A defense attorney on Monday argued that prosecutors have twisted the facts surrounding two car crashes to make it look as if there were a sinister relationship between Pastor Doug Porter and the late Frank Craig.
Attorney Kirk McAllister said Porter made herculean efforts to save Craig after his truck plunged into the Ceres Main Canal east of Swanson Road on April 22, 2004, struggling to release the elderly man who was pinned in by a seat belt and locked door as the water crept higher and higher.
He contends that the preacher who built a large congregation at Hickman Community Church, and is accused of murdering Craig after allegedly embezzling $1.1 million the rancher wanted to spend on an agricultural museum, has been caught in a web of mistaken perceptions.
The defense attorney capped a weeklong preliminary hearing in Stanislaus County Superior Court by calling two witnesses to back that position.
The first, lifelong friend Jerry Morgan of Hickman, said the authorities took a comment Porter uttered about Craig out of context.
A prosecution witness previously told the court that church leaders confronted Porter at a board of elders meeting a week before Craig died, questioning his lack of progress on an agricultural museum that was supposed to showcase farm equipment Craig collected over decades.
Morgan said the elders actually were concerned about the amount of time Porter spent caring for Craig, because it took away from his parish duties.
He said Porter was chastised when he said his work would be easier if Craig were not part of the picture, but Morgan saw that comment as nothing more than an effort to break the tension.
“I just think it was trying to make a tense moment light,” said Morgan, who was included in the meeting because he was training to become a church elder.
The second witness, church elder David Piazza, said church leaders scrapped the museum project in 2006, after Porter resigned his post.
He said the church initially maintained financial control over a $150,000 foundation Craig set up to provide seed money for the museum, but later ceded control of the project to Porter, who left the church in November 2005.
By then, Craig’s relatives had filed a lawsuit against Porter, contesting Craig’s will and generating headlines in The Bee.
“The church was in a position where we had to do a lot of rebuilding,” Piazza said.
Accounts of the museum project differed.
McAllister said Porter planned to move an old schoolhouse donated by Foster Farms to a plot of land adjacent to the church, which was purchased with $453,500 of Craig’s money and would feature ball fields.
Witnesses called by Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne described a $7 million plan for a new meeting hall that would include the museum and require additional fund-raising.
McAllister argued that Porter continued to work on Craig’s dream even after he left the church.
Mayne contended that Craig’s money was long gone, having been spent by Porter and members of Porter’s family.
Craig inherited $2.5 million from a wealthy brother in 1998 and believed Porter would help him build the museum he dreamed of. In 1999, Craig made the church his sole beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate.
By September 2000, Porter had power of attorney over Craig’s accounts, which had about $1.1 million, according to court records. By March 5, 2002, the day of the first wreck involving Porter and Craig, the elderly man had less than $20,000, inves- tigators said in court records.
Craig suffered crippling injuries when Porter’s Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Porter walked away.
According to Craig’s relatives, the elderly man complained about Porter a week before the second wreck, alleging that the pastor had taken his money to build a big house on the hill.
Porter was behind the wheel when Craig’s GMC truck went nose-down into the canal.
The preacher told investigators that Craig still had about $250,000. They checked and determined there was no money left.
“The court will see that that’s off by several zeroes,” Mayne said. “The money is gone.”
The next step comes Friday, when Judge Thomas Zeff will decide if Porter should be held for trial.
Porter, 56, has been held without bail since his arrest in November. The district attorney’s office has charged him with murder, stemming from the fatal wreck, attempted murder, stemming from the crippling wreck, and theft from an elder.
Aug. 28, 2007