CPA: Porter got $167,000

Ex-preacher's accounting system a 'challenging puzzle,' witness says

July 15, 2008 

  • AT A GLANCE

  • WHAT: The murder trial of Howard "Doug" Porter of La Grange
  • THE ALLEGATIONS: Porter, 57, who was 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.

A certified public accountant who testified Monday on behalf of murder suspect Howard "Doug" Porter said the former preacher got $167,000 from his relationship with rancher Frank Craig, a far cry from the $1.1 million Porter is accused of embezzling.

Gerald Deller of Modesto said it was hard to trace expenditures in four accounts that were handled by Porter but fueled with Craig's money because Porter had an unorthodox spending system, often writing checks to cash and covering expenses that belonged to one account with checks from another.

"It was a very challenging puzzle to put together," he said.

His work contradicted the testimony of a forensic accountant hired by the prosecution, who told a jury in Stanislaus County Superior Court that Porter and his family pocketed $820,000 Craig wanted to spend on an agricultural museum, and likely took $300,000 more that was not as easy to trace.

Deller said he came up with a different number because he did more legwork, asking members of the Porter family about the nature of numerous expenses.

"Not enough effort was made to find out, 'Where did some of this money go?' " he said.

Both sides agreed that the value of Craig's fortune was well over $2 million in 1999 and dropped off dramatically after Craig made the Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate.

Charts presented by both sides showed that Craig's cash flow was depleted by late 2001, though he still had property and other assets.

Craig hoped the preacher and his church would help build a museum to showcase farm equipment collected over decades. The authorities contend that Porter stole the money Craig wanted to spend on the museum, then staged two truck collisions to cover his tracks.

Craig and Porter money mingled

Craig was 83 on March 5, 2002, when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig was 85 on April 22, 2004, when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and landed in the Ceres main canal.

Craig was crippled in the first wreck, never walking without assistance again, and he drowned in the second wreck.

Porter, 57, of La Grange, walked away from both collisions. He has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death. The trial began May 12 and is expected to wrap up later this month.

Jurors have seen countless checks signed by Porter, drawn on accounts set up with Craig's money, that were used to pay for improvements to a four-home complex in La Grange where Porter lived with his wife, mother- and father-in-law, and two of his adult children and their spouses.

Deller said Porter mingled his money with Craig's, loaning money to Craig at times, and continued to work on the museum after Craig died. He cited a $32,298 paving job done in 2005 at the museum site behind the church. Porter and his wife paid the contractor with a check from their personal account.

Binder brings end to testimony

After a lengthy examination by defense attorney Kirk McAllister, Deller's testimony came to an abrupt end because Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne pointed to a binder Deller brought to the witness stand and noted that it was twice as thick as the paperwork he received.

Both sides have a duty to share information they intend to use at trial and the oversight prompted an early recess for the jury.

Deller said the additional materials in his binder are notes he took while discussing the case with McAllister, who argued that the information is "work product" that need not be turned over.

Judge Thomas Zeff told Deller to hand over the binder to the prosecutor so the authorities could have a complete copy of his work before Mayne's cross-examination resumes Wednesday.

It was a bit of déjà vu because the trial took a one-day hiatus last month when a forensic accountant hired by the district attorney's office came to court with charts that included small adjustments made at the last minute.

The judge gave McAllister an extra day to prepare for his cross-examination. Mayne now gets the same chance.

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

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