DEADLY DECISIONS: State agency sues Enterprise to block release of Montwheeler records

Anthony W. Montwheeler appears at his arraignment in Malheur County Circuit Court on charges of aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping. He is accused of stabbing his ex-wife to death on Jan. 9, 2017, and then crashing head-on into another vehicle while fleeing police. The collision killed the other driver and injured his wife. (Malheur Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

The Enterprise

The state Psychiatric Security Review Board sued the Malheur Enterprise and publisher Les Zaitz to prevent disclosure of the records concerning its management of Anthony W. Montwheeler.

Montwheeler, 49, is accused of aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping for a Jan. 9, 2017, episode that ended in Malheur County. He is accused of kidnapping and stabbing to death his ex-wife, Annita Harmon, and killing a Vale man, David Bates, and injuring his wife Jessica when he collided with their vehicle while he was eluding police.

The deaths happened one month after the Security Review Board released Montwheeler from its control after 20 years. It did so after testimony before the board in early December that Montwheeler had faked insanity to avoid prison but was a risk if released into the community.

The Enterprise sought records entered as exhibits in that hearing. They included risk assessments by the Oregon State Hospital, where Montwheeler has been confined off and on over 20 years. The newspaper also sought assessments and reviews by the hospital’s professional staff.

The Security Review Board claimed the records couldn’t be released, but Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office on March 15 said otherwise. Rosenblum’s office ordered the records be turned over to the Enterprise, allowing for limited redactions.

Document: Order from Oregon Department of Justice to release records.

Instead of complying, the Security Review Board hired outside attorneys to defy the order. Under the Oregon Public Records Law, the Security Review Board had to sue the requester – the Enterprise – and not the attorney general.

Zaitz noted that the Vale-based newspaper is a small, family-run enterprise.

“We can’t hope to match the Security Review Board’s ability to tap its taxpayer-provided budget,” Zaitz said. “We have only sought the truth from the Security Review Board, and our request for a handful of records was meant to serve the public interest. We will not be steamrolled by a state agency. We will find a way to defend ourselves and serve that public interest.”

In its 11-page complaint filed in Marion County Circuit Court on Wednesday, the Security Review Board asserted that releasing the records “immediately and unreasonably will invade the privacy of Anthony Montwheeler as a patient of the state hospital.”

Document: Lawsuit filed against Malheur Enterprise.

The agency said in its complaint that state law prohibits disclosure of records the Security Review Board received from the state hospital, the doctor-patient privilege applies, and releasing the records would invade Montwheeler’s privacy.

The Security Review Board said there was no “clear and convincing evidence” that disclosure of Montwheeler’s medical records was justified.

Rosenblum’s office ruled otherwise. Her deputy, Fred Boss, said in a March 21 letter that the Enterprise “has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the public interest requires disclosure.”

The letter continued, “Mr. Montwheeler is accused of committing serious crimes – including killing two people, and seriously injuring a third – a few short weeks after his discharge. Under the circumstances, there is a strong public interest in understanding and evaluating the bases for PSRB’s release decision.”

Boss also said that “Montwheeler’s testimony that he was under PSRB’s jurisdiction for nearly 20 years, despite never suffering from actual mental disease, in order to enjoy perceived benefits of that status, raises an issue of significant public interest.”

Kate Lieber, Security Review Board member, said at the December hearing after the decision was made to release Montwheeler: “I’m assuming somebody in the system might do a forensic look at this and figure out what the hell happened.”

Officials at the Security Review Board and Oregon State Hospital have declined to say whether such a review was initiated.

The lawsuit also asks the court to award the Security Review Board its court costs.

The board disclosed on Thursday that it agreed last week to retain the law firm of Harrang Long Gary Rudnick PC to wage the legal fight. The firm said in its agreement that its lead lawyer would be charging $400 an hour. The agreement places no limit on fees.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify what costs are being sought by the Security Review Board.