to the families of Supreme Court justices after the leak of a draft court opinion overturning the Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision, which prompted protests outside of conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices’ homes.
Wilkinson had presided over a divorce proceeding involving Argote earlier Thursday, but Argote was not present for the hearing, Albert said. The judge gave custody of Argote’s children to his wife at the hearing, and that was the motive for the killing, the sheriff said.
Wilkinson issued a judgment Thursday, officially granting the divorce and awarding sole custody of the couple’s four children — ages 12, 11, 5 and 3 — to their mother, court records show. He ordered Argote to have no contact with the children and pay $1,120 a month in child support.
Court records show a messy legal battle that began when Argote filed for divorce last year.
In his initial court filing, Argote accused his wife of neglecting her homeschooling responsibilities and failing to properly supervise the children. But she filed a countercomplaint, accusing Argote of “cruel treatment” and saying she couldn’t support herself financially.
Days later, his wife requested a protective order, saying he was harassing her via text, controlling her every move, threatening to abuse their daughter and making false accusations against her.
“I don’t get out of the house without his knowledge,” she wrote in court documents. “I know he has his weapon on him at all times.”
A judge granted a temporary protective order — which included a directive for Argote to surrender his firearms — but it was dismissed weeks later at the wife’s request, court records show.
Argote repeatedly proposed that they continue living in the same house while they sorted out their digital advertising business and became more financially stable.
Wilkinson wrote in a March 2023 opinion that Argote’s proposal was “frankly, a non-starter.”
“The testimony leaves this court with the uneasy sense that Father engages in absolute control over Mother, their finances, and their lives,” Wilkinson wrote. “This is not in the best interests of the children.”
Argote was ordered to move out of his family’s home the same day.
Messages left seeking comments at cell phone numbers listed for Argote weren’t immediately returned.
Argote didn’t have a criminal record in Washington County, but officers had “responded to the residence for verbal domestic assaults two times within the last few years,” Albert said.
Attorneys in the divorce case did not immediately respond to emails and calls seeking comment. However, the attorney representing the children had words of praise for the late jurist.
“Judge Wilkinson was an amazing man, father, husband and judge and I am blessed to have known and worked with him,” attorney Ashley Wilburn wrote in an email. “He is a hero.”
Hagerstown, a city of nearly 44,000, lies about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Baltimore in the panhandle of Maryland, near the state lines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Albert said he wasn’t aware of any previous threats against Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was sworn in as a circuit court judge in 2020. The 1994 University of North Carolina graduate received his law degree from Emory University School of Law in 1997 and then became a circuit court law clerk in Washington County.
At his swearing-in, Wilkinson said he wanted to become a judge to serve the community, The Herald-Mail reported.
“It’s an honor and it’s humbling, and I’m happy to serve,” he said.
Wilkinson thanked retired Judge Frederick C. Wright III for guiding his career. Wilkinson’s military family had moved around, but when Wright hired his mother as a law clerk in 1983, Hagerstown became his home. Wilkinson later clerked for Wright.
“He was quite an outstanding young man,” Wright told The Associated Press in a phone call. “I had the privilege of being his mentor.”
Other U.S. judges have been targets of violence in recent years.
In June 2022, a retired Wisconsin county circuit judge, John Roemer was killed in his home in what authorities said was a targeted killing. That same month, a man carrying a gun, a knife and zip ties was arrested near Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house in Maryland after threatening to kill the justice.
A men’s rights lawyer with a history of anti-feminist writings, posed as a FedEx delivery person in 2020 and fatally shot the 20-year-old son of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas, and wounded her husband at their New Jersey home. Salas in another part of the home at the time and was not injured.
And a Texas woman was charged in August with threatening to kill U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the Washington case accusing Donald Trump of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss.
Michael Kunzelman and Sarah Brumfield reported from Silver Spring, Maryland. Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston and Jennifer Farrar in New York also contributed to this report.