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Monday, June 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Chasing retirement, newsman-rancher takes on state and wins

A cow stands on a ranch outside the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Ore. Journalist Les Zaitz covered the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge before retiring; he now helps to operate the small Malheur Enterprise newspaper. (Andrew Selsky / AP)
A cow stands on a ranch outside the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Ore. Journalist Les Zaitz covered the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge before retiring; he now helps to operate the small Malheur Enterprise newspaper. (Andrew Selsky / AP)
By Katy Moeller Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Les Zaitz has been living and working at a ranch near John Day in eastern Oregon for more than a decade – not exactly where most would expect to find one of the state’s top investigative journalists.

The 61-year-old is a former reporter and editor for The Oregonian who favors jeans and boots as daily attire and a cowboy hat when not in the office. He grew up on the west side of the state in Keizer, near Salem, and started muckraking as a teenager, probing high school budgets in response to grumbling about cuts.

“I did an investigation of the athletic department’s budget,” he recalled. “They were in the red, and other departments had to cut spending.”

He followed the money to find out why.

Almost a half-century later, the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist hoped to relax more after retiring from The Oregonian following exhaustive coverage of the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. But he’s still working long hours and breaking big news, now for a weekly newspaper that he owns with his family, The Malheur Enterprise.

The Enterprise has a print circulation of about 1,400. It’s drawn national attention in recent weeks for its successful battle against a state agency that repeatedly denied Zaitz access to public records involving a 49-year-old man who kidnapped his son and first wife, and then was held at the Oregon State Hospital or was released under state medical supervision for 20 years.

Within a month of his release last December, Anthony Montwheeler was accused of fatally stabbing a different ex-wife, Annita Harmon, of Weiser, outside an Ontario gas station. He also stands accused in the death of Vale resident David Bates, who was killed in a head-on crash police say was caused by Montwheeler while he was fleeing police on Jan. 9.

“(Bates) and his wife were driving to work, like we all do, and he ended up dying,” said Enterprise reporter John Braese. The couple worked at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario. Bates’ wife, Jessica, was seriously injured but has since been released.

Harmon was on her way to work at the Dickinson Frozen Food plant near Fruitland that morning when she was kidnapped. Her body was found in Montwheeler’s truck after the collision.

“I guess the question we’re going to keep asking is: Why was he (Montwheeler) allowed out? Why was he allowed so much freedom after kidnapping and threatening the life of a child?” said Harmon’s sister, Stacey Harmon-Roeber.

To answer that, Zaitz and his team turned to the records.

Shocking details in documents

Circuit court records from the 1996 kidnapping in Baker County contained a clue: evidence that Montwheeler might have been faking his mental illness.

They were able to obtain some but not all of the records they sought from the Psychiatric Security Review Board, which supervises those who successfully assert an insanity defense to a criminal charge in Oregon. One key item turned over was audio from Montwheeler’s discharge hearing, when he revealed his scam to stunned board members.

“I was using this as a teachable moment on how to background someone. I was showing these guys (two reporters) how to use court records to profile this man accused of horrific crimes,” said Zaitz.

In the process, he broke a 3,000-word story March 29 about how Montwheeler faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid going to prison for seven.

Zaitz tapped his former colleagues at The Oregonian to edit the complex story. The Portland-based paper co-published it online and in print, and the Statesman and other Boise-area media picked it up as well, bringing the story to a wider audience in both states.

The Enterprise sought more records, but the review board – citing health care privacy concerns – balked. Oregon’s attorney general sided with the small paper on an appeal, writing that public interest in Montwheeler’s case far outweighed any privacy exemptions, not all of which even applied to start with.

The review board then took the very rare step – and one of its few allowed options under Oregon code – of suing the Enterprise rather than releasing the documents, which were 15 of the exhibits from Montwheeler’s discharge hearing.

`It may change what happens in the future’

In a public plea for donations to cover the paper’s attorney fees, Zaitz noted that the review board had hired high-paid private attorneys to press its case. That really upset some local readers.

“That’s our taxpayer money – used to stop us from being able to know what happened,” said Tracy Landreth, owner of Vale’s Miracle Eatery.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown intervened last week, pressuring the state agency to drop its lawsuit. The board conceded and released the records, which among other things showed that at least two state-employed doctors suspected early on that Montwheeler was faking mental illness to stay out of prison. Those suspicions, Zaitz noted, apparently weren’t acted on.

“Access to public records is a basic tool that reporters use to keep the public informed about what their government is doing, and the idea that a state agency would sue a small weekly newspaper to try to prevent that access is appalling,” said Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Press Club and co-founder of Idahoans for Openness in Government.

Landreth and others said the death of David Bates, a well-known father of five, hit the Vale community hard. More than 1,000 people turned out to his funeral, according to the Rev. Phil Abbott of Vale Christian Church.

Abbott said that even though it is hard on Bates’ family to keep reading about the incident, he is grateful for the investigative work the paper has done to get answers – and possibly prevent future unnecessary deaths.

“I appreciated them being willing and able to stick their neck out,” Abbott said. “They just want the truth to come out. That’s what we want as well.”

With a background in health care, Harmon-Roeber knows the tension between private and public records and said she is a big believer in privacy laws. She didn’t want to comment specifically on the Enterprise’s battle for records without knowing what they contained, but said her family generally supports efforts to track public officials’ actions.

“We feel that any reporting that sheds light, or gives attention to, the poor choices that put anyone in danger is a good thing,” she said.

Zaitz plans to return all the legal-fee donations, all made to the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. He didn’t know how much money was raised toward his $20,000 goal, and the ONPA didn’t respond to a request for that information.

Home on the ranch

Zaitz is the son of a newspaperman who worked on weeklies and dailies all over the country before settling in Oregon. His dad also owned some Oregon weeklies.

Zaitz and his wife, Scotta Callister, a former editor at The Oregonian, bought and ran the Keizertimes (based in Keizer) in 1987. He returned to The Oregonian in 2000, and with his younger brother, Lyndon, he and Callister bought the Malheur Enterprise in late 2015.

An avid bicyclist and camper, Zaitz became enamored with the idea of living on a ranch in eastern Oregon after years of pedaling around the state as part of Cycle Oregon and other rides. He and his wife bought the Boulder Creek Ranch in 2004 and moved there in 2006, running it as a working ranch that also allows tourism. He was by then a senior investigative reporter for The Oregonian, and it wasn’t imperative that he live in the Portland metro area.

Last year, he found himself uniquely prepared to cover the armed occupation of the Malheur wildlife refuge in early January 2016.

“It was ideal,” said Zaitz, who essentially made Burns his home for 40 days. “I knew the issues already. I had very deep contacts in law enforcement, and I know how to talk to ranchers. … I exhausted myself, but it was a blast.”

Braese described Zaitz as a workaholic, working “like 20 hours a day, seven days a week.”

“I’ll get up at 6 or so, and I’ll have five or six emails and text messages from him,” said Braese, a Boise native who has been a reporter at the paper about five years.

Zaitz said he’s typically up at 4 a.m. but denies he works so many hours. He promises he’s going to cut back at the office in Vale, a 100-mile drive from his Grant County ranch. He’s also frank about the calling he and his small staff feel, the impetus that led them to push the review board for access.

“If you have a big story you’re working and you want to do it well and right, you pour everything into it,” Zaitz said. “You disregard both the clock and the calendar.”

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