Two families filed separate wrongful death lawsuits against the state of Oregon this week, faulting it for releasing a man with severe mental illness from the Oregon State Hospital despite warnings from a psychologist that he still posed a grave danger.
Within a month, newly freed patient Anthony Montwheeler stabbed to death his ex-wife, Annita Harmon, at an eastern Oregon gas station and then intentionally drove his pickup head-on into the SUV of a stranger, David Bates, and killed him, the lawsuits and prosecutors say.
Harmon, a 40-year-old western Idaho resident who had divorced Montwheeler 1½ years earlier, died Jan. 9, 2017. Her family filed a $3.75 million suit Friday.
Bates, 38, a father of five who lived in Vale, died later that same day. His widow, Jessica Bates, filed a $400,000 lawsuit Wednesday over the fatal crash. Jessica Bates was seriously injured in the collision.
Authorities say 51-year-old Montwheeler fled Ontario police with Harmon’s dead body in the passenger seat.
Both lawsuits accuse the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board and the Oregon State Hospital of negligence for allegedly disregarding many warning signs.
Montwheeler’s disturbing past goes back more than 20 years and includes a history of hearing and seeing demons that ordered him to harm others and an armed standoff with police in which he threatened to flush his child down the toilet, according to the Harmon lawsuit.
In 1997, he was determined to be guilty except for insanity for the kidnapping of his first wife and son. Instead of going to prison, he was ordered to be under the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board for 70 years and was confined to the state-run psychiatric hospital.
According to the lawsuits, the board in December 2016 ordered Montwheeler freed from the Oregon State Hospital — after Montwheeler convinced members that he’d been faking insanity in order to avoid prison.
Psychiatrist Mukesh Mittal supported the theory that Montwheeler wasn’t mentally ill, stating that Montwheeler hadn’t been taking his medications for the previous year and wasn’t showing signs of bipolar disorder, the suit says. Mittal concluded that a patient who hadn’t taken his medications for that length of time and wasn’t exhibiting symptoms doesn’t have that disease, the Bates lawsuit says.
But the Psychiatric Security Review Board had conflicting evidence before it: Brian Hartman, a psychologist who had seen Montwheeler for the previous two years, warned the board that Montwheeler was still dangerous, the Bates lawsuit states.
Hartman said that “if in the community without supervision, (Montwheeler’s) risk of violence would be high” and Montwheeler would most likely target an intimate partner or other family members, according to the Bates lawsuit.
Those concerns were echoed by the board’s acting chairwoman, Kate Lieber, who told Montwheeler at the hearing that “my hope is you will do the right thing. I’m sincerely worried that you won’t,” according to the Bates lawsuit.
Three weeks after Montwheeler walked free, Harmon and David Bates were dead.
The Harmon lawsuit lists the Psychiatric Security Review Board and Oregon State Hospital as defendants. In addition to those agencies, the Bates lawsuit lists the Oregon Health Authority and Mittal, the state-employed psychiatrist, as defendants.
Rebeka Gipson-King, a spokeswoman for the state hospital, and Alison Bort, executive director of the Psychiatric Security Review Board, declined comment about the lawsuits.
Montwheeler’s case was the subject of a March 2017 investigation by the Malheur Enterprise that raised troubling questions about the state’s ability to assess criminally insane defendants and protect the greater public from them. The Oregonian published the investigatory piece in cooperation with the Vale newspaper.
After the deaths of Harmon and David Bates, Montwheeler was charged with two counts of aggravated murder for their deaths. But the criminal court proceedings in Malheur County Circuit Court have been at a standstill after the state hospital determined Montwheeler’s mental illness was too severe for him to be tried for the crimes, according to his defense attorney.
On Thursday, prosecutors said in a memo to the court that the state hospital has determined Montwheeler is now mentally fit to be prosecuted and that the criminal justice system should move forward with a trial.
The Harmon family’s lawsuit was filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court — where the Psychiatric Security Review Board is based — by Portland attorney David Paul. The Bates family’s lawsuit was filed in Malheur County Circuit Court — in the county in which Harmon and David Bates died — by Bruce Skaug, an attorney in Nampa, Idaho.