The morning after her estranged husband was charged with trying to break into her home, Vicki Kindervater sought a court order that would have required him to surrender his guns and stay away from her.
The judge told her she would be protected by a "no-contact" order, which she later learned didn't prohibit him from keeping his weapons.
A month later, Bruce W. Kindervater, 41, was arrested in a showdown with Baltimore County police while cruising through his wife's neighborhood with a loaded gun in his car.
Advocates against domestic violence said the incident illustrates how a lack of awareness by the courts can endanger those threatened with domestic abuse.
"The failure to take all remedies available shows people don't understand the seriousness of domestic violence," said Susan Elgin, past president of the Women's Law Center, a Maryland organization that provides legal assistance to women.
Last week, a Baltimore County Circuit judge ordered Bruce Kindervater held without bail until he can be evaluated by a court psychiatrist. He is charged with violations stemming from his ownership of guns. Maryland law bars from owning a gun anyone in whom a mental health disorder has been diagnosed.
The protective order Vicki Kindervater had sought from Essex District Judge Robert N. Dugan on Oct. 15 would have carried broad restrictions and required her estranged husband to give up his guns.
Her request for the order said that her husband "owns a hand gun and several rifles," has "bipolar disorder, is not on medication and is becoming dangerous." Asked whether the judge inquired about her husband's guns, Vicki Kindervater said, "He didn't ask me anything."
The judge advised her that the protective order wasn't necessary.
Condition on bail
After Bruce Kindervater was charged with trying to break into his estranged wife's house, he was ordered to have no contact with her as a condition for being freed on bail, Dugan said.
Dugan, who is seeking election to the Circuit Court, said he does not recall Vicki Kindervater's request.
The "no-contact" order "gives the court more authority and more teeth than an ex-parte order," he said. "If it's alleged a person has violated a [bail] requirement of having no contact, a judge can issue an immediate bench warrant to have them arrested."
Lisae Jordan, chief of litigation for the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women, said she finds Dugan's reasoning "truly outrageous."
"What the judge said is simply incorrect as a matter of law," she said. "A criminal no-contact order doesn't give a victim of domestic violence the same protection as a civil protective order."
One reason, said Assistant States Attorney Stephen Bailey, is that a no-contact order does not allow police to confiscate guns. Nor does it bar a person from buying them.
"A no-contact order doesn't give her relief," said Bailey.
Police discovered Bruce Kindervater's gun collection while investigating a brutality complaint he filed against the Baltimore County officers who arrested him in October after the attempted break-in at his estranged wife's house in Carney, said Bailey.
According to court records, he owns six weapons, including rifles, shotguns and a revolver, and several rounds of ammunition.
According to a police report, officers learned from a doctor that Bruce Kindervater suffers from "bipolar disorder, mania and psychosis," and "is a danger to himself and others particularly relating to the possession of firearms."
Armed with a search and seizure warrant, police removed the weapons from his home in Dundalk on Nov. 19.
`Close to being shot'
The same day, they stopped him in his wife's neighborhood and ordered him at gunpoint to put both hands out the car window.
"Kindervater put his left hand straight out the open driver's window but continued to keep his right hand between his legs toward the floor," according to a police report.
After several minutes, he got out of the car. Inside, police said, they found a loaded handgun in an unsnapped holster on the driver's side.
"The defendant came very close to being shot," Bailey said.
A potentially dangerous situation could have been avoided, Jordan said. The Kindervater case shows the need for more training for judges to ensure that they understand domestic-violence laws, she said.