By Lea Skene, Michael Kunzelman and Sarah Brumfield
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 authorities are “actively looking” for Argote, who is considered “armed and dangerous.” Albert declined to identify that type of weapon used in the slaying but said Argote legally owned a handgun.
Wilkinson had presided over a divorce proceeding involving Argote earlier Thursday, but that Argote was not present for the hearing.
Albert said that the judge gave custody of Argote’s children to his wife at the hearing and that was the motive for the killing.
Messages left seeking comments at cell phone numbers listed for Argote weren’t immediately returned
State troopers were deployed overnight as a precaution to protect judges who live in Washington County, state police spokesperson Elena Russo said. Albert said he wasn't aware of any previous threats against Wilkinson.
In a statement, the Maryland Judiciary said it is mourning Wilkinson’s death and that it is working with law enforcement to help resolve the matter and ensure the safety of judges, staff and visitors.
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.
In Maryland, circuit courts in each county handle serious criminal and civil cases, including many that are appealed from the lower-level district courts, according to the state courts website.
Court records list Argote as the plaintiff who brought the divorce case in June 2022. Argote didn’t have a criminal record in Washington County, Albert said, but the sheriff added that officers had "responded to the residence for verbal domestic assaults two times within the last few years.”
Attorneys in the divorce case did not immediately respond to emails and calls seeking comment. However, the attorney representing the children in the divorce case 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."
The 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.
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.
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 also contributed to this report.
Updated October 20, 2023 at 1:42 p.m. ET with the latest details.