Nation & World

Trial of ex-pastor accused of murder, theft begins

Former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter exploited an elderly rancher's dream so he could enrich himself, staging a crippling vehicle crash, then a fatal crash to cover up his wrongdoing, a prosecutor said as the high-profile murder trial began Thursday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Or Porter gave in to Frank Craig's persistent entreaties, agreeing to help the senior citizen build a museum to honor Hickman's agricultural roots and continuing to work on Craig's dream even after the older man drowned in the Ceres Main Canal, a defense attorney countered.

As the trial got under way, Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne showed the jury photos of a family compound Porter built in La Grange, a chart tracking $1.1 million that flowed out of Craig's accounts and into Porter's and diagrams of two vehicle crashes that might not have been accidents.

The prosecutor, who delivered his opening statement in less than an hour, said Craig's vision turned into a dream denied and a life destroyed.

"Doug Porter, that man right there, took Frank Craig's money. He took his health in a 2002 collision. He took his life in a 2004 collision," Mayne said. "There's still no museum."

Next up was defense attorney Kirk McAllister, who offered pie charts showing Craig's assets and Porter's spending.

He insisted that Craig was in the loop as his accounts dwindled.

"Nothing happened without Frank Craig's OK," McAllister said.

Both sides said Craig dreamed of using money he had inherited from a brother to build the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture on land next to Hickman Community Church, where Porter was pastor for nearly two decades.

And they described Craig as a cantankerous old man who loved to collect antiques that some people considered junk, pinching pennies even as he gave generously to his friends.

Craig, 85, died April 22, 2004, after his GMC truck, which was driven by Porter, plunged into the Ceres Main Canal, not far from Craig's home on Riverview Road in Hickman.

Some of Craig's friends and neighbors rushed to the scene and several of them shared suspicions about Porter with the authorities.

Porter told investigators that he hit some rocks and lost control, but the California Highway Patrol found no signs of fishtailing and determined that the truck veered into the canal 100 feet from the rocks.

A Turlock Irrigation District worker said the rocks were not on the road earlier that day. Investigators concluded that the rocks, which seemed out of place, came from the base of a tree on Craig's property. The prosecutor promised jurors a close view of the rocks during the trial.

McAllister ignored the rocks, offering the jury a new explanation: He said Porter veered off the road because Craig distracted him by waving paperwork in his face.

Porter made heroic efforts to save his friend, his lawyer said, but came up short because Craig had been pinned by a seat belt that had to be released before Porter could drag Craig to a canal bank and summon help from a nearby farmworker.

"Push, push, push. Blow in, blow in, blow in. And finally the paramedics get there," McAllister said as he re-created the scene for the jury. "Porter is totally exhausted. ... Mr. Craig is dead."

After Craig died, authorities took a second look at a March 5, 2002, wreck involving the two men, when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree.

Craig was not wearing a seat belt and his air bag had been turned off. He broke his legs, a hip, several ribs and never walked again without assistance. Porter, who was wearing a seat belt, was knocked unconscious when his air bag deployed but walked away from the wreck.

Porter told investigators he must have fallen asleep at the wheel. Later, he said he squinted because he was tired, then swerved to avoid an oncoming car. A CHP officer expressed doubts because it looked as if the pickup had been steered off the road, but Porter was not given a ticket.

On Nov. 27, 2006, Porter was charged with murder in the fatal wreck, attempted murder in the first wreck, theft or embezzlement from an elder adult by a caretaker, and elder abuse causing death.

Porter, 57, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of all charges. His trial is expected to stretch into late July or early August. Both sides plan to call accountants and car crash reconstruction experts to the witness stand.

Mayne said a trail of financial improprieties, coupled with inconsistent explanations about the two wrecks, should convince jurors that Porter is guilty of murder.

According to the prosecutor, Porter frequently tapped into Craig's accounts, writing checks for cash, buying magazines and cell phones, paying for upgrades to his home and stocking a pond at his hillside house with trout.

McAllister said Porter did not seek authority over Craig's funds, but eventually gave in to Craig's request for help on his pet project. He said the pair traveled the state and even went to Europe because Craig had an interest in military history and wanted ideas for the museum.

The defense attorney said Craig insisted on making the church his beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate even after his attorney advised him against the arrangement.

And, he said, Craig's net worth was far more than prosecutors let on, with $2.1 million in investment accounts, $147,000 annually from pensions and other accounts, and property worth $451,000.

McAllister said Porter can account for his use of Craig's money, because he spent $700,000 to acquire property for the museum, $470,000 on Craig's care, and $225,000 on the church and youth activities.

Porter also received $245,000 in gifts from Craig, his attorney said.

And Craig's investment portfolio, which was managed by the church board of elders, lost $500,000.

"Doug Porter is not a murderer," McAllister said.