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Pleas of Insanity: The Mysterious Case of Anthony Montwheeler

In the wake of a vicious murder, the state of Oregon wrestles with what went wrong in its mental health system

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Illustration by Simon Prades for Rolling Stone

On the morning of January 9th, 2017, Anthony Montwheeler kidnapped his ex-wife Annita Harmon near her home in Weiser, Idaho, and drove 20 miles across the state border to Oregon. At a Sinclair gas station in Ontario, a small city of 11,000 people in Malheur County, he prepaid for $40 of diesel, bought two bottles of water, and wished the clerk a nice day. Outside, it was still dark, and bitter cold, the roads glazed with the remnants of a snowstorm that had rolled through the weekend before. According to police records, the fuel attendant, Michael McIntyre, was waiting to fill up Montwheeler’s Dodge pickup when he heard a sound coming from the cab. Harmon was in the passenger seat, holding up her arms; her wrists were bound to the seatbelt with plastic zip-ties. “Help me!” she shouted. By then, Montwheeler was exiting the store. “Just give me a minute,” McIntyre told him. “I have to go inside.”

McIntyre, a veteran of the Vietnam War, was in his seventies, but still wiry. He told the store’s clerk to call the police — “there’s a lady tied up in that truck” — and quickly returned outside. Montwheeler, who was 49, around six feet tall and slightly overweight, acted like nothing was wrong. He wore a blue hooded sweatshirt and a tan baseball cap, sitting with one leg hanging out the open door of his truck. When the gauge clicked $40, Montwheeler prepared to leave. McIntyre told him to wait; the cops were coming, he said. Montwheeler held his gaze a moment then reached for something beneath the driver’s seat. According to McIntyre, Montwheeler flashed a wide-eyed expression and plunged an Outdoor Angler fillet knife into Harmon’s neck. McIntyre yelled, “He just cut her throat!”

A customer who had just set a box of doughnuts on the store’s counter ran outside to help. When he reached the pickup, he later told police, he could see that the area around Harmon’s jugular was “all gone.” The customer and McIntryre tried to intervene, but Montwheeler fended them off with his left hand and repeatedly stabbed Harmon in the chest with his right. He got the door to the Dodge closed and took off, ploughing his truck through a snow bank that separated the gas station from the street.

In the center of Ontario, near Rusty’s Pancake and Steakhouse, a patrol car spotted Montwheeler’s pickup pass through an intersection at a “normal rate of speed.” As police gave chase, Montwheeler turned onto a two-lane highway, and accelerated, speeding 90 mph through an expanse of snow-covered potato fields. David Bates and his wife, Jessica, parents of five children, were in their Ford Excursion heading to work at the St. Alphonsus Medical Center in town, where David was a radiology manager and Jessica an ultrasound technician. The couple typically took separate cars, Jessica Bates later recalled, but because of the snow David had “decided he would just drive me in so he’d know that I made it safe.” As Montwheeler crossed into their lane, coming toward them, David veered to the right, but snowbanks clogged the shoulder of the road. The last thing Jessica remembers from the collision is “the sound of the change drawer smashing into the dash. Blackout.”

Jessica survived, with a concussion, three broken ribs, a fractured hand, and a collapsed lung. David, who was 38, was pronounced dead at the scene, as was Annita Harmon. Montwheeler, who suffered only minor injuries, was taken into custody. That night, at the Saint Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, he only stirred to request a cup of ice, and occasionally complained of pain. He told a nurse his hospitalization was due to a fall. When the nurse mentioned the crash, Montwheeler said, “That’s not true. Don’t go there. I’m here because I fell.”

Officers eventually found in his Dodge an empty package of latex gloves, heavy-duty zip-ties, a roll of duct tape, a hundred feet of rope, a small pair of binoculars, a black nylon scabbard on the driver-side floorboard and, next to the passenger seat, the bloodied fillet knife. Investigators also pulled an extensive criminal record on Montwheeler, including multiple counts of theft and attempted fraud, but only one previous incident of violence.

Two decades earlier, in 1996, Montwheeler had been charged with kidnapping a previous wife and their son at gunpoint. He was found “guilty except for insanity,” which meant he avoided incarceration but would remain under state jurisdiction for the maximum possible sentence. In his case, that was 70 years. “Here we are 20 years later,” says Les Zaitz, the publisher of The Malheur Enterprise, which has covered Montwheeler’s story extensively. “Very quickly the question becomes, ‘What’s this guy doing loose in Malheur County?’ ”

 

A month before the deaths of Annita Harmon and David Bates, a hearing had been held to determine whether Anthony Montwheeler was insane. He was a patient at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental health facility that shares a 425-acre tract in northeast Salem with a prison. Seated at a table with his attorney, in a cramped wood-paneled space set up to resemble a courtroom, Montwheeler told a state review board that, from the start, his insanity defense had been a fraud.

