Annita Harmon died last month in a terrifying flurry of crime, reportedly abducted and stabbed by her ex-husband, who then drove headlong into an oncoming SUV and killed the other driver.
Family members, reeling from the loss and their realized fears about the man she married, want people to know how the woman they called Nita lived.
“She was surprising. She was fun. She had a goofy laugh,” said her sister, Stacey Harmon-Roeber. “She loved to read. If she had a book in hand, you couldn’t get her attention.”
The 40-year-old Weiser mom was a hard worker and kind-hearted optimist who took in a menagerie of stray animals and believed that troubled men could be healed.
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“Even with him, she was a rescuer,” Harmon-Roeber said, referring to Anthony Montwheeler, 49, who is jailed in Malheur County on charges of murder, kidnapping and assault. “She thought, ‘I can fix this person. I can make him a better man.’”
But for Nita’s family,she said, “alarm bells went off from the get-go.” Montwheeler seemed controlling with Nita, unwilling to engage with her close-knit family and secretive about his past. The couple, who had children from previous relationships, married in 2010 and divorced in 2015.
Long before Nita’s murder, there were threats and bullying and pervasive fear for her and her family. Harmon-Roeber, who lives near Seattle, remembers feeling “so afraid I’d get a call from Idaho that Tony went to the house and killed everybody.”
“He just had a thing about him.”
WHAT HAPPENED JAN. 9
Early that morning, Nita headed to work at the Dickinson Frozen Food plant near Fruitland. She never got there.
Her car was found abandoned in the middle of the road, about a quarter-mile from the house she shared with her parents outside Weiser, a few miles from the Oregon border. Around an hour later, emergency responders found her body in the wreckage of Montwheeler’s pickup truck about 25 miles away on Oregon 201. She’d been stabbed; the family finally learned this past Friday that she died of those wounds, not the crash.
Harmon-Roeber was just sitting down to lunch that Monday when she got a call from her mother. Police had come to the family’s door.
“I pretty much lost it right there in the restaurant,” she said.
About 7 that morning, a clerk at Ontario’s J and J Convenience Store called 911 to report that a woman was being stabbed in a pickup truck. When police responded, Montwheeler fled south down 201 with officers in pursuit. Four miles later, police said, he veered at high speed into the northbound lane and hit a Vale couple headed to work in Ontario.
David Bates, 38 and a father of five, died. His 35-year-old wife, Jessica Bates, was seriously injured and has since been released from a Boise hospital. Montwheeler was seriously hurt too, and was hospitalized in Boise until two weeks ago, when he was extradited to Oregon to face prosecution.
CHILLING PARALLEL TO PAST KIDNAP
How did Montwheeler get Nita out of her car and into his truck that morning?
Two decades ago, he reportedly forced his first wife and 3-year-old son into his pickup truck in Baker City, Ore., by threatening to kill his wife’s brother — an incident Nita’s family didn’t know of until after her murder.
Montwheeler pleaded guilty except for insanity to first-degree kidnapping and unlawful use of a weapon charges in the April 1996 abduction. He eventually returned to his house and repeatedly threatened to kill himself and the boy before negotiators convinced him to release his young hostage and surrender, the Baker City Herald reported. His wife told police she and her son had planned to head to Texas with her brother.
Montwheeler was placed under the supervision of Oregon’s Psychiatric Security Review Board for up to 70 years — a rare sentence, the board’s executive director told the Malheur Enterprise. According to the Oregonian, he was ordered to be released this past Dec. 14 “amid concerns from authorities that he many have been feigning symptoms of bipolar disorder.”
Harmon-Roeber said she and other family members “were and are flabbergasted” by news of that previous abduction.
“We had no idea,” she said. “And I am almost positive ... there is no way Nita knew about that, either. There’s no way she would be with someone who would harm a child.”
As for the big question surrounding Nita’s death — why?
“She was moving on with her life,” she said, adding that Nita had met a man at work and they went out on their first date in late December. “Our guess is that it’s what probably caused him to go off.”
‘CLASSIC CYCLE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE’
Harmon-Roeber described Montwheeler as possessive and domineering, trying to “segregate” Nita from her family and other influences. Although Nita worked full-time at Wal-Mart during their marriage, she had to put in additional hours at Montwheeler’s Weiser scrap-metal hauling service — which was in both spouses’ names — any time she wanted to buy anything for her children, Harmon-Roeber said.
