Sorrowful ending

Ex-wife wanted the rifle taken

Court lacked authority to force surrender

Sun Exclusive

November 30, 2007|By Melissa Harris and Tyeesha Dixon | Melissa Harris and Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporters

FREDERICK -- The Howard County flight attendant who, along with her children, was shot to death by her former husband in a Thanksgiving Day murder-suicide had twice asked Frederick County courts to confiscate his rifle - but the judges never required him to surrender it.

State law requires handguns to be turned in when protective orders are issued, but not long-barreled guns, such as the .22-caliber rifle that David P. Brockdorff, 40, used to kill Gail L. Pumphrey, 43, and their three children, David, 12, Megan, 10, and Brandon, 7, before turning the gun on himself. A funeral service for Pumphrey and the children took place yesterday at a Frederick church.

The shootings in a secluded Montgomery County park where Pumphrey had gone to turn over the children so they could spend part of Thanksgiving with their father have revived calls from lawmakers who want to give court officials the authority to confiscate all firearms when a protective order is sought.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly characterized the ability of the Frederick County courts to force the surrender of a rifle after the issuance of a protective order. They had the authority but did not exercise it.
The Sun regrets the error.

"There needs to be more oversight when someone has concerns about a weapon," said Sen. Nancy J. King, a Democrat from Montgomery County, who was one of six sponsors of failed legislation last year that would have permitted the confiscation of weapons before a final protective order is issued and would apply to all weapons.

"My guess is that the bill will be put back in. If there's any threat to the family, that weapon should be taken away. When it's brought to someone's attention, it doesn't seem right to just ignore it."

The bill, however, raised constitutional concerns that court officials could confiscate guns before the accused had a chance to be heard in court and rebut the allegations.

"We haven't been able to get past the House Judiciary Committee," said Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County. "The general thinking has been: `You can take my house; you can take my kids. I don't care, just don't take my gun.'"

Federal law requires forfeiture of firearms even in state cases, but enforcement is vested with federal officials upon the request of local authorities. It could not be learned whether such a request had been made in the Pumphrey case.

Pumphrey sought court protection from Brockdorff's abuse and harassment in 2005 and again this year, and each time she reported the rifle on a form and checked a box informing the judge she wanted it confiscated, according to court records.

But the two Frederick County court orders that resulted from the requests - one read into the record May 3 and later signed by Circuit Judge John H. Tisdale, and another signed Aug. 8, 2005, by District Judge Oliver John Cejka Jr. and renewed on appeal by Circuit Judge Julie S. Solt later that year - did not require Brockdorff to turn over the rifle.

At the time of the shooting, the 2005 order had expired, but the second order, which lawyers for Pumphrey and Brockdorff negotiated and then submitted to Tisdale in lieu of a formal protective order, was in effect. It focused on limiting the communication between the former spouses and ignored her request filed 20 days earlier to remove the rifle.

"I would always err on the side of getting the guns out of someone's possession, and I think most judges do," said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County attorney and co-sponsor of last year's legislation. "In fairness to the judges who handle these cases, you are hearing from just these parties. You're trusting your gut based on the credibility of these witnesses. ... No judge wants to be in the position of seeing what's happened in this case."

Advocates against domestic violence say the exception for long-barreled guns is troubling in light of stricter federal laws, which local agencies can't enforce. Under the federal 1994 Violence Against Women Act, all firearms, including rifles, are generally required to be forfeited when a state or federal court issues a protective order, but federal agencies, such as the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are responsible for enforcement.

After Pumphrey was granted the 2005 final protective order, someone - typically, the sheriff's office - would have had to report Brockdorff's rifle to federal authorities, who then would have had to act, said David Sargent, a former Washington police officer who trains law enforcement officers for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

It could not be learned whether such a request had been made. Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins has not returned several messages left at his office and his spokeswoman, Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, referred reporters to Montgomery County police. Judges Cjeka and Tisdale and John M. Quinn, Pumphrey's attorney at the May hearing, also did not return phone calls to their offices.

At the May 3 hearing, Tisdale admonished both Pumphrey and Brockdorff.

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