A man suspected of killing the Maryland judge who ruled against him in a divorce case last week was found dead Thursday in a heavily wooded area not far from where the shooting unfolded, ending a weeklong search that rocked the largely rural community.
Authorities believe Pedro Argote, 49, was angry about losing custody of his children when he shot and killed the judge. The Oct. 19 attack unfolded outside the home of Washington County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Wilkinson, who was shot in his driveway.
Hours earlier, Wilkinson had presided over a hearing in which Argote’s wife and daughter delivered emotional testimony about the abuse he inflicted upon them for years. Argote was not present at the hearing, which concluded with Wilkinson ruling against him and awarding his wife sole custody of their four children.
Law enforcement launched a search for Argote almost immediately after the shooting. On Saturday, they discovered his SUV in a wooded area in Williamsport, about 8 miles (13 kilometers) southwest of Hagerstown, where the judge was shot.
Authorities searched the area where the vehicle was found and concluded Argote wasn’t there. But officials said Thursday morning that they had returned to the area to conduct “additional evidentiary searches” and found the body.
“We hastily searched that area, but we were just going over it systematically today,” said Washington County Sheriff Brian Albert, at a news conference Thursday.
Albert said officials couldn’t yet answer questions about the time or cause of Argote’s death, pending an autopsy examination. However, officials and Wilkinson’s family were “relieved” that the suspect’s body was located. Some law enforcement officers came to the news conference from a viewing for Wilkinson, where they visited with his family.
“It’s a relief, but it’s still a tragedy that we’re dealing with … kind of a somber moment for us,” Albert said in response to a question about the Wilkinson family’s reaction.
Washington County Attorney Kirk Downey, who worked with Wilkinson in the county attorney’s office more than a decade ago, learned of the suspect’s death as he also prepared to attend the viewing. Downey said the discovery will bring some measure of relief to a community that has remained on edge for nearly a week.
“I’m still in disbelief that this has happened,” he said of his friend’s killing. “It’s just so senseless and tragic.”
In a statement Thursday afternoon, the Maryland judiciary praised the work of law enforcement and asked for privacy on behalf of Wilkinson’s family.
“We continue to grieve the loss of our colleague and friend while supporting the Wilkinson family, the judges and staff of the Circuit Court for Washington County, and the entire Hagerstown and broader Washington County community,” the statement said.
A funeral for Wilkinson, 52, is scheduled for Friday morning in Hagerstown.
During testimony at the hearing last week, Argote’s relatives said he controlled every aspect of their lives, keeping them isolated and subjecting them to various acts of violence in recent years.
Wilkinson said he found Argote “abusive in multiple ways.”
The recent divorce hearing lasted two days. During the first half, which took place Sept. 26, Argote represented himself. He at times expressed frustration, but his voice remained calm and he often addressed the judge respectfully as “your honor.” Argote failed to appear for the second half of the hearing last week. Instead, he called the courthouse saying he had a headache.
The judge ruled out visitation rights and barred Argote from contacting his children or visiting the family’s house.
Hours later, authorities say, he showed up in Wilkinson’s driveway.
The circuit court judge was a longtime resident of Hagerstown and heavily involved in the community. The city of nearly 44,000 lies about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Baltimore in the panhandle of Maryland.
Skene reported from Baltimore. Associated Press reporter Michael Kunzelman contributed from Silver Spring, Maryland.