Standing up to state, Vale newspaper keeps scrutiny of man’s insanity plea fraud public

A cross marks the spot where a Vale, Ore., man was killed and his wife severely injured after colliding with a vehicle police say was being driven by Anthony Montwheeler.
A cross marks the spot where a Vale, Ore., man was killed and his wife severely injured after colliding with a vehicle police say was being driven by Anthony Montwheeler. Les Zaitz

The Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Ore., has a small news staff, limited resources, a circulation of less than 2,000 — and an oversized conviction to do right by its readers and the public.

When push came to shove and a state agency representing millions of Oregonians refused to provide information about the release of a state hospital patient now charged with murder and mayhem, not only did the Enterprise get stiffed on its records request, but the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board sued the newspaper in an effort to thwart its public records request.

Undaunted, the little newspaper faced a big problem head-on, and we applaud the management’s courage and tenacity. You might, too, when you understand what the Enterprise was willing to risk to find out information about the alleged perpetrator and his treatment and release, and why an Idaho woman and a Vale man had to die in the wake of that decision.

Back in December, Anthony W. Montwheeler, 49, was freed from state custody after 20 years — despite opinions that he presented a danger to society, and especially to close family members. Less than a month later Montwheeler allegedly drove to Weiser, where he kidnapped his ex-wife. He then drove her to an Ontario, Ore., convenience store and stabbed her to death, police say. Fleeing the scene with police in pursuit, Montwheeler’s vehicle collided with a car, killing its driver and seriously injuring a passenger, the dead man’s wife, officials say.

The Enterprise wanted to get to the bottom of this and learn about Montwheeler’s condition, treatment and assessment — and what was documented at the time of his release. But citing privacy and other issues, the Security Review Board rejected the request. When the Oregon attorney general sided with the Enterprise and signed off on the release of some records, the Security Review Board played a rare card: It hired an attorney and filed suit against the Enterprise to halt the records request.

Management at the Enterprise was gearing up to fight as donations — everything from a few dollars to $1,000 pledges from around the state, including one from Enterprise Publisher Les Zaitz’s high school journalism teacher — started trickling in to underwrite the legal battle on behalf of the newspaper, Oregonians, Idahoans, Americans and the concept of transparency in government.

Thank goodness Oregon Gov. Kate Brown stepped in last week and ordered the state board to release the records; soon enough, they will enlighten us about the rationale for releasing Montwheeler and a better understanding of how this tragedy came about.

Kudos to Zaitz and colleagues at the Enterprise, and to the Oregon attorney general and governor, who all recognized the compelling and overwhelming public need to shine a light on what happened, why it happened and how it might be prevented in the future.

Among the take-aways Zaitz shared during a telephone interview with the Statesman editorial board was “the way our community has expressed its appreciation that we stood up and fought for them. This wasn’t about the Malheur Enterprise, this was trying to get to the truth.”

When the business of “finding out” pits the little guy against some bureaucracy or agency that is withholding information for no good reason, it is always a worthwhile fight.

Unsigned editorial board opinions express the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.