Slain Maryland judge remembered as dedicated and even-keeled
Oct 26, 2023, 9:04 PM
( Julie E. Greene/The Herald-Mail via AP)
HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — Just hours before he was killed last week, a Maryland judge known for being fair and even-keeled calmly explained his ruling in a divorce case following hours of emotional testimony.
On the losing end of the ruling was the man suspected of fatally shooting Washington County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Wilkinson later that day in the driveway outside his home. For Wilkinson’s family, friends and colleagues, it’s an unfathomable end to an exceptional life.
“This community is reeling. Our legal community, in particular, is just upended,” said Brett R. Wilson, the circuit court’s administrative judge. “It’s completely unexpected, completely irrational and unsettling.”
Authorities said they believe Pedro Argote, 49, shot and killed the judge because he was angry about losing custody of his four children. Wilkinson, 52, ruled in favor of Argote’s wife following a hearing that Argote didn’t attend.
After a weeklong search spanning several states, Argote’s body was found Thursday in a heavily wooded area in Williamsport, about a mile from where authorities discovered his Mercedes SUV on Saturday. The area is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) southwest of Hagerstown, where the judge was shot.
A funeral service for Wilkinson is scheduled to be held Friday at a church in his hometown.
Wilkinson previously presided over several high-profile cases since his appointment to the bench nearly four years ago, including a 2018 deadly stabbing outside a downtown Hagerstown bar and a high school teacher convicted of having sex with a student.
Wilson met Wilkinson years ago when he was fresh out of law school and clerking for a local judge. He was determined to follow in the footsteps of a relative who served as a judge in Pennsylvania, Wilson said.
“Some people have dreams. Drew had goals. And one of his goals was to become a judge,” she said.
Wilkinson was never at risk of developing “robe-itis,” a term for judges prone to ill-tempered, authoritarian streaks once they don a black robe. He “never lost his cool,” had a wry sense of humor and respected everybody who came to the courthouse, Wilson said.
Wilkinson readily took on tough cases, saving the court time and writing opinions and rulings that made cases simpler, Wilson said.
“It is that way of being able to depersonalize what was happening in the courtroom and focus on the job that he was appointed to do,” Wilson said.
During the Oct. 19 divorce hearing, Wilkinson expressed deep concern for the children involved. At an earlier hearing where Argote represented himself, Wilkinson repeatedly paused to explain court procedures and make sure Argote understood the process. Argote was cordial in exchanges with the judge and didn’t raise his voice.
Washington County Attorney Kirk Downey, who worked with Wilkinson in the county attorney’s office more than a decade ago, said the county’s tight-knit, collegial legal community has felt a “great sense of loss.”
Wilkinson was “unassuming” and didn’t take himself too seriously. “He treated people who appeared before him with kindness and respect,” Downey added.
Wilkinson, whose late father was a U.S. Navy commander, was born in Guam and spent his early childhood overseas, including in Thailand.
Hagerstown became his home after his mother was hired as a law clerk there in 1983. He later clerked for the judge who hired his mom, retired Judge Frederick Wright III. Wright praised Wilkinson’s legacy in the immediate aftermath of his death last week, calling him “an outstanding young man.”
Wilkinson earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating from Emory University School of Law in 1997, he worked as a clerk at Washington County’s circuit court and then joined a private practice.
He left the firm in 2006 to become an assistant county attorney in Washington County. Six years later, he started his own law office.
In recent years, he represented companies pursuing proposals to install solar farms in the largely rural communities around Hagerstown.
Wilkinson was sworn in as a circuit court judge in January 2020 after being appointed by former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. Bullet-resistant glass was installed for the exterior windows of Wilkinson’s chamber and courtroom, according to the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.
Hogan said in a social media post last week that he was “deeply saddened” by Wilkinson’s killing.
“This act of horrific violence not only takes away a respected community figure but also shakes the foundation of our justice system,” Hogan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We mourn the loss of Judge Wilkinson, a dedicated public servant, and an exemplary member of our community.”
Wilkinson coached youth sports, including soccer, and was active in his community, serving on the board of directors for the Hagerstown YMCA. He is survived by his wife, Stephanie Wilkinson; a daughter, Caroline; and a son, Grant.
Stephanie Wilkinson said in a statement Wednesday that her family is grateful for the community’s support and for law enforcement’s work on the investigation.
“This is such an unexpected loss to us, and words do not exist to describe the amazing person Drew was,” she said.
His funeral was scheduled for Friday morning at St. Ann Catholic Church in Hagerstown. State court officials said the service would be closed to the media.