During his kidnapping trial in 1997, he had said that his actions were guided, in part, by the voice of his dead mother, who had been shot and killed by his father when Montwheeler was a small boy. Montwheeler now claimed that he had studied a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and mimicked various behavioral traits. As for hearing voices of deceased loved ones, Montwheeler told the board, “I had basically made that up to, I guess, make myself sound crazy. I didn’t hear anything.… I had a choice: Either I could go to prison or I could take [an insanity plea] and go to the hospital. And all I gotta do is make myself sound like I’m crazy, and that’s the route I took.” He added, “I’ve been using the system and, just, I’m done.”

Typically, after a period of observation at the state hospital, insanity acquittals in Oregon are granted a supervised release back into the community. Montwheeler had spent most of the past 20 years not in a hospital but rather living in state-subsidized housing in Ontario, where he also received regular medical treatment and caseworker visits. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but had not been involved in any new episodes of violence. Doctors and caseworkers had routinely described his mental illness as well-managed and under control. An arrest for aggravated theft — not an episode of psychosis — had returned him to the state hospital. Almost immediately upon arriving, in April 2014, he claimed that he did not belong there. He told the doctors and social workers on his ward, “I know I don’t have a mental illness.”

So he was requesting a full discharge. In Oregon, state jurisdiction over psychiatric patients, even in criminal cases, is allowed only if two conditions are met: the offender continues to suffer from certain severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and be a danger to the public. Prior to the hearing, a forensic psychologist had done a risk assessment to determine Montwheeler’s capacity for violence, and found that, if unsupervised, his “risk of violence would be high, and would most likely be targeted at his intimate partner or other family members.” But Montwheeler’s psychiatrist at the state hospital, Mukesh Mittal, testified that two decades of clinical records — more than 700 pages of documents — showed no signs of mental illness. For more than a year at the state hospital, Mittal added, Montwheeler had been off medication — typically, a risky proposition for someone with bipolar disorder — but had not suffered any episodes of psychosis. “Facts are facts,” Mittal said. “My conclusions are based on the observations of multiple people over a very long period of time, during which he has not displayed any symptoms consistent with the diagnosis” of bipolar disorder.

Anthony Montwheeler is wheeled from a Malheur County Circuit Court hearing in May 2018 in Vale, Oregon. Dave Goldthorpe, the Malheur County district attorney personally handling the criminal prosecution of Montwheeler, stands to the left.Credit: Pat Caldwell/Malheur Enterprise

Anthony Montwheeler is wheeled from a Malheur County Circuit Court hearing in May 2018 in Vale, Oregon.
Photo credit: Pat Caldwell/Malheur Enterprise

The hearing lasted more than two hours, but Montwheeler testified for only eight and a half minutes. When a state official asked if he ever had trouble sleeping, Montwheeler said, “No. I’ve always been able to sleep at night.” Had he ever been depressed, or felt that life is not worth living? “I’ve always been happy,” Montwheeler said. “I mean, I’ve never been depressed.” So then, the official pressed, you’ve never had any trouble getting out of bed and going about your activities? “No,” Montwheeler replied. “I’ve always showed up for work. I’ve always been Johnny on the spot.”

After a brief recess, the review board found Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” which meant the state was legally required to discharge him. Offenders who are discharged from the state hospital, even those, like Montwheeler, released before the completion of their full term, are not diverted into penitentiaries. They are set free without additional oversight or guaranteed access to state mental health care.

The board’s chair, Kate Lieber, a Portland-based attorney, was clearly upset. “I don’t even know where to start,” she said. While maintaining a lie for 20 years, she noted, Montwheeler had avoided prison, lived rent-free, and received expensive care from trained professionals. “I mean, that is troubling on all sorts of levels,” Lieber said. “I’m assuming somebody in the system might do a forensic look at this and figure out what the hell happened. But as of now, you’re discharged.” Before Montwheeler walked out the door, she added, “My hope is that you’ll do the right thing. I am sincerely worried that you won’t.”

 

The standard for the insanity defense is deceptively simple. Defendants who, due to mental illness, fail to tell the difference between right and wrong, or to conform their behavior to the law, may have a case. But, in practice, the plea presents countless problems, not least of which is defining what it means to be insane. Courts require categorical accuracy — either the defendant does or does not have a mental illness — as well as a judgment that a discrete criminal act was the result of that diagnosis. But people with mental illness can display signs of more than one diagnosis, often with varying arrays of symptoms, while also suffering from issues like anti-social personality disorder and substance abuse. “What we’ve learned is that it’s much more squishy than the determinations that we have to make in the legal system,” says Jennifer Skeem, a professor of psychology at U.C. Berkeley. “But the system, I think, likes to believe that it can sort the bad people into prison and justice settings, and the mad, for lack of a better term, people into psychiatric and mental health service settings.”

All acts of extreme violence, on some level, seem insane. But under the law, there is a sharp distinction between mental illness and the kind of behavior commonly associated with “psychos.” Anti-social personality disorders, or psychopathy, which manifest in traits like a lack of empathy, a transactional nature, emotional volatility, and what experts call criminal thinking, do not meet the threshold of the insanity defense. “What we don’t want is the insanity defense to be redefined where there’s this influx of new diagnoses,” one mental health official in Oregon tells me. Personality disorders are excluded, she added, “because those folks — that’s who the prison system is for.”

