20 October 2023

Hunt for man suspected of killing judge who awarded custody of children to wife

20 October 2023

US police are searching for a man suspected of fatally shooting a judge who had awarded custody of the suspect’s children to his wife on the day of the killing.

The judge was shot in his driveway on Thursday evening while his wife and son were home, 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.

Judge Wilkinson, 52, was found with gunshot wounds at around 8pm on Thursday outside his home in Hagerstown, authorities said. He was taken to Meritus Medical Centre where he died.

Mr Albert said at a news conference on Friday that Argote is considered “armed and dangerous”. The sheriff declined to identify that type of weapon used in the killing but said Argote legally owned a handgun.

Judge Wilkinson had presided over a divorce proceeding involving Argote earlier on Thursday, but Argote was not present for the hearing, Mr 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 added.

The judge issued a judgment on Thursday officially granting the divorce and awarding sole custody of the couple’s four children — aged 12, 11, five and three — to their mother, court records show.

He ordered Argote to have no contact with the children and pay 1,120 dollars (£923) 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 home-schooling responsibilities and failing to properly supervise the children.

She filed a counter-complaint, accusing Argote of “cruel treatment” and saying she could not support herself financially.

Days later, his wife requested a protective order, saying he was harassing her by 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.

Judge Wilkinson wrote in a March 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,” the judge 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.

He did not 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”, Mr Albert said.

Ashley Wilburn, the lawyer representing the children, said: “Judge Wilkinson was an amazing man, father, husband and judge and I am blessed to have known and worked with him. He is a hero.”

Hagerstown, a city of nearly 44,000, is about 75 miles north west of Baltimore in the panhandle of Maryland, near the borders of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Mr Albert said he was not aware of any previous threats against Wilkinson.

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