Nation & World

Couple describe condition of rancher at murder trial

A Ceres schoolteacher who testified Thursday during a murder trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court said she and her husband began making daily trips to Hickman to care for an elderly friend because they were not convinced that former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter was getting the job done.

Michelle Pittman said she became alarmed the moment she saw rancher Frank Craig lying on a lounge chair on his lawn. Craig had been crippled six or eight months earlier, when a truck driven by Porter slammed into a tree, and he had been home from a rehabilitation hospital for only one day.

The 85-year-old wore diapers, depended on a catheter and could not walk or even lift himself out of bed. Yet he had been left outside alone.

"When my husband and I arrived, Mr. Craig was out, laying in a lounge chair, and he was wearing shorts and his legs were severely sunburned because he was put out into the sun all day the day before," Pittman recalled. "It was severe enough that he should have gone to the hospital. It was blistered."

More than five years later, the country preacher is suspected of embezzling $1.1 million the rancher wanted to use to build an agricultural museum, then staging two truck accidents, in 2002 and 2004, to cover his tracks. The second wreck proved fatal.

Porter, 57, of La Grange has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death. He has been held without bail since his arrest Nov. 27, 2006, and faces life in prison if convicted.

The Pittmans, who met Craig in 1983 when they worked together in a manure-spreading business, insist that their friend was on the mend and were suspicious of Porter in the months before Craig's death.

During back-to-back stints on the witness stand, they told the jury about an opinionated man who pinched pennies because he grew up during the Depression, believed in doing business with a handshake and loved to collect antiques, which he referred to as his "treasures."

Before the crippling crash, Tim and Michelle Pittman saw Craig a few times a year and brought him to their annual Fourth of July celebration.

Once they saw Craig's sunburned body, the couple stepped up their visitation schedule because they had little faith in a man from Mexico who was paid to care for Craig and who attended Bible study classes at Hickman Community Church, where Porter was pastor for nearly two decades.

Craig and Porter struck up a business relationship in 1999, when Craig inherited $2 million from a brother and believed an agricultural museum he had dreamed of for years could become a reality. He made the church his beneficiary and the preacher the executor of his estate.

Although Porter had control of Craig's finances and health care decisions, it was the Pittmans who brought in a mechanical bed and wheelchair, bathed Craig and fashioned a special rolling chair so Craig could use the toilet.

Craig's cluttered house had been rearranged while he was in the hospital, with stacks of stuff piled on Craig's bed. The Pittmans were concerned because some things were missing, including a grandfather clock that Craig's brother made, in which Craig was known to store up to $5,000 in cash.

It was the Pittmans who searched for belongings Craig couldn't find, such as a microwave oven that had been taken from the kitchen and stored in a barn.

In the first few weeks after Craig came home from the hospital, parishioners from Porter's church brought lunches, but they tapered off, leaving it up to the Mexican student, who allegedly had a drinking problem, to prepare meals.

Pittman said she brought dinner every day for six months, and her husband said he tended Craig's gardens on the weekends. Eventually, Michelle Pittman suggested a new caregiver for Craig, an idea that Porter agreed to after his hired man left Craig outside until 2 a.m.

Defense attorney Kirk McAllister suggested that the couple put their lives on hold because they hoped to inherit Craig's 20-acre ranch. He noted that the Pittmans did not help a few years earlier, when Craig had hip and knee surgeries.

The Pittmans said they were merely helping a friend in need, though Tim Pittman acknowledged that Craig once grumbled that he might as well give the couple his ranch. Tim Pittman said Craig was angry with Porter, because five years had passed and the museum was little more than a plan on paper.

Michelle Pittman said Craig wanted his home to become a rental property after his death, so it could generate money to cover the museum's operating costs. She said Craig also insisted that the property not be sold to a nearby nursery, because he did not like the fact that they grew trees in pots.

Craig drowned after his truck, driven by Porter, landed in the Ceres Main Canal. Porter tore down Craig's home and barns on Riverview Road, cleared the land and sold the property to the nursery, pocketing $450,000.

The Pittmans said Craig wanted to build an adobe museum that would serve as a time capsule, giving youngsters a glimpse of a time when farming was a way of life for most people. They said Craig wanted to build a museum that could be used by the community, but did not want to fund a church facility.

Nevertheless, a March 2000 article from the Waterford News, which described a new sanctuary and community center coupled with an agricultural display, was tacked on Craig's kitchen wall. Michelle Pittman said Craig believed a reporter had gotten the wrong idea.

In the final months of his life, Craig was able to get around the house in a wheelchair. He had regained some use of his left hand, which had been severely injured in the first wreck. The Pittmans said Craig was irritated because he received junk mail but no bank statements.

Tim Pittman said he promised to contact another contractor on Craig's behalf, because Craig wanted to take the museum project out of Porter's hands.

And Michelle Pittman promised to make sure a gravestone Craig purchased years earlier, was fixed. The schoolteacher said she passed on the request to Porter, who delivered Craig's eulogy and handled his funeral arrangements.

Sunday, she went to the cemetery and found that nothing had been done.

"It still said 19--," Michelle Pittman said. "It was never completed with the date of his death."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

Related stories from Vida en el Valle

  Comments