State judge sends Montwheeler back to state hospital

This story has been updated.

VALE – Accused murderer Anthony Montwheeler will return to the Oregon State Hospital to be treated after a judge ruled Tuesday that he is too impaired to make decisions about his legal defense.

Multnomah Circuit Judge Thomas Ryan, conducting a hearing in Malheur County Circuit Court, was swayed by a 37-page report and the testimony of a state psychiatrist.

Dr. Octavio Choi, a psychiatrist and director of Forensic Evaluation Services at the Oregon State Hospital, diagnosed Montwheeler with adjustment disorder that “significantly impaired” his ability to make rational decisions about his defense, according to an evaluation report made public Monday. Choi told the court that Montwheeler’s condition is more commonly known as mild to moderate depression.

Choi said three to six months of treatment at the state hospital could make Montwheeler mentally capable of facing aggravated murder, assault, and kidnapping charges in Malheur County.

Making his ruling, Ryan conceded concerns about “the defendant’s potential for malingering.”

“On balance I don’t believe I have a basis to contest,” Ryan said. “And, I do agree with Dr. Choi’s report and I am going to find the defendant unable to aid and assist. And I will be sending him to the hospital for treatment.”

The findings were listed in a long-confidential report Choi authored last January. His report was made public Monday at the request of the Malheur Enterprise.

Choi said the state hospital is the best place to treat Montwheeler.

“I believe he should properly be considered highly dangerous and thus would be inappropriate for community-based restoration,” Choi wrote.

The report’s release came hours after Choi testified in Vale about his report and his opinions about Montwheeler. He testified at a hearing to determine whether Montwheeler should go to the hospital or remain in Malheur County to face prosecution.

Montwheeler, 50, is accused of kidnapping and murdering Annita Harmon, an ex-wife, then killing David Bates in a head-on collision during a police chase between Ontario and Vale in January 2017. Just weeks earlier, he had been released from the state hospital at the order of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, which decided that he had faked mental illness for almost 20 years to avoid prison in an earlier kidnapping case.

In September 2017, Montwheeler was sent to the state hospital to be evaluated by Choi because of a judge’s concerns he wasn’t fit for trial. The doctor used information from an interview and thousands of pages of state records about previous mental health treatment to write his report last January. The report was then filed in Malheur County Circuit Court.

The Enterprise requested the evaluation months ago, but Judge Ryan sealed the record at the request of Defense Attorney David Falls and District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe, finding that disclosing the evaluation would invade Montwheeler’s privacy. The newspaper recently renewed its appeal to Ryan, who Monday afternoon ordered the report released.

The detailed mental health findings in the report were the focus of what was expected to be a weeklong hearing. Choi was the first of several witnesses scheduled to testify about whether Montwheeler has a mental illness and if that condition limits his ability to defend himself in court.

Choi described a six-hour interview with Montwheeler, done a year ago, and questioned Montwheeler’s credibility.

The defendant “attempted to exaggerate impairment for the purpose of a favorable outcome in the evaluation” and be sent to the hospital, Choi concluded in his report.

He said that during the interview, Montwheeler described hearing voices. Such reported hallucinations were a key factor in the conclusion in a 1996 criminal case that Montwheeler was guilty except for insanity. The finding sent Montwheeler to the state hospital instead of prison.

In his interview with Choi, Montwheeler “provided highly inconsistent accounts of auditory hallucinations,” the report said.

Choi said when he pressed about the voices, Montwheeler “became quite angry at this evaluator,” the report said.

Montwheeler went on a “long, angry and fairly disorganized rant” about a jail employee, the report said.

“He reported strongly believing that a particular lieutenant at Malheur County Jail could read his mind,” the report said.

Choi noted in his report and again in testimony Monday that his conclusions about Montwheeler were based on a year-old interview. He said his opinion was based on what he diagnosed as Montwheeler’s mental condition at that time.

He reviewed Montwheeler’s history in the state mental health system, including four stays at the hospital.  

Choi went down the list of Montwheeler’s previous diagnoses to determine which ones currently affected him. The psychiatrist concluded that as of September 2017, Montwheeler didn’t show symptoms of bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, delusional disorder, or another psychotic condition.

He testified on Monday that Montwheeler might have those conditions, or had them in the past, but that he couldn’t be certain because of “the unreliability of Mr. Montwheeler’s self-reported history.” Without additional documented symptoms from mental health experts, Choi said he could not trust Montwheeler’s descriptions “at face value.”

