DEADLY DECISIONS: State records show doctors early on suspected Montwheeler was faking illness

A memorial for David Bates marks the spot where he was killed in a collision on Jan. 9, 2017, on Oregon Highway 201 near Ontario. (Malheur Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

State doctors suspected nearly 20 years ago that Anthony W. Montwheeler was feigning mental illness to avoid prison, newly disclosed records show.

The records, a portion of state files on Montwheeler, give no indication that officials acted on that suspicion until Montwheeler admitted his ruse two years ago.

Montwheeler, 49, told doctors that he hoped his ploy would get him in and out of the Oregon State Hospital in six months, sparing him at least seven years in prison.

Instead, he remained under the jurisdiction of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, including years in custody at the state hospital, from 1997 until last December.

That’s when the board released Montwheeler, concluding he was no longer mentally ill and despite warnings that he was a danger to the community. He was subsequently indicted for kidnapping and stabbing to death his fourth ex-wife and killing a Vale man and injuring the man’s wife while fleeing from police Jan. 9. He is scheduled to plead to the charges next week in Malheur County Circuit Court.

Anthony W. Montwheeler (Grant County Sheriff’s Office)

The records don’t fully explain how a man with a high school education could for decades maintain a façade of mental illness before a series of psychiatrists and psychologists. They do show medical professionals considered him potentially dangerous and warned he needed close supervision if released into the community.

The Security Review Board, however, said it had no authority to impose supervision or any limits on Montwheeler when he was freed in December.

Officials at the Security Review Board and the Oregon State Hospital have declined to discuss Montwheeler, citing patient confidentiality.

But the documents chronicle the struggle of medical professionals treating Montwheeler as mentally ill when he exhibited no symptoms. In some instances, they gave him the wrong medications and at the wrong dosages.

Professionals at the state hospital subsequently concluded that Montwheeler wasn’t ill and had been “improperly” put under the control of the Security Review Board, according to the state documents.

Those documents also provide a deeper profile of Montwheeler, who grew up in eastern Oregon. While at the state hospital, he was caught loan sharking, lending money to other patients. When released into the community, he twice set fire to his property to claim insurance and engaged in money laundering, the reports show.

With Montwheeler, the public is getting a rare glimpse into how the state handles someone who successfully asserts an insanity defense to criminal charges. The Security Review Board historically has maintained that its files are confidential and not open to the public.

The board pressed that point after the Enterprise sought 15 of 227 exhibits the board relied on for its December decision. The board sued the newspaper to defy an order from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office to turn over the documents.

The board relented under pressure last week from Gov. Kate Brown, dropping the suit and releasing 125 pages of material, including doctor’s notes, risk reviews, and violence assessments.

Juliet Britton, Security Review Board executive director, said last week her agency is now processing another 600 pages from its Montwheeler file for public release.

Montwheeler ended up in state jurisdiction after a 1996 standoff with police in Baker City. Police reports say Montwheeler kidnapped his then-wife and 3-year-old son, threatening to kill them and himself.

After his arrest, the state records show, a state psychiatrist concluded Montwheeler was mentally fit to stand trial. Montwheeler’s attorney retained Salem psychiatrist John Cochran to provide a second opinion.

Cochran recounted how Montwheeler was raised by an aunt and uncle in Halfway after his mother was murdered by his father in 1974. He married in Guam while in the Marine Corps, a marriage he said lasted just weeks. It was a pending separation from his second wife that led to the Baker City standoff.

Cochran said Montwheeler “does meet the test for being guilty except for insanity” and that he “does not appear to be malingering.”

In his April 30, 1997, evaluation, Cochran noted Montwheeler’s statements that he heard voices, including that of his murdered mother and of a friend he said he watched die in the Marine Corps. (Contacted recently, Cochran said he did not recall the case.)

Montwheeler testified last December none of that was true.

The recently released records quote Montwheeler’s statements explaining how, he said, his attorney orchestrated that second opinion, which was relied on by a state judge to put Montwheeler under the Security Review Board.

“He said his defense attorney had an assessment done because ‘she said the state hospital is safer than going to prison.’ Mr. Montwheeler said that the first assessment ‘said there is nothing wrong with me.’ Then his attorney told him not to worry because she would find another psychologist,” according to an Oct. 26, 2015, memo by a social worker.