Because insanity acquittals are often met with public skepticism — seen as a loophole, or a form of leniency, for violent criminals — many jurisdictions have tried to curtail the practice. In the 1970s, nearly a dozen states adopted a new judgment, known as guilty but mentally ill, which simply sent offenders to prison. In 1979, Montana repealed the insanity defense altogether, and Idaho, Utah, and Kansas eventually followed suit. Had Montwheeler killed Harmon in her home state of Idaho, which scrapped the plea in 1982, his mental health would be irrelevant from a legal standpoint. The Supreme Court is presently considering a challenge to state bans on the insanity defense. “It’s quite deep, this question,” Justice Stephen Breyer said during oral arguments as he deliberated on whether the justice system should be in the business of making determinations based on mental health. “I mean, it is a nightmare trying to figure out exact standards.”

Today, the insanity defense is pursued in fewer than one percent of all criminal trials, and is successful only about a quarter of the time. But controversies over its use tend to mask a deeper crisis of mental illness in the criminal-justice system. According to the most recent estimates, 37 percent of prisoners and 44 percent of jail inmates have been told by a mental health professional at some point in their lives that they suffer from a mental disorder. At the same time, 200,000 ex-offenders with severe mental illness are currently living in communities throughout the U.S. — around 77 percent of them will be re-arrested within five years, many for violent crimes.

Part of the problem is that the nation’s mental health care system is stuck in a sort of limbo. In 1963, after a series of exposés uncovered inhumane conditions in many of the country’s psychiatric hospitals, President John F. Kennedy vowed to reform the system in favor of outpatient treatment. “Reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation,” he said in a special address to Congress, “will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.” As people with mental illness were granted greater legal protections, hundreds of aging asylums were shuttered. Between 1955 and 1980, the population in state psychiatric hospitals dropped from 559,000 patients to 154,000 — there are now fewer than 43,000.

The second part of Kennedy’s vision — “the open warmth of community concern” — never materialized. The Reagan administration cut federal funding for community mental health care, reinterpreted guidelines for federal disability, and slashed spending on public housing. Police officers became the nation’s front-line mental health workers. In most jurisdictions, an arrest is the quickest way for an individual to receive mandatory care.

Oregon, in its own small way, attempted something different. In 1977, it created the Psychiatric Security Review Board, the body that evaluated and discharged Montwheeler. It was the first agency for insanity acquittals in the country set up to operate outside of the prison system. PSRB oversight comes with regular case-manager check-ins and drug and alcohol screenings, along with subsidized housing, mental health care, and work placement. Offenders are typically placed under state jurisdiction for the maximum length of time that sentencing guidelines allow, but fewer than half of the agency’s population, which hovers around 600 offenders, is in the state hospital. The majority are living in Oregon communities, with a designated mental health center in every county offering services that run around $18,000 per month for each case. Oregon residents suffering from a mental illness who have not committed a crime, says Juliet Britton, a former executive director of the PSRB, “might not have as much access to this robust a system.”

The PSRB’s offenders — most of whom have been charged with serious crimes, including kidnapping, rape, and murder — rarely commit another act of violence once under state supervision. The PSRB estimates the recidivism rate for offenders on conditional release is around a half percent. In a recent grading of post-conviction mental health care in the U.S., Oregon, along with just three other states, received the highest ranking.

Courtesy of STACEY HARMON-ROEBER

Annita Harmon. Courtesy of the Harmon Family

But if Oregon’s PSRB had been something of a bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture of mental health care in the U.S., the case of Anthony Montwheeler underscored everything the public typically distrusts about insanity acquittals. At the upcoming trial, set for July, Montwheeler is likely to again claim that his crimes were the result of mental illness. (Montwheeler’s attorney declined to comment for this story.) Concerns that Montwheeler has repeatedly taken advantage of the system, and may have the opportunity to do so again, have only been exacerbated by competing explanations for what went wrong with his case. At issue, as much as anything else, is the criminal-justice system’s ability to separate the “mad” from the “bad,” and what it chooses to do with offenders who fall into one camp or the other.

The Malheur Enterprise, which earned a grant from ProPublica, a nonprofit news outlet in New York, launched an investigative series on how the PSRB put the public at risk. “I think that’s the visceral reaction of people,” Zaitz, the paper’s editor and owner, told me. “They just feel like the state doesn’t care for the people in this community, that this guy’s tricked them before and tricked them again, and we’re gonna pay the price.” The families of Annita Harmon and David Bates sued the state and the PSRB, for $3.75 million and $500,000, respectively, accusing the agency of negligence for releasing Montwheeler. Officials at the PSRB, meanwhile, blamed the initial diagnosis of Montwheeler; they maintain he feigned his mental illness and never should have been under their jurisdiction in the first place. Insanity acquittals, Britton explains, are decided at trial, which means the PSRB has no role in shaping its population. In her view, Montwheeler’s initial evaluation was wrong, so the PSRB was legally required to discharge him. “I mean,” she adds, “it’s pretty clear that he faked, right?”

