Montwheeler to claim abuse from childhood, seeks return to hospital

Anthony Montwheeler sits in the Malheur County Circuit Court during a trial earlier in the year. (The Enterprise/Jayme Fraser)

VALE – People dating back to Anthony Montwheeler’s childhood are being called on to help get the accused murderer sent back to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment.

Defense attorneys representing Montwheeler have combed through his past, piecing together what they say is a life of abuse and neglect. That history has left Montwheeler so damaged that he is unable to defend himself against charges that he murdered an ex-wife and killed a Vale man in a rampage in January 2017, his attorneys maintain.

To make that point, Montwheeler is scheduled to come face to face next month in Malheur County Circuit Court with his first grade teacher from the town of Halfway, the babysitter caring for him the night his father murdered his mother in Prineville, and his high school girlfriend.

According to a 33-page court filing last week, these and other witnesses will describe abuse at the hands of his father and other relatives as well as his neglect by a government system that didn’t protect him. 

Suzanne Best, a clinical psychologist, is scheduled to testify how life’s events left Montwheeler with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Defense attorney David Falls said in a court filing last week that the syndrome is a mental illness qualifying Montwheeler for treatment.

The court hearing scheduled for Sept. 17 turns on the question of whether Montwheeler is fit for trial and is separate from whether he qualifies for the insanity defense. He is accused of stabbing to death Annita Harmon, an ex-wife, outside an Ontario convenience store and then plowing his pick-up truck head-on into another vehicle while eluding police. The collision killed David Bates of Vale and seriously injured his wife Jessica.

He faces a possible death penalty for charges of aggravated murder, assault, and kidnapping.

After his arrest, Montwheeler was ordered to the state hospital for examination after a state judge said it appeared he was incompetent to help in his defense. He had been discharged from the state hospital three weeks before the murders, excused from up to 70 years under state control after being found guilty but insane in a 1996 kidnapping.

That discharge came after Montwheeler insisted to authorities he had been faking his mental illness for nearly 20 years to avoid going to prison.

The court filing describes how Montwheeler underwent a six-hour examination in January in Salem by Dr. Octavio Choi, who director of the state hospital’s Forensic Evaluation Services. Choi said Montwheeler “appeared consistently confused and distracted” but “put forth good effort in answering my questions,” according to the court filing. 

Choi reported that during certain stages of the assessment, Montwheeler “was exaggerating his impairments,” according to the court filing.

Choi concluded Montwheeler isn’t fit to stand trial and “requires hospital level of care for competency restoration.”

District Attorney David Goldthorpe signaled in his own filing Friday that he would contest that conclusion.

“Reasonable and adequate treatment for that specific condition is provided to incarcerated individuals on a regular basis in the Malheur County Jail and would be available to the defendant upon request of himself or through counsel,” Goldthorpe wrote. 

If Montwheeler is judged unfit to stand trial, he would be sent to the state hospital for treatment. The criminal case would remain on hold until he was considered mentally competent. Under Oregon law, the charges would be dismissed if treatment is not successful within three years.

Montwheeler’s attorney, David Falls, indicated he would put state hospital professionals on trial during next month’s hearing.

He noted that state hospital experts “consistently determined Anthony Montwheeler had a mental disease or defect” requiring state-supervised treatment. Falls said state officials tried and failed in 2016 to place Montwheeler in community treatment.

“The Oregon State Hospital had to keep him under supervision at the hospital, an expensive program, or find a way to discharge his [state] supervision,” Falls wrote.

He said only then did state officials “become interested” in Montwheeler’s claims of malingering and that he made up his illness.

“Were the mental health professionals ‘making it up’ for all of the years that defendant was under their supervision and control?” Falls asked in his filing.

Montwheeler was discharged in December 2016 after one state mental health professional concluded he didn’t have a mental illness. Falls said that finding was “made up” so Montwheeler could be let out of the state hospital. He said the diagnosis then was “clearly wrong and without support.”

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