A preacher who once could draw crowds to his small country church east of Modesto must stand trial in the death of Frank Craig, an elderly rancher who dreamed of using his $2.5 million inheritance to build an agricultural museum, a judge said Friday.
Stanislaus County Supe-rior Court Judge Thomas Zeff said he heard enough evidence during a preliminary hearing to order Doug Porter be tried on a murder charge stemming from an April 2004 wreck that killed Craig, attempted murder stemming from a March 2002 wreck that crippled Craig, and theft.
Prosecutors allege that the former pastor who led Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades promised to build a museum to showcase Craig’s antique farm equipment, but instead drained $1.1 million from the man’s accounts.
The judge’s ruling left Porter supporters, who filled the courtroom during a hearing that stretched over two weeks, shaking their heads in disbelief. Some cried as they left the courthouse. Others waited in the hallway so they could offer support to Porter as a bailiff led him back to jail.
“Doug is innocent,” said his wife, Vicki, who declined to comment in detail for fear of harming her husband’s case. “We just want him to be able to get out.”
On the other side were people who suspected foul play as soon as they learned that the 85-year-old Craig drowned after his truck, driven by Porter, plunged into a canal.
Several friends had urged Craig to cut his ties with Porter.
“More than one guy was telling him, ‘You’ve got to dump him, get him out of there,’ ” said longtime friend John Wassum of Hughson. “And Frank would say, ‘I trust Doug.’ ”
Porter, 56, has been held without bail since he was arrested at a Mexican border checkpoint near San Diego on Nov. 27 as he returned to the United States. He returns to court Sept. 13 for arraignment, and the judge likely will set a trial date at that time.
Craig’s relatives filed a lawsuit challenging Porter’s control of Craig’s trust four months after the elderly man died.
“It’s quite a shock, that something like this could come up,” said Marilyn Allen of Hickman, an acquaintance of Craig who has been reading news accounts of the case and finds it hard to believe that church members still stand behind Porter.
Officers skeptical of explanation
California Highway Patrol officers who testified during the preliminary hearing said they did not believe Porter’s explanations about the crashes.
In the first wreck, Porter’s Toyota Tundra pickup veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Porter initially said he was tired and may have fallen asleep at the wheel. Later, he said he rubbed his tired eyes and swerved to avoid an oncoming car.
Porter was wearing a seat belt and his airbag deployed. Craig was not wearing a seat belt and his air bag had been turned off. Investigators found no signs of braking, something they would expect if Porter had been caught off guard by an oncoming car.
In the second wreck, Craig’s GMC truck, with Porter at the wheel, plunged into the Ceres Main Canal, east of Swanson Road. Porter said he was pushed off course after he hit some rocks, but investigators said the rocks, which were each a bit larger than a fist, were 100 feet from the spot where the truck turned toward the water.
Porter told the authorities that he was unable to save Craig as the water crept higher because Craig was pinned in by a seat belt and locked door. He sought help from a farmworker in a nearby orchard, who helped Porter pull Craig’s body out of the canal.
Four neighbors rushed to the scene when they heard about Craig’s death, and they told investigators that Craig had had suspicions about Porter.
The judge also heard from a lawyer specializing in estate planning who drew up the paperwork in 1999 when Craig made the Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and named Porter executor of his estate.
Craig brushed off naysayers
The attorney said he cautioned Craig against the arrangement, telling him there were better ways to fund the museum, but the old man grew up in an era when people did business on a handshake and he had his mind made up.
Craig gave Porter the power to transfer money from his accounts, sell his belongings and make decisions about his health care.
According to investigators, Porter spent Craig’s money to make improvements to his home in La Grange, buy a car, pay his taxes and even purchase T-shirts for the Hughson High School wrestling team, which Porter coached.
Porter sold Craig’s property six weeks after Craig’s death, keeping $415,000.
Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne argued that Porter’s actions amount to theft because Porter knew that Craig wanted his money spent on the museum.
Defense attorney Kirk McAllister contends that Porter continued to work on the museum even after he left the church in late 2005.
John Veldhuizen of Oakland, who was Craig’s neighbor in Hickman, said his friend was suspicious of Porter after the first wreck, but wanted the mu-seum so badly that he brushed off naysayers.
At one point, Craig asked Veldhuizen to drive to the mu-seum site and find out if a foundation had been poured, as Porter had assured him it had. Veldhuizen said he returned to the rehabilitation hospital to report that no work had been done, but Craig didn’t want to hear it.
“Doug had a way of just smoothing everything over,” Veldhuizen said, noting that Craig was generous with his friends even though he lived like a pauper.
Friends said Craig was increasingly suspicious of Porter in his final months.