State hospital employees said Montwheeler told them his attorney gave him a medical reference book and “coached him well on how to act if he had a mental illness,” according to a risk review dated last Oct. 25. Montwheeler said his attorney told him he would be out of the state hospital in six months instead of facing seven years in prison.

The attorney didn’t respond to written questions mailed to addresses on file with the state bar.

A state psychiatrist wrote in December 1997 that Montwheeler remained a danger because he couldn’t explain the kidnapping.

Dr. Charles Faulk said there was a “reasonable medical probability that the patient may have simulated symptoms in order to avoid the prison system,” according to his report.

Faulk said there were no symptoms of mental illness, making it “difficult, if impossible, to find just what and how to treat.”

The Security Review Board had that report at a January 1998 hearing involving Montwheeler, its records show.

Seven years later, another psychiatrist wrote that Montwheeler’s “unusual course of illness does open the possibility of malingering.” That report contains no recommendation to act on that possibility.

By 2016, hospital professionals concluded Montwheeler wasn’t bipolar as diagnosed. A hospital psychologist wrote in July 15, 2016, that Montwheeler “repeatedly” asserted that he wasn’t mentally ill.

“This is consistent with the opinion of multiple members of his treatment team,” the psychologist wrote.

A hospital risk review team report last October said that Montwheeler was “misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and had never received appropriate treatment for bipolar disorder.”

Dr. Mukesh Mittal, a hospital psychiatrist, separately said in patient progress notes dated last Nov. 8 that Montwheeler’s biopolar diagnosis “has not been validated in a clinical setting.”

Still, medical professionals treated Montwheeler for years, the records show. At one time, he was prescribed medication that, according to hospital records, “is not a recognized treatment for bipolar disorder.”

A state psychologist in a violence risk assessment said Montwheeler had been given “excessive” services.

“The main service need being met by the hospital is containment,” wrote Dr. Brian Hartman.

Montwheeler was confined to the state hospital from 1997 until 2002. He returned to eastern Oregon, where he arrested for a series of crimes and sent to state prison in 2012. After he finished his sentence in 2014, state officials returned him to the state hospital, where he stayed until his release last December.

He proved a challenging patient, according to hospital records.

A December 2015 hospital report said Montwheeler was loan sharking.

“He ran a store out of his room charging 100 percent interest for items,” the report said. “He also ran a business and charged for computer parts with significant markups.”

He was given passes to leave hospital grounds, but refused group therapy. Instead, he joined “leisure groups” for bowling and fishing. He also was “defiant towards a particular nurse.”

The hospital records maintained a mixed assessment of Montwheeler’s risk of violence.

State hospital officials in 2014 assessed moving Montwheeler into the community, a social worker reporting that he was not “an imminent danger to himself or others.” The social worker said Malheur County “would not be a good fit” because of his past criminal conduct and relationships.

He remained a risk to become violent, the reports show.

“The patient’s most likely victims of violence would be his family or active crime victims,” according to a 2014 violence risk assessment.

A year later, Montwheeler was reported telling a state hospital worker he was “ready to get out of here.” He would later testify he admitted his ruse in frustration when hospital officials proposed releasing him but only to another secure treatment home.

A treatment care plan dated Aug. 7, 2015, advised that Montwheeler needed to deal with frustrations so he didn’t “go off on people” in the community.

“There is an increased risk of aggressive behavior towards others during times when he experiences interpersonal conflict,” the care plan said.

A Dec. 23, 2015, hospital report said that Montwheeler showed no threat of violence but said he had a record at the hospital of “assaultive behavior” that included playing volleyball “with intent to hurt others.”

The December hospital report said if released into the community, Montwheeler would need “close monitoring,” “close supervision,” and a “structured environment.”

By late 2016, hospital professionals concluded that Montwheeler was no longer mentally ill and recommended his discharge.

The Security Review Board accepted the recommendation after witnesses testified that if Montwheeler was a risk, it was because of a personality disorder over which the board had no jurisdiction.

Three weeks after his release, Montwheeler told relatives he had discovered credit card fraud by his fourth ex-wife, Annita Harmon (Harmon’s family denies this). He took his complaints to police, he said.

Eleven days later, police say, he kidnapped Harmon outside the Idaho town of Weiser in a start to events that led to her death.

Les Zaitz: [email protected]; twitter: @leszaitz

Previous coverage:

State drops lawsuit under pressure from governor.

State agency sues newspaper to block records release.

Family responds to Enterprise report.

DEADLY DECISIONS: Man faked illness to avoid prison.