Choi offered no evaluation of the past diagnoses. State hospital officials had long considered Montwheeler mentally ill. In 2016, however, a state psychiatrist concluded there was no sign Montwheeler was ill and should be released from state control. The Psychiatric Security Review Board followed that advice and relied on Montwheeler’s claim he had been faking his illness to set him free.

Officials at the state hospital and the state board since then have refused to discuss the matter, citing patient confidentiality.

Choi cautioned against using his current opinion to question the original insanity finding in 1996 and his subsequent discharge from the state hospital.

The mother of Annita Harmon sat in the back row of the courtroom on Monday with a granddaughter and near some members of David Bates’ family. The group exchanged hugs, anger and tears during one break in the morning’s proceedings.

Susan Harmon described Choi’s stiff terminology for Montwheeler’s inconsistent story about his mental health as fancy talk for “lies.”

“He lied to the state to get out of the hospital and now he’s lying to get out of murder,” she said Monday, frustrated with repeated delays in the case that has, as a result, been set for trial in late 2019.

Goldthorpe had argued against sending Montwheeler for treatment before trial, saying he doesn’t need it. Questioning Choi on Monday, he asked about the man’s history of lying to evaluators, the diagnoses Choi ruled out in his examination, and how depression could prevent someone from receiving a fair trial.

Choi explained that he tested Montwheeler’s ability to learn new concepts and evaluated how well he could weigh pros and cons of choices, both of which were impaired.

“It should be emphasized that competency is a here-and-now kind of thing. I have not assessed Mr. Montwheeler since September 2017,” he testified.

In the judge’s chamber Monday, Ryan asked attorneys if Choi could do a new, brief assessment of Montwheeler while in Vale so that he could provide an updated opinion. In open court, Falls said he thought state law would prevent an impromptu evaluation in jail because the competency reviews must be compelled by a judge’s order and completed at at the state hospital.

Goldthorpe called two other witnesses on Monday – Crystal Copenhaver, a Lifeways social worker, and Lt. Rachel Reyna, commander of the Malheur County Jail. They testified that they told Montwheeler and his attorney about mental health services available in jail. They said the only time he received such care was in April 2017, when he attempted to hang himself, and in June 2017, when he scratched his arms with a chunk of concrete.

Those visits, Copenhaver said, didn’t require the approval of his legal team.

Montwheeler’s defense team has instructed him not to accept any care from Lifeways, a private mental health organization under contract to provide services in the jail.

Falls contended Lifeways has a conflict of interest in treating Montwheeler, in part, because the program’s medical director is Dr. John Bates, a psychiatrist. Falls said that Bates graduated from Halfway High School with Montwheeler, served with him in the Marine Corps, and is the brother of victim David Bates.

In his report, Choi wrote that Falls told him that Lifeways “refused to guarantee that they would not give their psychiatric records on Mr. Montwheeler to the sheriff of Malheur County.”

Copenhaver said she wouldn’t refuse to treat Montwheeler if he requested it and, as Lifeways staff for the jail, it would be her to provide that care.

Under questioning from Falls, Reyna confirmed that while the jail would allow an inmate to be treated by a doctor of their choosing, the county only pays for care provided by Lifeways.

In court Tuesday, Goldthorpe said Bates called to tell him he had retired and no longer worked at Lifeways. Falls said that reduced his concern about a conflict of interest.

That morning, Goldthorpe also called another witness to the stand: Dr. Mukesh Mittal, whose opinion was critical to the state’s decision to free Montwheeler weeks before the alleged killings. His questions focused on Mittal’s findings that Montwheeler had repeatedly lied to mental health providers and, in 2016, did not show any signs of having a mental illness.

“It would be very difficult to hide that for two years” under observed care at the state hospital, Mittal said, noting that included one year without medication. “There was never any indication he was experiencing active symptoms and he revealed to me that he was taking the medication just to keep up the reasonable deception.”

Nicolas Ortiz, one of Montwheeler’s defense attorneys, emphasized that Mittal’s opinion of Montwheeler from when he supervised him 2014 to 2016 did not have any value in determining the man’s current state and ability to stand trial. Mittal conceded that he had not seen Montwheeler in two years and he has “no reason to dispute (Choi’s) conclusions.”

The defense also had prepared to bring several other personal witnesses to the stand this week, including family members, friends and old girlfriends. Because the judge was prepared to rule in favor of the defense’s motion that Montwheeler needed treatment, they were not called to court.

Reporter Jayme Fraser: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.