VALE – A lawsuit filed to hold the state accountable for its release of Anthony Montwheeler three years ago faces a crucial hearing Monday, when state lawyers try to persuade a judge to toss the case.
Montwheeler, the man at the heart of the lawsuit, won’t be there.
He remains in jail pending criminal charges that he kidnapped and murdered an ex-wife in January 2017, and while fleeing police crashed into an oncoming vehicle outside Ontario, killing David Bates of Vale and injuring his wife, Jessica.
Jessica Bates sued the state in Malheur County Circuit Court on behalf of her five children, seeking $500,000. In her complaint, Bates said the state knew Montwheeler was dangerous and should not have been freed from the Oregon State Hospital.
In court filings, the state said state agencies can’t be held legally responsible for what happened in January 2017. The state maintains that the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, which had jurisdiction over Montwheeler as a result of an earlier insanity finding, has “absolute immunity” from being liable for its decision to release Montwheeler.
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The state also said the Oregon State Hospital and the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees the hospital, can’t be held liable for a decision made by the state board and that the hospital followed legal orders to free Montwheeler.
Lawyers representing Bates pushed back in their own legal filings, saying the case shouldn’t be dismissed. The family is represented by Bruce Skaug and Kevin Dinius of Nampa.
That debate will be the focus of Monday’s hearing in Malheur County Circuit Court.
The case is separate from the pending criminal proceedings against Montwheeler, who is scheduled to stand trial next July.
And the Vale hearing comes about a month after a state judge in Portland dropped a similar case against the state. That lawsuit was filed by the family of Annita Harmon, the ex-wife Montwheeler is accused of murdering outside an Ontario convenience store. Attorney David Paul of Portand, representing the family, is appealing that dismissal.
Montwheeler’s history and his state hospital treatment over 20 years are at the core of the civil lawsuits.
Montwheeler was found guilty except for insanity for the 1996 kidnapping of his first wife and their son in a case out of Baker City. He was committed to the jurisdiction of the state Security Review Board and, according to state records, spent time in the ensuing years at the state hospital, under community care out of Ontario, and in prison.
The state Security Review Board in December 2016 concluded that Montwheeler no longer had a qualifying mental disease and ordered him released.
Attorneys for the Bates family said in a recent court filing that the board “unleashed him on society knowing full well the likelihood he would commit acts of violence if released.”
The filing, trying to fend off the state’s move to end the case, recites in detail Montwheeler’s trip through the state system, chronicling time after time that medical professionals concluded Montwheeler had a mental disease.
Montwheeler returned to the state hospital in 2014 after finishing a prison sentence and a year later told Dr. Mukesh Mittal, who treated Montwheeler at the state hospital, that “I just really need to get out,” according to the court filing.
“Dr. Mittal was convinced that Mr. Montwheeler had employed deception in order to get out of the prison system and into the state hospital,” the court filing said. Montwheeler asserted in December 2015 that he didn’t have a mental illness.
The court filing cited Mittal’s patient notes from 2016 in which he said that “Mr. Montwheeler told him that he did not have bipolar disorder and Dr. Mittal believed Mr. Montwheeler.”
In October 2016, Mittal “reversed 20 years of treating psychiatrists and concluded Mr. Montwheeler did not have a mental disease or defect.”
This represented “a stunning reversal of his earlier professional diagnosis,” the court filing said.
Within 24 hours of writing that conclusion, the court filing said, an attorney for Mr. Montwheeler requested a hearing before the state Security Review Board to have him released, the court filing said.
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