Judge Shot and Killed Hours after Stripping Father of Custody in Divorce Case

Pedro Argote (left) allegedly shot and killed Maryland family court judge Andrew Wilkinson (center). Orange County Judge Jeffrey Ferguson is currently under criminal prosecution in connection with his wife’s murder. (right)

by Susan Bassi and Fred Johnson

Hours after his ex-wife was awarded full care, control and custody of the couple’s children, Pedro Argote allegedly murdered Maryland family court Judge Andrew Wilkinson. According to court files, Argote was representing himself in the divorce case. The couple’s four children were represented by Ashley Wilburn, Minors counsel, or best interest attorney. Argote’s former wife requested a protective order back in 2022. Her request was denied.

As news outlets grapple with the complexities found in family courts, one online commentor posted on the Daily Mail, reflecting a growing number of voices on mainstream and social media critical of family court systems and the judges who rule in modern divorce and custody cases.

“He lost everything. His wife. His house. His children. Why would the judge take his life and purpose from him instantly like this? There’s nothing to indicate that was a just decision. Anyone that’s been through this treatment knows how it can destroy you. He should have taken the evil the courts put on him and done everything possible to make it good.”

The post reflects an uptick in public disapproval when it comes to family court judges, divorce attorneys, or law enforcement officers connected to divorce and custody cases.

Judge Threats and Murder in California’s Orange County

A recent tragedy involving Judge Jeffrey Ferguson, former employee of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, reinforces the need to address mental health, addiction and intimate partner violence issues judges face in their personal lives as well.

Ferguson allegedly shot and killed his own wife inside their family home. The couple’s adult son is reportedly a witness to the horrific tragedy. Local news reports indicate the judge sent a text to his bailiff and court clerk telling them he had shot and killed his wife and would not be in to work the following day.

Judge Ferguson’s situation underscores the fact that judges also struggle with their internal and family conflicts. It is improbable that Ferguson and his wife never experienced disagreements or mental health struggles before the tragic night.

Similarly, in Argote’s divorce case, his wife alleged abuse and sought a domestic violence order, which was denied in June 2022. Too often family court judges get it wrong. Restraining orders are too impotent when it comes to protecting partners or parents.

During the same time the Ferguson case was cycling through local headlines and criminal courts, a second case, found father, Byrom Zuniga-Sanchez, on the run after he allegedly threated a family court judge in connection with his own divorce.

According to the FBI and local police, Zuniga-Sanchez told the judge presiding over his family law case:

“It is time you die,” his note went on, “I am more committed to murdering you than I presently am to being a father.”  Zuniga-Sanchez then pledged to spend the rest of his life assassinating judges, attorneys, and police station personnel.

Though this threat was known by court staff in July 2023, it wasn’t until October that news of an arrest warrant broke and an FBI manhunt came to light. Astonishingly, well-connected family law attorneys were privy to the threat, but the general public and those appearing in person for court proceedings self-represented remained in the dark about threats to court users, as the Vanguard recently reported.

According to the Orange County family court files, when Zuniga-Sanchez’s divorce started in 2019, he was struggling to make ends meet.  Family court made it worse.

Earning around $49,000 annually, roughly $12 per hour, from LoanDepot.com, Zuniga-Sanchez faced a financial downward spiral exacerbated by rent, car expenses, credit card debt and attorneys fees.

Zuniga-Sanchez and his former wife initially agreed to share custody of their children.  They also agreed to attend parenting classes and seek therapists to address their son’s autism-related issues. They even carefully addressed holidays. The court, under Judge Sandy Leal’s supervision, formalized this agreement as an order. However, four years later, Zuniga-Sanchez’s ex-wife complained her former husband contributed only $300 in child support in 2019, which repeatedly brought the former spouses back to family court.

Orange County Family Court Files Show Zuniga-Sanchez agreed to share custody with his former wife in 2019 (Above). Original Income and Expense declaration (I &E) shows Zuniga-Sanchez financially struggling at the outset of the divorce. (Below)

Spouses and intimate partners, or business partners, often seek protection from police officers or family courts when faced with threats or abuse. Regrettably, despite abundant state and federal funding, family court judges frequently lack the training and experience necessary to deescalate conflicts and ensure public safety for themselves, and other litigants.

Stats Behind the Sexes and Judges

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has documented a concerning increase in threats against federal judges, growing from 592 in 2003 to 1,278 by 2008. In 2022, the US Marshal Service investigated 1,362 threats against federal judges.

Similarly, the DOJ keeps statistics on murder cases by gender that show why family court judges are the gatekeepers of public safety when it comes to domestic violence and spouses with mental health issues.

In 2021, the DOJ reported that 34% of the 4,970 female victims of murder or nonnegligent manslaughter reported by law enforcement were killed by intimate partners. In contrast, 6% of the 17,970 male murder victims that year were victims of intimate partner homicide.

Judge Andrew Wilkinson joins the statistics of male victims killed by persons other than intimate partners. Until Argote is captured, his former wife remains at risk, and the systemic issues found in America’s family courts continue to persist.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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