‘Minute the funeral was over …’
Craig complained that he received junk mail but no statements for his investment accounts or other bank accounts, Wassum said. At one point, Craig had his caretaker take him to Modesto, where he discovered that permits for the mu-seum were not in the works as Porter had told him, Veldhuizen said.
Six days before his death, Craig had a visit from his niece, Marilyn Whitney, and her husband, Henry “Bud” Whitney. The Whitneys said Craig was beginning to walk on his own after two years with a walker and planned to take control of his finances.
“He said, ‘I just know my money is gone, but I’ve got to confront Doug and take charge of my life,’ ” Bud Whitney said.
Eleven days after Craig’s death, Porter delivered the eu-logy at his funeral. In the following weeks, Craig’s friends and family watched as Porter and others cleaned out Craig’s possessions, tore down his house and barn, cleared away trees and sold a dozen tractors Craig was preserving for the museum.
Craig had a home full of antiques, including an old Vic- trola, his mother’s silver and four grandfather clocks. He collected scrap metal, with piles that stood 30 feet tall. He also was known to keep cash, sometimes as much as $10,000, in coffee cans tucked into nooks and crannies.
“The minute the funeral was over, people started grabbing,” Wassum said.
KEY EVENTS IN THE CASE
- Sept. 29, 1993: Frank Craig sets up a trust, naming his brother, James, as beneficiary, followed by his sisters, Mary T. Gibbons and Pearl C. Eastman.
- Nov. 21, 1998: Craig inherits $2.5 million when his brother dies, more than enough to build a museum to showcase farm equipment Craig collected over decades.
- Nov. 2, 1999: Craig makes Hickman Community Church pastor Doug Porter conservator of his estate and gives him power of attorney over his health care decisions.
- Nov. 29, 1999: Craig amends his trust, making the church his beneficiary and naming Porter trustee.
- Jan. 7, 2000: Porter spends $453,500 of Craig’s money to buy land adjacent to the church for the museum and a ball field. Plans call for moving the old Rowe Schoolhouse to the site as a home for the museum.
- May 3, 2000: The church board of elders drafts a letter to Craig to inform him that Porter misused $15,700 from a foundation set up to provide seed money for the museum. A check drawn on Craig’s investment accounts repays the fund; family members suspect that Craig never received the letter.
- Sept. 8, 2000: Craig gives Porter power of attorney over his property.
- Sept. 13, 2000: Craig gives Porter power of attorney over his investment accounts at A.G. Edwards & Son Inc. Investigators say the accounts had a value of $1.1 million when Porter took over and less than $20,000 by March 2002.
- March 5, 2002: Craig breaks both legs, a hip and several ribs when Porter’s Toyota Tundra pickup veers off Lake Road and slams into a tree. Porter, who walked away, gives different accounts of the crash to investigators and acquaintances. Porter was wearing a seat belt and his air bag deployed. Craig was not wearing a seat belt and his air bag was turned off.
- May 7, 2002: Craig amends his trust, giving Porter the power to act independently when making financial decisions.
- Nov. 27, 2003: Longtime friend Les Orr picks up Craig so they can attend Thanksgiving dinner with a friend. On the way, he stops at the museum site. Craig sees that no foundation has been poured and believes Porter has deceived him. Craig is so upset he vomits and does not go to the party.
- April 16, 2004: Craig complains about Porter to relatives Marilyn and Henry “Bud” Whitney. Craig reportedly says Porter had siphoned off his money without making any progress on the museum.
- April 22, 2004: Craig, 85, drowns in the Ceres Main Canal after his GMC truck, driven by Porter, plunges into the water at 2:55 p.m. Friends and neighbors of Craig suspect foul play. Porter tells authorities he hit some rocks and lost control. Investigators find no signs of fishtailing and determine that the truck veered into the canal 100 feet away from the rocks, which appear to have come from Craig’s yard.
- May 3, 2004: Porter delivers the eulogy at Craig’s funeral.
- June 10, 2004: Porter sells Craig’s home at 12225 Riverview Road in Hickman for $415,000 and keeps the proceeds.
- Aug. 27, 2004: Craig’s sisters file a lawsuit against Porter, challenging Craig’s trust.
- Nov. 14, 2005: An advertisement in The Bee says Porter has resigned as pastor “to protect the church from further negative focus.” Porter concentrates on developing a ministry in Mexico.
- Nov. 22, 2006: Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver signs a warrant for Porter’s arrest.
- Nov. 27, 2006: Porter is arrested at a Mexican border checkpoint near San Diego as he returns to the United States.
- Nov. 28, 2006: The district attorney’s office charges Porter with first-degree murder, attempted murder and theft from an elder adult by a caretaker. He is held without bail.
- Aug. 31, 2007: After a weeklong preliminary hearing, Judge Thomas Zeff rules Porter should be held for trial.
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