Porter witness said he saw a red flag

$30,000 gift-loan raised in effort to undermine earlier testimony

July 11, 2008 

  • AT A GLANCE



    • WHAT: The murder trial of Howard "Doug" Porter, 57, of La Grange
    • THE ALLEGATIONS: Porter, pastor of Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades, is accused of embezzling $1.1 million from rancher Frank Craig, then staging two truck collisions to cover his tracks. Craig was 83 when he was crippled in the 2002 crash, and 85 when he drowned in the 2004 crash. He gave the preacher control of his finances because he thought Porter would help him build an agricultural museum. Porter has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or misappropriation from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death.
    • THURSDAY'S ACTION: The defense called a tax accountant who questioned the credibility of a prosecution witness. A collision reconstruction expert testified that Porter was driving too fast when Craig's truck landed in the canal.
    • WHAT'S NEXT: The trial is taking a hiatus today because of scheduling issues, and resumes Monday.

A tax accountant who testified Thursday during a murder trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court said he saw a big red flag when a fellow parishioner from Hickman Community Church told him about $30,000 he received from his employer, the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture.

William York said the matter came up because he prepared tax returns for James TenNapel, who was hired by former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter to raise money for the museum that rancher Frank Craig wanted to build on 14 acres behind the church.

York said TenNapel told him he intended to file a letter with his mortgage company that described the money as a gift, but also acknowledged that the money was a loan from Craig and Porter.

That, York said, amounted to fraud. Just what type of fraud remained a matter of dispute as a defense attorney, then a prosecutor, questioned the man who prepared tax returns for TenNapel and Porter.

"I told James it was fraudulent to sign this letter," York recalled. "I still think it was fraudulent for James to sign this letter."

Porter is on trial because the district attorney's office suspects that he embezzled $1.1 million from Craig, then staged two truck collisions to cover his tracks.

Craig was crippled in 2002, when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig drowned in 2004, when his GMC Sonoma, which Porter had used for more than two years, veered off an embankment and into the Ceres main canal.

The two men formed a partnership in 1999 after Craig inherited money and dreamed of using the funds to build an agricultural museum, then solicited help from Porter and Hickman Community Church.

Five years later, the money was gone, the museum was little more than a plan on paper and the 85-year-old Craig drowned.

Defense attorney Kirk McAllister called York to the witness stand to question the credibility of TenNapel, who testified for the prosecution a few weeks ago.

TenNapel told the jury that Porter told him not to mention the $30,000, which he used for a down payment on a home in Hickman, and also made sinister comments that seemed to foreshadow Craig's death, twice suggesting that the museum project would be easier if Craig were not around.

Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne questioned the wisdom of York's advice, because York acknowledged that he reviewed paperwork for the museum association yet never warned Porter about problems with the gift letter he and TenNapel had signed.

Gifts from employers are subject to payroll taxes, which were not paid by TenNapel or the museum association. York said TenNapel, not Porter, was committing the fraud because TenNapel received the money.

Mayne raised an eyebrow, then let the matter drop.

York said he went to TenNapel's Hickman home a few days before TenNapel moved to Colorado, to urge TenNapel to repay the $30,000.

TenNapel declined.

Next up was a collision reconstruction expert who used measurements investigators took at the scene, photos of tire tracks along a canal bank and mathematical equations to determine how fast Craig's pickup truck was traveling when it hit the water.

Porter told authorities he was driving about 35 mph when the front tire of Craig's truck hit some rocks that sent the men plunging into the canal. Investigators say they doubt that the rocks sent the vehicle into the canal, because the tire tracks veered left toward the water 136 to 145 feet north of the four fist-sized rocks.

Toby Gloekler, an engineer from a Concord-based collision reconstruction firm, said speed, not rocks, was the problem. His calculations suggest that Porter was driving 53 mph to 62 mph on a narrow dirt road that veered to the right shortly before the truck turned left and plunged into the water.

Either speed, the engineer said, was unsafe.

"I wouldn't drive 53 miles an hour, much less 62," Gloekler said.

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

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