Jessica Bates to seek $5 million in damages for state’s release of Montwheeler

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

Jessica Bates, widow and mother of five, may forgive Anthony Montwheeler but she isn’t forgiving state officials for releasing from state control the man subsequently accused of killing her husband.

Through her attorney, Bates has notified the state she intends to sue two state agencies for $5 million for their role in freeing Montwheeler from the Oregon State Hospital last December.

Montwheeler, 49, was arrested a month later, accused of kidnapping and murdering Annita Harmon, his ex-wife from Weiser, and then killing David Bates and injuring Jessica Bates in a collision as he eluded police. He faces a potential death penalty on charges of aggravated murder, first-degree assault and kidnapping.

Jessica Bates said she will file claims against the Oregon State Hospital, a unit of the Oregon Health Authority, and the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board. She said she will seek compensation for injuries, emotional distress and loss of financial support for her and her five children.

The state through the Security Review Board “knew Mr. Montwheeler was a threat to society and was likely to engage in acts of physical violence and yet, unexplainably, released him into society,” said the tort claim filed by Bates’ attorney, Bruce Skaug of Nampa.

“The litigation is to bring accountability and change,” Skaug said Tuesday. “The state of Oregon could have prevented this event and this tragedy.”

Document: Initial tort claim

Document: Amended tort claim

Susan Harmon, mother of Annita Harmon, said Monday she intends to sue as well.

“We’re pursuing it,” she said.

The state hasn’t responded to what is called a tort claim – a required first step to sue the state. The original claim, dated June 30, was received by the state’s risk management unit July 5. An amended claim was filed the next day, specifying the sum to be sought. Skaug said he intends to sue in U.S. District Court, working with attorney Kevin Dinius of Nampa.

Oregon Health Authority officials offered no comment by deadline, but the Security Review Board said it started preparing for litigation soon after the January crime.

“We are working with Risk Management to gather information to bring them up to speed so they can be responsive to the tort claim,” said Juliet Britton, executive director of the Security Review Board.

Montwheeler was placed under control of the Security Review Board in 1997 after asserting an insanity defense to kidnapping charges in Baker County. He was treated at the state hospital off and on over the next 20 years and spent most of his time on supervised release. He was back in the state hospital when state hospital doctors concluded he wasn’t mentally ill and should be released.

At a December 2016 hearing, Montwheeler testified he had faked his illness in 1997 to avoid a prison sentence and was never ill. The Security Review Board relied on testimony of state hospital doctors and Montwheeler to order his release. The board by law is required to free an individual if they are not mentally ill.

In her claim, Bates said that decision was wrong. In her original claim, she blamed state officials for “failing to take steps necessary to reduce or eliminate the danger posted by Anthony Montwheeler.”

In an interview with the Enterprise earlier this year, Bates said she was relying on her deep faith to overcome the challenges of that deadly January morning. She said her faith was leading her to forgive Montwheeler.

Records obtained earlier this year by the Malheur Enterprise showed that a state psychiatrist concluded last November that state files showed no record of symptoms of mental illness in Montwheeler. The psychiatrist recounted years of treatment based on an initial assessment by a doctor hired by Montwheeler’s defense attorney in 1996.

The state records also showed state professionals warned that Montwheeler could be a danger in the community. The reports said the risk was due to Montwheeler’s personality disorder, not mental illness.

“If Mr. Montwheeler was in the community without supervision, is risk of violence would be high, and would most likely be targeted at his intimate partner or other family members,” said a state hospital risk assessment in July 2016.

The Security Review Board voted to discharge Montwheeler, but not before its chairman urged a “forensic” examination of the Montwheeler case. The Security Review Board, the Oregon State Hospital and the Oregon Health Authority later said they had no records of such an examination.

State health officials have steadfastly refused to discuss the state’s handling of the Montwheeler case. They have done by claiming they were required to protect Montwheeler’s privacy as a patient. State doctors, however, testified in open session before the Security Review Board about him and the Security Review Board later released more than 600 pages of state records documenting his treatment.

Skaug said the Enterprise’s reporting was key.

“We’re very grateful for your work,” Skaug said.

“If you read the records at all, they had to understand this man was a chameleon,” said Susan Harmon. “He has manipulated them off and on for 20 years.”

She said Security Review Board members were themselves manipulated.

“They are supposed to be the professionals,” she said.

Skaug said that as far as he knows, no one from the Security Review Board, state hospital, or Oregon Health Authority has ever reached out to Bates.