 

Linnie Laverne Hendrix was 21 years old when she gave birth to Anthony Montwheeler, in November 1967; Montwheeler’s father, Wayne, was 59. One family member described Wayne, a Wisconsin-born brick mason, as “a big fancy talker — a con man.” He could be physically abusive and frequently showed signs of instability. At one point, he took an ax to the family furniture and poured paint all over the house. Another time he was caught in women’s clothing watching his wife through the window of the beauty shop where she worked. In 1974, after less than seven years of marriage, Linnie was planning to leave him. Wayne cornered her in the parking lot of a restaurant in Bend, Oregon, and shot her in the chest with a .22-caliber handgun. Before the police arrived, Montwheeler’s cousin, Jim Hilderbrand, told me, Wayne “went back into the restaurant. He would go outside every 10 minutes to see if she were dead.”

Anthony Montwheeler was six at the time. His father, who was convicted of manslaughter, spent time in prison and, reportedly, the state mental hospital before dying of a heart attack in 1983. Montwheeler and his younger brother, Monty, went to live with Linnie’s older sister, Theresa, and her husband, Jimmy Ray Hilderbrand. The family had three children of their own and lived on a dairy farm in Halfway, a town of 300 people in Oregon’s Hells Canyon pass. In high school, Montwheeler, who went by Tony, was a three-sport athlete, and loved to fish and hunt. He could “build or weld anything,” his cousin Jim Hilderbrand says, and once made a winning ice sculpture of Bart Simpson at the Halfway snow festival. At the same time, Hilderbrand adds, “Tony always had a screw loose.”

Their neighbor’s dog would bark whenever someone walked from the Hilderbrands’ house to the barn. One night, Montwheeler announced that “they wouldn’t have to worry about that dog anymore.” He had driven over it with his pickup. When Jimmy Ray told him to bury the dog, Montwheeler retrieved a post-hole digger and took one swipe of earth. “He shoved the dog into that hole,” Hilderbrand says. “He could have spread it out, make a good-size hole, do it respectfully. But that’s not what he did.”

After high school, Montwheeler joined the Marines. For three years, he was stationed in Guam, where his military police unit was responsible for defending a stockpile of nuclear weapons. He earned two ribbons for good conduct and was briefly wed to a young woman from Guam, whom he had dated for a year. But he also suffered a loss that he would later claim haunted him for years: During one patrol, his close friend, a fellow Marine named Michael, stepped on a land mine and was killed.

Montwheeler left the service in 1989, and moved to Oceanside, California, where he met Rosa Carrasco. She was 23 years old, with a crown of permed curls, intense brown eyes, and a subtle dimple on her chin. Her stepfather, who lived in San Diego, was Montwheeler’s aunt Teresa’s brother. According to Carrasco, Montwheeler was handsome and charming, an outdoorsy type, and a tireless worker. He didn’t drink or take drugs, and rarely spoke of his mother’s murder. “Maybe her birthday would come around, or Christmas, and he would say, ‘You know, I wish my mom was here,’ and that would be it,” she says. After they married they briefly moved to Oregon, and Montwheeler got a job as a corrections officer, but left the prison after an inmate accused him of stealing naked photos out of the mail. The couple returned to California, where Montwheeler joined a street-sweeping business owned by Carrasco’s father.

Following the birth of their son, Emilio, Montwheeler became increasingly withdrawn, disappearing for hours at night and missing shifts at work. “He wasn’t much of a sleeper,” Carrasco says. “For a while, I thought maybe he’s on something because he was just always up. But he was never the type to do drugs.” Montwheeler eventually moved back to Oregon to work as a truck driver, leaving Carrasco behind with Emilio. In March 1996, they arranged to meet in a parking lot in Oceanside to talk about a divorce. Carrasco told her family, “If I don’t come back in a couple of hours, there’s something really wrong.”

When she got into Montwheeler’s Dodge pickup with Emilio, who was then three years old, Montwheeler unexpectedly pulled onto the freeway. “Change of plans,” he said. “I think that maybe we just need some time together.” He drove 15 hours to Baker City, in northeast Oregon, where his brother Monty lived. Over the next two months, they stayed in a rented trailer and Montwheeler appeared to descend into madness. Carrasco found clippings of newspaper stories about men who got away with killing their wives. He regularly took Carrasco and Emilio on predawn trips to a nearby pay phone, where, at least once, he seemed to believe that he was speaking with his old Marine buddy, Michael, who had been dead at least seven years. Montwheeler was also, for the first time, abusive. During one argument, he threatened Carrasco with the .22-caliber rifle that he kept in the back seat of his truck. Another time, she says, “he held me down and he started choking me.”

