Montwheeler’s prosecution on hold, awaiting new mental evaluation

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

Susan Harmon has read the police reports about the day a year ago that her daughter was murdered and a Vale man killed.

Authorities say Annita Harmon was stabbed to death outside an Ontario convenience store on Jan. 9, 2017. Anthony Montwheeler, Harmon’s ex-husband and a former mental hospital patient, was charged with her murder.

“He was stalking her,” Harmon concluded from the reports.

Harmon shared new details about a crime that jolted the Treasure Valley and put state officials in line for intense criticism for freeing Montwheeler from the Oregon State Hospital.

A year ago, Annita Harmon was living with her parents in their rural home west of Weiser. She had done well after divorcing Montwheeler, her mother said. She had won promotions at Dickinson Frozen Foods in Fruitland, earning her own office.

That morning, she planned to go to work early.

According to police reports Susan Harmon read, Montwheeler was up even earlier that day at his home in Nampa. The reports said about 4 a.m. Montwheeler’s girlfriend asked him where he was going, and he replied he was going to the gym.

Sometime before 6 a.m., a neighbor spotted a pickup truck parked at an intersection not far from the Harmon home. The neighbor stopped and asked if the man, who matched Montwheeler’s description, needed help. No, he said. He was making a call, according to the reports.

About 6 a.m., Annita Harmon got in her car and headed out for the drive to work.

Not long afterward, police found her empty car left in the middle of the road, about a half mile from where Montwheeler had been parked, said Harmon’s mother.

Police have previously disclosed what they suspect happened. They think Montwheeler kidnapped Harmon and took her across the Idaho-Oregon border into Ontario. Harmon was stabbed to death outside the convenience store, and Montwheeler fled when police were summoned. On Oregon Highway 201, his truck collided with another vehicle, killing Vale resident David Bates and injuring his wife Jessica.

Montwheeler subsequently was charged with aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping. He was treated for serious injuries and had a knee replaced at public expense. He is now in the Malheur County Jail.

He has alerted prosecutors he may assert an insanity defense. He had successfully done so in 1997 after he was charged in Baker County with kidnapping his first wife and son.

His prosecution has stalled as officials await a long-anticipated report on Montwheeler’s mental fitness. Circuit Court Judge Patricia Sullivan last summer ordered Montwheeler evaluated at the Oregon State Hospital to determine whether he had the mental capacity to aid his defense.

At the time of the January crimes, Montwheeler had been free for less than a month from the state hospital. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board released him without condition after he claimed he had faked his mental illness for 20 years and a state hospital psychiatrist agreed.

According to the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, Montwheeler was taken to Salem last Aug. 31 to be evaluated at the state hospital. Such evaluations, state officials said, usually take only a few hours.

Jonathan Modie, communications officer with the Oregon Health Authority, said last summer that a report with the results of such evaluations usually is done in three days.

Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, said he has yet to see the report and has no indication when one will be produced.

State officials said Monday they couldn’t address Montwheeler’s evaluation because of federal privacy restrictions but explained that generally evaluations can take weeks for a variety of reasons, including the need to review years’ worth of records.

“Evaluators strive to provide reports that are both timely and accurate and useful to the court,” said Rebeka Gibson-King, state hospital spokeswoman.

The prosecution of Montwheeler can’t proceed without that report, Goldthorpe said.

If state doctors conclude Montwheeler is fit, he will be scheduled to enter a plea. If they find he is unfit, Montwheeler will be sent back to the state hospital to be treated until he is fit.

A trial has been scheduled on the calendar for fall 2019, reserving court time for what could be a lengthy proceeding.

Goldthorpe said he would seek the maximum penalty if Montwheeler is convicted.

“The state is currently seeking the death penalty if the case proceeds to trial,” Goldthorpe said in an email.

Montwheeler’s attorney, David Falls of West Linn, didn’t respond to emailed questions or a telephone message.

Meantime, relatives of the victims intend to pursue compensation from Oregon state agencies for releasing Montwheeler.

Jessica Bates, who has recovered from her injuries, notified the state last July through her attorney that she intended to sue for $5 million for herself and her five children.

“The state of Oregon…knew Mr. Montwheeler was a threat to society and likely to engage in acts of physical violence and yet, unexplainably, released him into society,” her tort claim notice said.

Bruce Skaug, a Nampa lawyer representing Bates, said the state rejected the claim and Bates now intends to sue.

Susan Harmon said her family, too, intends legal action against Oregon. She said the family soon would file its own claim with the state.

She said her granddaughter, now in the seventh grade, lives with her. Her grandson is attending Boise State University. She said they were both aware of the anniversary of their mother’s death, yet were “doing okay.”

Harmon said she hoped the passing of time didn’t mean people would forget about her daughter.

“She was a good person,” Susan Harmon said. “She was trying to get her life back together.”

Contact Les Zaitz: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.