State hospital concludes Montwheeler unfit to stand trial

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

VALE – Oregon State Hospital evaluators have concluded that Anthony W. Montwheeler is mentally unfit to stand trial, creating uncertainty about when he will be prosecuted on charges he stabbed to death an ex-wife and killed a Vale man in a collision during a police pursuit.

Montwheeler’s attorney said in court filings last week that his client needs to be taken back to the state hospital and held for treatment until he can aid in his own defense.

Malheur County District Attorney David Goldthorpe said Friday that he would contest the fitness finding, setting up the potential for a court hearing that would explore Montwheeler’s tangled criminal and mental health history.

Montwheeler, 50, is facing the death penalty if convicted of the aggravated murders in January 2017 of Annita Harmon, a Weiser woman once married to Montwheeler, and David Bates, killed while on his way to work in Ontario. Bates died and his wife Jessica was seriously injured when Montwheeler’s pickup truck collided head on with the Bates rig south of Ontario.

State records disclosed after the crimes showed that in 1997 Montwheeler was put under state control after being judged guilty but insane of kidnapping his first wife and son. He was put under the jurisdiction of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board for 70 years. The board, however, freed Montwheeler early because he convinced the board he had been faking his mental illness all along to avoid prison.

A state psychiatrist in late 2016 said in a report relied on by the state board that he could find no sign Montwheeler was mentally ill despite years of treatment by state and local professionals.

Oregon officials have never publicly explained how Montwheeler could fool doctors for so long.

Montwheeler was freed three weeks before the murders.

The immediate issue is whether Montwheeler has the mental capacity to understand his current legal circumstances.

State hospital officials on Jan. 11 filed a 37-page report of their evaluation, one that took nearly four months to produce when such reports are typically done in about three days, officials with the Oregon Health Authority said.

Court officials have refused to disclose the report although it is part of the criminal case file in Malheur County Circuit Court.

Montwheeler’s attorney wants a court finding that Montwheeler now has a “qualifying mental disorder” which leaves him unable to help his attorney, understand the criminal proceedings or participate in his defense.

Document: Attorney’s filing regarding fitness

If the judge does so, Montwheeler would once again return to the state hospital. By law, hospital officials would have 60 days to conduct yet another mental evaluation of Montwheeler. Within three months, hospital officials would be required to report their judgment to the judge. The law gives them three findings from which to select: Montwheeler will be fit for trial, he will become fit with treatment, or there is “no substantial possibility” he would be fit for trial in “the foreseeable future.”

Under the law, Montwheeler couldn’t be held for treatment for more than three years if he’s found not fit.

The law also provides that if officials declare he can’t regain his mental fitness, the criminal charges could be dropped.

No hearing has been scheduled to consider the hospital report.

Montwheeler’s attorney, David Falls of West Linn, is asking that the hospital report on file with the court be sealed from public view. He also said other documents such as juvenile and family records should be kept confidential.

Falls wrote that Montwheeler “demands that his privacy interests be protected and that he be afforded adequate opportunities to object to any governmental intrusions or dissemination of such records.”

Document: Request to seal report

The Malheur Enterprise recently requested access to the hospital report. Marilee Aldred, trial court administrator for the Malheur County Circuit Court, initially said the record was exempt by law and then said the request was being reviewed by the judge handling the Montwheeler case. That is Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan, who took over the case after Malheur County’s two state judges stepped away because of previous dealings with Montwheeler as prosecutors.

Access to public records about Montwheeler has been an issue before. Last year, the Enterprise won an order from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum requiring the Security Review Board to release 600 pages of documents concerning its handling of Montwheeler prior to his release in December 2016. The agency initially balked at obeying the order and sued the newspaper to block access to the records. Gov. Kate Brown subsequently ordered the suit dropped and the records released.