Carrasco eventually planned an escape with her brother, Javier. He would drive up from San Diego to retrieve her and Emilio at Monty’s house. The hope was that Montwheeler’s brother, though not in on the plan, could help de-escalate the situation. Everything went wildly wrong. After Javier called to check that Carrasco and Emilio were in place, Montwheeler grew suspicious. He sped off with his wife and son in the front seat of the pickup. On the highway, he abruptly pulled over to collect his thoughts. “He’s talking to himself,” Carrasco recalls. “He’s saying all these weird things, and I took that opportunity to jump out of the car.” She screamed for help on the shoulder of the highway. Montwheeler pointed his .22-caliber rifle at Emilio’s head, and ordered Carrasco to get back inside the truck. He bound their wrists to the seat belt. “If you’re going to leave me,” he said, “I’m going out in a blaze of glory.”

Montwheeler drove to Monty’s house. When he pulled up, Javier was standing outside. A confrontation unfolded on the lawn, with Monty trying to calm his brother. In the truck, Carrasco worked herself free from the seat belt. She turned to Emilio, but he held tight to his bindings, afraid of what his father might do. “I just started to panic,” Carrasco says. “I had to make a quick decision and I had to leave my baby in the car.” It was a chaotic scene. At one point, Montwheeler rammed his truck into Javier’s car. Javier drove through a neighbor’s fence when he tried to flee with Carrasco. Finally, Montwheeler grabbed the rifle, and his son, and ran inside the house. As police gathered on the lawn, he unloaded a series of warning shots and lit his pickup on fire. His cousin Jim Hilderbrand, then a sheriff’s deputy, arrived to help talk him down. After 10 hours, Montwheeler surrendered. “Emilio had wet himself,” Hilderbrand recalls. “Tony was just totally out of it, staring out into space, telling us, ‘They can’t take my boy, they can’t take my boy.’ ”

HWY 201 between Vale & Ontario will be closed for hours for fatal crash. http://tripcheck.com for travel updatesPosted at 10:58 AM · Jan 9, 2017 by @ORStatePolice

Police arrive at the scene of the collision between Anthony Montwheeler’s Dodge and the Bates’ car on January 9th, 2017. 
Photo credit: Oregon State Police

After the trial, Montwheeler, who was then 29, was sent to the state hospital. At the time, the facility’s concrete and tile interior, which had served as the filming location for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was in disrepair. It was infested with mold and rats, and swelling with nearly a century of neglected storage, including a wall of shelves in the basement lined with 5,000 copper urns of unclaimed cremains. According to medical records, Montwheeler “experienced auditory hallucinations and endorsed some paranoia in the early stages of hospitalization.” But he eventually seemed to settle in. He loan-sharked and sold CD-ROMs of pornography to the other patients. A psychologist noted that “the staff were always challenged to try and keep up with his latest attempts at engaging in commerce and getting away with it.” Two years into his stay, he incited a riot on his ward.

In October 2002, after more than five years of being institutionalized, the PSRB granted Montwheeler’s request for conditional release. “He was very likable,” says Mary Lee Burgess, who ran the Burgess Adult Foster Home, in Ontario, where Montwheeler first lived after the hospital. “But he just had a way of working people and doing crooked things.” He was involved in at least three property fires, one in his apartment that led to a $24,000 insurance payout, and another in a friend’s camper that got him booked for “reckless burning.”

The PSRB can revoke conditional release at any time, sending its charges back to the state hospital. This first happened to Montwheeler in 2003, after he bought a truck at auction but never paid for it. According to a police report, it was impounded bearing stolen plates. He was back on conditional release within a month. These decisions were largely based on the recommendations of Montwheeler’s caseworker, Alice Mills, who worked at Lifeways, the nonprofit contracted to provide mental health services in Malheur County. Montwheeler’s month at the state hospital, she wrote, “should be a wake-up call that he needs to monitor behavior because loss of freedom and respect is a big price to pay.”

Mills and Montwheeler met nearly every week for nine years. Based on medical records, she seemed to genuinely care for him, and frequently advocated on his behalf. He is “bright and capable,” she wrote in one report. “He is a good problem-solver and savvy in communication. He is hardworking and is goal-oriented.” In 2005, Montwheeler served 90 days in jail for stealing about $3,000 worth of scrap metal from a sawmill. Shortly after, Mills confronted Montwheeler about his criminal infractions. He told her he could avoid issues “by being like some of his peers who don’t do ‘anything but take pills, sleep, and watch TV,’ ” she wrote. (Mills declined to comment for this story.)

Roberta Chandler, another Lifeways patient, began dating Montwheeler in 2003, shortly after he moved to Ontario. “I was in love with him,” she says. “He kind of treats you like a queen. He would give anybody anything they needed. But then there’s that awful Tony.” According to Chandler, a fire broke out in her apartment, which Tony claimed was due to her dog knocking over a halogen lamp. On the insurance claim, “he wanted me to say we had more stuff than what was in there,” she says. “The insurance company threw up a red flag and I didn’t get anything.”

