Maryland judge killed in his driveway, authorities search for suspect who ‘targeted’ him over divorce case ruling

A Maryland judge was fatally shot in the driveway of his home Thursday in a “targeted attack” that occurred hours after he gave the suspect’s estranged wife custody of their children, officials said Friday.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Wilkinson, 52, was found outside the residence in the 19100 block of Olde Waterford Road in Hagerstown by deputies who responded to a report of a shooting at 8 p.m., the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said.

His wife and son were home when he was gunned down, Sheriff Brian K. Albert said in a news conference Friday.

Pedro Argote.Pedro Argote.Washington County, Md., Sheriff’s Office

“The victim was suffering from what appeared to be gunshot wounds. He was transported to Meritus Medical Center, where he later succumbed to his injuries,” the sheriff’s office said.

The sheriff’s office named the suspect in the homicide investigation as Pedro Argote, 49, of Frederick. He “is not in custody and is considered armed and dangerous,” Albert told reporters.

Wilkinson was the judge overseeing Argote’s divorce case, filed in June 2022.

Suspect ordered to stay away from his children

Wilkinson presided over a hearing in the case Thursday morning that dealt with the “partial judgment of absolute divorce,” according to the court docket.

Argote was not present for that hearing, but Sheriff Albert said the attack was in response to custody being granted to the mother of Argote’s children.

A copy of the partial judgment mentions “cruelty of treatment” and cites “irreconcilable differences” between the two parties. The court ordered that the wife be granted an absolute divorce from Argote and sole custody of their four children, ages 12, 11, 5, and 3. 

Argote cannot visit the children or have contact with the wife unless initiated by her to use a 2009 Mercedes — the same vehicle the sheriff’s office said he may be driving, court records show.

The court also granted the wife sole use and possession of the family home and prohibited Argote from entering that residence. He was ordered to pay $1,120 a month in child support, according to the judgment. 

Argote, his wife and attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Court records show Argote’s wife filed a domestic violence petition against him in June 2022 that resulted in dismissal less than two weeks later.

In her petition, the wife writes that there had been physical abuse against one of their daughters, and that she felt unsafe because he would keep a weapon on him and that she feared he would try and take the children away from her. She noted that Argote owned at least two firearms.

She also said he would harass her through texts and emails, watch her on security cameras in the home and control her emotionally and financially. The sheriff confirmed Argote legally owned a handgun.

It’s unclear why the petition was dismissed.

The sheriff’s office had responded to a residence involving Argote for “verbal domestic assaults two times within the past few years,” Albert said.

Argote is described as 5 feet, 7 inches tall, 130 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. He may be traveling in a silver Mercedes GL450 with Maryland plates 4EH0408, according to the sheriff’s office.

“Anyone with information in reference to Argote’s location is asked to not approach him but to immediately notify law enforcement,” the sheriff’s office said.  

Maryland State Police troopers were deployed Thursday night “out of precautionary reasons” to “protect” judges residing in Washington County, a state police spokesperson told NBC News. However, the sheriff said Friday that there’s no threat to other judges in the county or state.

Albert noted that the sheriff’s office had no knowledge of threats against Wilkinson. 

A community ‘devastated’

Wilkinson was born in Guam in 1971, graduated from Emory University School of Law in 1997, and previously worked as an assistant county attorney. He became an associate judge in Washington County Circuit Court in January 2020, according to an online profile. 

While Wilkinson was a prominent member of his community, neighbors described him as “down to earth” and friendly. On any given day, they said, he would be out cutting his own lawn or taking walks or jogs through the neighborhood.

Penny Hill, who lived next door to Wilkinson for the past decade before she recently moved, said she enjoyed being neighbors and watching Wilkinson with his wife, Stephanie, and their two children.

“He was a terrific guy, and this is devastating to the community,” Hill said. “What happened is terrifying, unexpected. And I feel so terribly for Stephanie and the kids.”

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Jason Divelbiss, Wilkinson’s former law partner, said Friday: “Drew was a beloved family man, a friend to all he came in contact with and a respected colleague.”

“He could bring a smile to any room he entered. He has been taken way too soon from a community that benefited from and will deeply miss his presence and innumerable contributions,” he added. 

The Maryland Judiciary issued a statement Friday saying it was “actively engaging with law enforcement to assist in resolving this matter and to ensure the safety of our judges, staff, and visitors, which remains our top priority,” the statement said.

Democratic Gov. Wes Moore said he was “shocked, heartbroken, and sickened by the killing of Judge Andrew Wilkinson. He was the victim of a cold-blooded, vicious, and targeted attack. My heart goes out to Judge Wilkinson’s family, and my prayers are with everyone who knew him, loved him, and served alongside him.”

He added: “Judge Wilkinson spent his career in defense of justice. We must now ensure that the perpetrator of this vile act faces justice and Judge Wilkinson’s family gets the support they need and deserve.”

Other attacks against judges

The slaying is the latest incident in the U.S. involving threats or attacks against judges. The U.S. Marshals Service, which ensures the safety of judicial proceedings and protecting federal jurors and judges, investigated over 1,300 threats or potential threats in the 2022 fiscal year. 

In June 2022, a retired Wisconsin judge was fatally shot in his home by a gunman in a targeted attack that officials said appeared to be related “to the judicial system.”

In 2020, U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ son was killed and her husband left in critical condition at their New Jersey home by a gunman who had once appeared in front of Salas in court. That led to the formation of Daniel’s Law in New Jersey, which protects public officials by making it a crime to make public personal information of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers including their phone numbers and home address. 

Marlene Lenthang

Breaking News Reporter

Erik Ortiz

Erik Ortiz is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital focusing on racial injustice and social inequality.

Victoria Ebner

Victoria Ebner is a desk assistant with NBC News and MSNBC.