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Lawyers hint at Ashlock drug use as Porter testimony closes

When the 30th day of testimony in former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter's murder trial came to a close Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, jurors had heard from more than 90 witnesses and all of the evidence was in.

Attorneys are expected to deliver closing arguments today, then send the case to six men and six women who must decide if the country preacher killed an 85-year-old man and stole his fortune.

Before the questioning was over, prosecutors took one final shot at Porter associate Lonni Ashlock, whose involvement repeatedly was hinted at, yet never fully defined.

Ashlock did volunteer work on an agricultural museum Porter promised to build with rancher Frank Craig's money. Ash-lock also ran his real estate business from a trailer behind Hickman Community Church, where Porter was pastor for nearly 20 years.

And, according to the final witness in the case against Porter, church leaders suspected that Ashlock abused drugs. When a drug test ordered by the board of elders came back positive, Porter was asked to keep an eye on the problem.

"Mr. Porter was going to (administer) periodic unscheduled tests to see if the use continued," recalled Dave Piazza, who was a member of the board of elders for 14 years.

Piazza's testimony tied up a few loose ends in the high- profile case because Porter was asked about drug use at the church when he testified last week, and Ashlock seemed confused when he testified in early June, several times blaming his inability to answer questions on problems with the temporal lobe of his brain.

Piazza's testimony also shows how the legal process can become compartmentalized.

Prosecutors cannot tell the jury that Ashlock, 57, was sentenced to one year in jail for his role in a real estate fraud scheme that cost 20 families their homes. The conviction is out of bounds because there is no evidence to show that Porter knew anything about Ashlock's crimes.

Deputy District Attorneys John R. Mayne and John Baker still want the jury to question the character of a pastor who let a home swindler set up shop at his church.

So they repeatedly hinted at Ashlock's alleged drug problem as they asked about his role as a "gopher" who helped plan the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture, which never came to pass.

The defense fended off negative implications by asking if ministers are expected to help all people, no matter how troubled.

And Piazza split the difference, noting his reluctance to testify about personal matters discussed at church meetings, while acknowledging that Porter and Ashlock had a friendly relationship.

As the trial wound down, prosecutors called a string of rebuttal witnesses to take issue with Porter's account of his relationship with Craig and two truck crashes involving the men. Most were called to clarify points raised by the defense and several already had testified.

Porter, 57, of La Grange, is suspected of embezzling $1.1 million Craig wanted to spend on the museum, then staging two truck crashes to cover his tracks.

Craig was 83 in 2002 when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig was 85 in 2004 when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and plunged into the Ceres main canal.

Line of questioning denied

Craig was crippled in the first wreck and drowned in the second wreck. Porter walked away both times. He is charged with murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker, and elder abuse causing death.

One area the prosecution hoped to explore was off-limits because Judge Thomas Zeff shot down its request to recall a forensic pathologist who said Craig died of suffocation from drowning.

Prosecutors wanted to argue that Porter may have beaten Craig after they landed in the canal, sometime before Porter sought help from a farmworker.

When Porter testified last week, he said he held Craig's head above water as he swam with him toward the canal bank, but ran into trouble when they slammed into a concrete post.

The preacher's recollection could account for bruising on Craig's face, but prosecutors said the pathologist would testify that Craig's injuries were not consistent with such a scenario.

Defense attorney Kirk McAllister said the prosecution had plenty of time to explore the issue when the pathologist and Porter were on the witness stand. The judge agreed, saying a second appearance by the pathologist, and a new theory of the crime on the final day of testimony, would be unfair to Porter.

"There's no reason that this could not have been produced in the people's case in chief," Zeff said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at or 578-2338.

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