Mills subsequently asked a clinical psychologist to interview Montwheeler to see if he was an arsonist. Montwheeler arrived to the appointment on time, wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, his goatee “neatly trimmed” and his hair cut short. According to the psychologist, Montwheeler did not have “a serious problem with fire-setting, but he does have impaired judgment which contributed to the fires.” Chandler says, “I think Tony was playing and manipulating everyone and everything he could to get what Tony wanted.”

In 2005, Montwheeler met Katie Gill, who would become his third wife, in a welding class at Treasure Valley Community College. The couple eventually had two kids, though Gill lived with her parents, while Montwheeler stayed in subsidized housing for mentally ill adults in Ontario. In the spring of 2009, after more than a decade under PSRB jurisdiction, Montwheeler requested a full discharge. “I’m fine with this,” Mills wrote. In a letter to the board, she reported, “My thought is that Anthony has a mental illness, but with symptoms well-managed. If he does get into trouble in the future, it will more likely be due to his anti-social (criminal) traits rather than mental illness.”

Montwheeler’s request, however, was denied. Within a year, he and Gill had divorced, and Montwheeler was engaged again. He met his new fiancée, Annita Harmon, in the checkout line of Walmart, where she worked as a cashier. Montwheeler, she told her family, was the man of her dreams.

 

Bud and Susan Harmon live in a large cream-colored house in Weiser, Idaho. The street is set off from a wide bend in the Snake River, and the neighboring properties are a mix of old farms and newer vinyl-sided homes. When I visited, in January 2018, Susan greeted me on the wide, columned porch, wearing jeans and a floral-patterned blouse. The front room of the house was immaculate, with small angel figurines on display in a curio cabinet, and throw pillows embroidered with blessings placed neatly in the corners of a small couch. Susan, whose eyes seemed in a perpetual act of consolation, sat in a green recliner and repeatedly tried to put me at ease, saying that she rarely had an opportunity to talk about her daughter. “I’m sure people hesitate to talk to us,” she explained. “You know, bring things up.”

Annita, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had lived in a fully equipped 1,800-square-foot apartment that Bud built on the property. She had two kids from previous relationships and loved animals, having ridden horses as a child, and later, often to her mother’s dismay, brought home a series of stray cats. When her condition darkened, Annita’s apartment would be in disarray, dishes piled in the sink, garbage collecting, and the litter box full of waste. “I would hear her upstairs sobbing,” Susan says. “Her depression was just so great.” But in the months before her death, Susan adds, a new medication seemed to “give us back our old Annita.” She helped cook and do the dishes at Thanksgiving, and baked sugar cookies at Christmas. “She was always very thoughtful,” Susan says. The night before her death, Susan told me, with tears welling in her eyes, “I was so happy. We had settled things and had said we loved each other. And that was the last time I saw her.”

Harmon and Montwheeler had married on December 7th, 2010. “Pearl Harbor Day,” Susan wryly notes. Montwheeler, who still lived in subsidized housing in Ontario, would spend weekends in Weiser, often when he had custody of his two kids with Gill. “Tony would just go in a bedroom and close the door, and the kids would be left out with Annita,” Susan says. “I would hear stomping and screaming and yelling.”

Susan believes Annita put up with Montwheeler, in part, because of her mental illness. “Bipolar people do some things that let you know that they want somebody to love them,” she tells me. “And that’s what Tony provided. Tony was a manipulator.”

In early 2011, Montwheeler and Harmon, who had begun working together hauling scrap metal, were convicted of stealing $14,000 of steel from an elderly couple in the rural community of John Day. Harmon was sentenced to 16 months in prison; Montwheeler got two years. (In 2016, after both of them had served their time, an Oregon appeals court overturned the convictions on the grounds that relevant witnesses were denied an opportunity to testify.) In September 2012, while Montwheeler was in a county jail awaiting transport to the Snake River state penitentiary, he passed a note to the sheriff’s deputy. It was perhaps the only evidence of a psychological break in the 16 years since the kidnapping. “I do not know if it was a Dream, a vision, or voices,” Montwheeler wrote. “Was told that Annita and I would be in a accident.” He promised to tell the deputy “where the dead bodies are that Annita hit in exchange for not killing us.” He added, “Annita did not do it on purpose. It was an accident.”

In prison, he kept up regular contact with Harmon. “He wrote to her every day they were in jail and professed his love for her,” says Susan. Harmon returned home in 2013 with threaded eyebrows and her hair in tight braids. She got a job at Dickinson Frozen Food, a felon-friendly onion-processing plant in Fruitland, Idaho.