“It was a classic cycle of domestic violence, but it was more mental and emotional than physical,” Harmon-Roeber said.
When she was with him, our relationship suffered ... it did for the whole family. But she had come back to herself.
Stacey Harmon-Roeber, speaking of her sister, Nita Harmon
In the weeks before Nita’s death, Harmon-Roeber heard Montwheeler was trying to intimidate Nita with Facebook slurs and by making a point of being in her vicinity and then making loud, derogatory comments. People walked Nita to her car after work, as a precaution, she said.
Asked how the couple met, she said Montwheeler “sought her out. He friended her on MySpace” and pursued her via social media and email before they started dating.
They were married about a year and a half before criminal charges stemming from the scrap metal company signaled the beginning of the end, Harmon-Roeber said.
In 2012, husband and wife were convicted in Grant County, Ore., of aggravated first-degree theft, accused of underpaying for tons of scrap metal hauled away from an elderly Oregon couple’s property in 2010.
Last fall, Nita prevailed on appeal, and her sentence — and Montwheeler’s — were vacated. The key factor: During Nita’s trial, Montwheeler’s second wife wanted to introduce letters from Montwheeler claiming Nita was innocent, Harmon-Roeber said. “But he figured if he had to serve time, so did she.”
Nita didn’t intend to also clear Montwheeler’s conviction. But her sister, said Harmon-Roeber, “wasn’t the kind of person who was going to wish him any harm.”
Nita was a big-hearted dreamer who loved mystery novels and “whimsical fairytales,” her sister said. She collected a staggering number of fairy keychains. She loved spending special time with her kids, including clog-dancing classes with her daughter and martial arts classes with her son.
She was born in Colville, Wash., the youngest of four children — three girls and a boy. The family, which had previously lived in Nampa, moved back there when she was 4, and “she spent the rest of her life in the Nampa-Boise-Ontario area,” her sister said.
“She was always kind of my baby doll,” recalled Harmon-Roeber, who is eight years older.
(Nita’s kids) were her sun and her moon and her stars.
Nita also loved sports, especially horseback riding and volleyball, and thrived on family camping trips that involved “a tarp on the dirt, not a tent and not an RV,” her sister said.
“She was attentive to what people would say,” she said. “If mom mentioned she liked something, Nita would probably give it to her.”
Nita’s mother is not yet ready to talk publicly about her murdered daughter, but shared, through Harmon-Roeber, a favorite memory.
Every winter, no matter what else was going on, Nita would make multiple batches of her grandmother’s Christmas cookie recipe, customizing each batch to a loved one’s preferences, adding chocolate chips to one or omitting frosting from another, Harmon-Roeber said. It was a beloved ritual, and Nita was always in charge of the process.
“That was Nita’s yearly family demonstration of love,” she said.
Nita’s cremated remains were returned to the family last week. No funeral has been held or planned, Harmon-Roeber said.
Later, she said, “when we can get past this a little ... we’ll hold a celebration of life, like an Irish wake.”
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Anthony Montwheeler, 49, is being held in Malheur County on $2 million bond. Malheur County District Attorney David Goldthorpe said his charges include multiple counts of both aggravated murder, which can qualify for the death penalty, and murder, punishable by up to life in prison, so jurors would have a choice. He has not yet declared whether he will seek the death penalty.
Montwheeler is next scheduled for a pretrial hearing Feb. 17 and another hearing Feb. 22 to enter a plea.
Efforts to help
Annita Harmon’s family wants to thank two people at the J and J Convenience Store in Ontario who tried to help Harmon, who reportedly called out for help as she was being stabbed in ex-husband Anthony Montwheeler’s pickup truck the morning of Jan. 9. A female clerk called 911, and a man at the scene physically intervened and tried to keep Montwheeler from driving away, sister Stacey Harmon-Roeber said. She doesn’t know the people’s names, she said, but “it is a wee bit of comfort knowing that people tried to help rescue her.” Witnesses to the crime testified during a closed grand jury proceeding, and details of what happened at the store have not yet been publicly disclosed, Malheur County Prosecutor David Goldthorpe said.
Family members also are grateful for the Annita Harmon Memorial Fund GoFundMe page set up by a friend to help Nita’s children and parents following their loss. “All funds raised by this campaign go directly to the family of Annita, helping with related expenses such as therapy, bills, schooling, etc.,” organizer Leslie Cone says on the page.