The defense of former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter began Thursday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, with attorney Kirk McAllister calling a Baptist minister to question the credibility of a key prosecution witness.
Pastor Richard Abbott of Cedaredge, Colo., had a lot to say about James TenNapel's 10-month tenure with his church, and none of it was good.
Abbott, who described TenNapel as a man who makes a great first impression, said he hired him to work as an associate pastor in September 2005 and began to have doubts almost immediately.
The pastor said he'd had three alarming encounters by the time TenNapel was fired in July 2006, including a final outburst that ended when a church elder pushed TenNapel out of a church office and bolted the door behind him.
"He told me he was going to smash me in the face," Abbott recalled.
Years earlier, TenNapel worked for Porter at Hickman Community Church, where he tried unsuccessfully to raise money for a building project that would have included a sanctuary, classrooms and an agricultural museum that rancher Frank Craig wanted to build.
Porter, 57, of La Grange, is suspected of embezzling $1.1 million Craig wanted to spend on the museum, then staging two truck collisions to cover his tracks. Craig was crippled in a 2002 wreck and drowned in a 2004 wreck. Porter was at the wheel both times, walking away with barely a scratch.
When TenNapel testified last week, he told the jury he heard Porter make sinister comments about Craig twice, with Porter allegedly claiming that the project would be a lot easier if its benefactor, Craig, were not around.
TenNapel also acknowledged that he benefited from his association with Porter and the museum project because Porter gave him $30,000 drawn on Craig's accounts, which TenNapel used to make a down payment on a home in Hickman.
A contract between the men described the money as a gift, and TenNapel said Porter told him not to mention the money to Craig.
Abbott told the jury that TenNapel liked to talk about the case, but he said he came to distrust TenNapel's stories, particularly his claim that a former church elder in Hickman, Gary Kuhlman, was missing. Months after hearing that story, Abbott said he met Kuhlman at a church conference in Los Angeles.
Abbott said TenNapel claimed he was afraid for his life, something TenNapel denied when he testified last week.
"He told me he left California because he felt that his life and the life of his family was in jeopardy because he found out that pastor Porter had put out a contract on his life," Abbott said.
Next up was Porter's mother-in-law, Agnes Dias of La Grange.
She said Craig pursued Porter for four months before Porter agreed to help build the museum. That was in 1999, after Craig inherited $2.5 million from a brother and believed that farm equipment he'd collected for decades could be preserved as a testament to the past.
Craig made the church his beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate.
During the prosecution's case, the jury saw a steady stream of checks that Porter drew on Craig's accounts. Much of the money was spent on a four-home complex around a small lake in La Grange, where Porter lived with his wife, Dias and her husband, as well as two of his adult children and their spouses.
Dias insisted that she and her husband received no money from Craig's accounts, but Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne confronted her with several checks signed by Porter. They were drawn on a Central Valley Museum Association fund and two other accounts Porter set up with Craig's money.
Dias said she did not recall the checks, adding that her husband may have a better recollection of the payments.
Next to testify was Jeff Porter, a nephew of the defendant, whom Porter paid to work around Craig's ranch. He recalled helping the "grumpy old man" move junk around before the first wreck. He also said his uncle took care of Craig after the 2002 wreck, changing the senior's diapers and making his meals.
As he was questioned by McAllister, Jeff Porter recalled an incident shortly after Craig returned home from months in a rehabilitation hospital, when he and his uncle removed all of the guns from Craig's house, because Craig said he wanted to commit suicide by consuming rat poison.
Although previous witnesses talked about two live-in caretakers Porter hired to look after Craig, Jeff Porter said he had never heard of them. He acknowledged under cross-examination by Deputy District Attorney John Baker that he was not around the ranch much after Craig was crippled.
There was some talk of a truck and a boat Jeff Porter got from Craig's home, but the details were unclear. Porter's testimony continues when the trial resumes Monday.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.