Nearing the end of Montwheeler’s sentence, Britton, at the PSRB, personally requested a spot for him at multiple residential facilities. All of them rejected him, including one run by Lifeways in Ontario called McNary Place. Its medical director, Dr. John Bates, had grown up with Montwheeler in Halfway — Bates’ father was the principal of the high school, and Bates and Montwheeler had played on the football team together. Calling the past relationship an “unavoidable conflict,” the facility turned Montwheeler down. Instead, in April 2014, he was sent from prison to the Oregon State Hospital. In what turned out to be a shocking coincidence, John Bates had only temporarily avoided Montwheeler. The driver of the Ford Excursion who Montwheeler killed, David Bates, was John Bates’ younger brother. “It just kind of turned into this ironic nightmare,” Bates tells me. “If I had taken him into McNary, he’d still be under the board, and all of this would have not happened.”

david bates

David Bates. Photo courtesy of the Bates Family

By 2014, the state hospital had undergone a $458 million renovation, opening a series of wards with sunny names like Archways and Harbors, and a dining facility where visiting families could purchase catered meals and pizza parties. Even still, Montwheeler faced grim prospects. Without a community mental health center willing to take his case, there was little possibility of obtaining a conditional release. As long as he remained under the jurisdiction of the PSRB — another 50 years — he could be stuck inside the state hospital. From Montwheeler’s perspective, it might have seemed that the only way out was to request a full discharge.

At the discharge hearing, Lieber had asked him, “Why now? Why is it just coming out now that you lied initially?” Montwheeler acknowledged that, while he was “on the outside,” he could work, and “still stay in the group home and not have to pay rent or anything like that.” Under the PSRB, he said, “you have privileges. In some ways, you get special treatment.”

After the board discharged him, in December 2016, Montwheeler got a job at Dickinson Frozen foods, which upset Harmon. The couple had been locked in a dispute. They divorced while he was in the hospital, and Annita later charged $1,700 in phone bills, loan payments, and various Amazon orders to Montwheeler’s debit card — some of it without his permission. According to a police report, the couple had a fight on the plant floor at Dickinson, where Montwheeler “threatened Annita with releasing some sexual videos he had in his possession.” Harmon reported to human resources that Montwheeler might kill her. On December 30th, the couple met at a McDonald’s. “It didn’t sound like it was a good meeting,” Detective Scott Mosley, the investigator on the debit-card case, tells me. When the plant put them on separate shifts — Harmon during the day, Montwheeler at night — Montwheeler quit.

He was living at his brother Monty’s house in Emmett, Idaho, but also staying with his new girlfriend, Nicole Crill. On January 8th, he changed his Facebook status to “In a Relationship,” writing to one friend, “Time to enjoy life and be happy.” But insomnia had set in around Christmas. “My sleep is one of my major warning signs,” he later told a forensic psychiatrist. “Like when I kidnapped Rosa.”

Around 4 a.m. on the morning of the killings, he told Crill he was going to Monty’s. Around 5:30 a.m., one of the Harmon’s neighbors spotted his truck parked on a side street. Police later found Harmon’s beat-up Toyota 4Runner, a half mile from her home, in the middle of the road; the headlights were on and the keys still hung in the ignition. “He got her right up the road here,” says Harmon’s father, Bud. “The terror she must have gone through from that point until he stabbed her — I can’t hardly handle that.”

During the police chase, Montwheeler called Crill. He said that he loved her, but wouldn’t be able to see her anymore because he had hurt Harmon. “I knew that he had been in the mental hospital,” Crill later told me, “but I’m just as flabbergasted as everyone else.”

 

The question of whether Montwheeler’s insanity plea was correctly adjudicated — whether he lied in 1997 about hearing voices, or later lied about not hearing voices — is being revisited in the run-up to his trial in July. So far, there are no easy answers. If he does suffer from a mental illness, one that caused him to become extremely violent, how were the hospital staff and the review board so easily fooled? And, if he does not, why, a month after winning release, did he commit a senseless murder in the full view of multiple witnesses?

One attempt to broadly blame the PSRB ended in embarrassment. The Malheur Enterprise, in its series with ProPublica titled “A Sick System: Repeat Attacks After Pleading Insanity,” suggested the PSRB was endangering the public. Most notably, a piece filled with statistics appeared to show that “people freed by Oregon officials after being found criminally insane are charged with new felonies more often than convicted criminals released from state prison.” But last January, after a reader had prompted a review of “the underlying data and assertions” in The Malheur Enterprise’s reporting, ProPublica posted what amounted to a series-wide retraction. They discovered that the coverage had dramatically overestimated the frequency with which people discharged by the PSRB committed new felonies — in fact, the recidivism rates of offenders released from prison were much higher. The errors were attributed to a scarcity of available data and a misreading of state records. On Twitter, Zaitz wrote, “I take full and direct responsibility for this tremendously damaging journalistic blunder. This doesn’t represent the spirit of those who labor day in and day out at this newspaper. We will atone.”

Last month, a Malheur County circuit court dismissed the lawsuit filed by Jessica Bates against the state of Oregon and the PSRB. Bates’ attorneys had argued, among other things, that Montwheeler’s discharge hearing was improperly conducted, that the board members were insufficiently trained to determine his mental condition, and that the decision to discharge created a foreseeable risk to the public. But according to court filings, the judge ruled that “there is no evidence of PSRB board misconduct or impropriety” and “it was not reasonably foreseeable that upon discharge from PSRB supervision Montwheeler would be involved in an auto collision with the Bates.” The PSRB’s decision, the judge concluded, was “based upon the facts and legal questions presented at the hearing.” (The Harmons’ lawsuit had been dismissed on similar grounds in the fall.)

