Defense attorney blames state for discharging Montwheeler

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

VALE – State officials “wrongly” released a mentally ill Anthony Montwheeler from their control last year and now may be liable for their negligence, his attorney said in a new court filing.

Montwheeler was discharged from the Oregon State Hospital last December and less than a month later was accused of kidnapping and murdering an ex-wife, and killing a Vale man and injuring his wife in a collision while eluding police.

His freedom came after state doctors reversed 20 years of diagnoses to conclude Montwheeler didn’t appear mentally ill but remained a risk to the community. Montwheeler himself said he faked his illness to avoid a prison sentence for a 1996 kidnapping.

David Falls, Montwheeler’s attorney, now maintains in a filing in Malheur County Circuit Court that Montwheeler has a “long history of mental illness.”

The court filing opposes an effort by Malheur County District Attorney David Goldthorpe to send Montwheeler back to the state hospital for a fresh round of psychiatric examinations.

Falls said the state officials might be motivated to support earlier conclusions that Montwheeler wasn’t mentally ill. Falls has said Montwheeler may assert an insanity defense against the most recent charges.

Montwheeler successfully used such a defense in 1997, when a judge found he was guilty but insane in a case in which he kidnapped and threatened his then-wife and son in Baker City. Montwheeler testified last December that he was coached on how to act mentally ill to get sent to the state hospital instead of enduring a seven-year prison sentence.

In the earlier case, he was put under the jurisdiction of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, which has responsibility for those found guilty but insane for crimes. Over nearly 20 years, the Security Review Board at times committed Montwheeler to the state hospital or released him to the community. State hospital records showed state and community practitioners treated Montwheeler all those years as mentally ill.

The Security Review Board was supposed to supervise him for 70 years but last December let him go from the state hospital and ended his state supervision.

It did so on the strength of testimony of two state doctors at a December hearing that Montwheeler wasn’t mentally ill. State psychiatrist Mukesh Mittal testified that his exhaustive review of Montwheeler’s medical records showed no documented symptoms of mental illness.

In his court filing, Falls said in his court filing that the hospital, the two doctors, and the Security Review Board “wrongly terminated the PSRB supervision and along with it established mental health treatment.”

He said they all were “potentially liable for their negligent or wrongful conduct,” apparently alluding to the possibility that victims of the January crime might hold the state responsible.

“The average person can see how clearly this potential financial conflict of interest will weigh heavily on the hospital and staff members,” Falls said in his filing.

Juliet Britton, executive director of the Security Review Board, said Monday that Falls has not contacted the board to dispute its decision.

“The board has very clear laws and administrative rules that it must follow based on the evidence at the time of the PSRB hearing,” she said in an email.

She said no liability claims have been filed against the board related to Montwheeler’s discharge.

The Oregon Health Authority, which oversees the hospital, has declined all comment in the past about the hospital’s role in Montwheeler’s release. Agency officials Friday said they wouldn’t comment on Fall’s claims.

In a related development, evidence has emerged that Annita Harmon, Montwheeler’s ex-wife, may have been bound after she was kidnapped outside Weiser last Jan. 9. Her body was found inside Montwheeler’s Dodge pickup after it collided outside Ontario with a vehicle driven by David Bates of Vale. Bates was killed and his wife Jessica injured.

According to a recent court filing, police recovered “used zip ties” from the truck, suggesting that Harmon had been bound.

Goldthorpe wouldn’t confirm that, but said the zip ties and other evidence were seized for analysis.

“They were used zip ties and they were in the pickup truck,” Goldthorpe said. “There was a reason we analyzed them and there is a reason why the defense is calling them used.”

The court filing by Falls also said police recovered a bloody flashlight and a bloody knife. Authorities have said Harmon was stabbed to death before the collision.

Falls discussed the police findings as part of his continuing effort to get two local state judges taken off the case. He noted that Circuit Judge Erin Landis, who approved the warrant to seize the evidence, had prosecuted Montwheeler in 2005 when he was a deputy district attorney. He said Circuit Judge Lung Hung also was a prosecutor in the 2005 case.

In a brief court hearing last week, Landis said he had no recollection of the Montwheeler case. He continued the hearing to Friday, June 9, to consider Falls’ request that the two judges be disqualified.

Montwheeler attended last week’s hearing by video. He sat at a table, dressed in jail garb, his head bowed. He spoke only once, when asked by the judge if he could hear the courtroom proceedings.