The PSRB’s position, meanwhile, that Montwheeler faked his mental illness, has been challenged as well. In early September 2017, eight months after the murder, Octavio Choi, the former director of Forensic Evaluation Services at the Oregon State Hospital, interviewed Montwheeler for six hours in one of the facility’s evaluation rooms. Montwheeler, who months earlier had tried to kill himself in the Malheur County jail, looked 20 years older than his age, Choi says. His speech, thought, and movements were generally slow, and he seemed confused, often circling back to amend previous responses only to once again lose his train of thought. Choi was careful to note that his evaluation had “little bearing” on prior psychological findings and were not an assessment of whether the initial insanity diagnosis was correct. But, during the interview, Montwheeler once again claimed to have heard voices since his mother’s death.

The first time, he told Choi, he was fishing at the edge of a creek on his uncle’s farm. He was six years old. A voice, which sounded like his mother, softly said, “Anthony.” He thought it might have been his aunt, calling from the house. But when he ran to check, the house was empty. The voices, Montwheeler said, continued into adulthood. Sometimes it would be his mother gently telling him, “You’ll be all right, you’ll be OK.” But there were other voices, “coming from outside” that were loud and aggressively critical. “They yell at me and everything,” Montwheeler said. “They’re like assholes.” He also told Choi he believed that the staff at the Alphonsus Hospital in Boise had inserted a metal device into his neck, which connected to a chord that ran up into his brain. Since then, he said, some of his memories had been “wiped clean.” More recently, he suspected that a lieutenant at Malheur County jail could read his thoughts because “the voices are telling me she can read my mind.”

There were notable inconsistencies with Montwheeler’s past accounts. For instance, rather than mentioning Michael, his Marine buddy who stepped on a land mine, he said that he had been traumatized in Guam by the loss of a fellow Marine who died when his jeep swerved to avoid a group of pigs. He also spoke of Annita as if she were still alive. At times, “it certainly seemed to me like he was overplaying his disability,” Choi says. And yet, in Montwheeler’s frequent struggles to recall specific details, he also “really seemed like he was trying hard to give me straight answers.” This, Choi explained, is “just the uncertainty of psychiatric diagnosis.”

Choi found Montwheeler was mentally unfit to stand trial. His symptoms, Choi wrote in his evaluation, formed “a reliable foundation for the diagnosis of adjustment disorder with depressed mood,” a stress-related condition that, while treatable, meets the threshold of mental incompetency. “This guy has, you know, almost certainly told lots of lies to get to the point he is now,” Choi says. There are “lots of tests and things you can do to kind of back up your intuition. But, in the end, it’s kind of this gut feeling.”

I ask Choi about another possible explanation for Montwheeler’s actions: that, on the morning of the killings, Montwheeler was simultaneously experiencing a psychotic episode and launching a characteristically elaborate scheme. To return to the “special treatment” he enjoyed under the PSRB, he would need to commit a crime. It may not be a coincidence that he smuggled Harmon 20 miles over the border into Oregon from Idaho, a state without an insanity defense, let alone a PSRB. The fact that four years before the incident Montwheeler had warned in a note that “Annita and I would be in a accident” could either be evidence of a prior episode of psychosis or a useful artifact in the construction of an insanity defense. It could also be both. Montwheeler, constitutionally manipulative and mentally ill, might have lied about faking his diagnosis to get out of the state hospital. He might have also killed Harmon not simply because he was released from the PSRB, but because he wanted to get back in.

“That’s a feasible theory,” Choi says. “There are lots of people that really feel most comfortable living in an institution. Anthony Montwheeler has spent much of his adult life living in institutions. And within the institution, he is at the top of the heap.” Choi added, “If everyone with a severe mental illness just had a sober, clean, drug-free place to live in the community, that would solve so much of the problem. We need more things in between no treatment and a state hospital.”

In January 2019, after yet another evaluation, Montwheeler was found mentally competent to stand trial. He has since entered a not-guilty plea on multiple felonies. When I visited the Harmons, Bud recalled an early arraignment where Montwheeler sat speechless, slouched in a wheelchair. “He sure looked crazy,” Bud said. “Never once lifted his head.” Susan refused to believe it. “It looked like he was faking being mentally ill,” she said. “If he goes back to some kind of a mental facility, he’s going to be doing the same things he got away with before.”

The couple are raising Harmon’s youngest child, who is now 15. “It’s like ripples in a pond,” Susan says. “It just keeps going.” On the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death — January 9th, 2018 — she brought flowers to the Sinclair gas station. “When I walked in,” she says, the clerk “just gave me a great big hug. She had wanted to call me but just didn’t know what to say. A lot of people just don’t know what to say.”

 

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