Jury finds Porter guilty of murder

August 5, 2008 


    Jurors returned four guilty verdicts against Howard "Doug" Porter, holding him responsible for the drowning of rancher Frank Craig, 85.

  • MURDER: The jury said Porter is guilty of first-degree murder stemming from an April 22, 2004, truck crash, and two special circumstances that carry a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. They are: murder for financial gain and murder to silence a witness to theft.
  • ATTEMPTED MURDER: The jury decided that Porter also tried to kill Craig in a March 5, 2002, truck wreck. The sentence is seven years to life for attempted murder, plus five years because Craig was more than 70 at the time of the crash.
  • ELDER ABUSE: These two charges stemmed from Porter's role as a caretaker for Craig because Craig gave Porter power of attorney over his financial and health care decisions. The jury agreed that Porter abused his position, causing Craig's death, meaning he could face as much as 11 years in prison. Jurors also believed Porter abused his position as a caretaker to embezzle from Craig, meaning he could face up to six years in prison.

Jurors deliberated for less than one day before finding former Hickman pastor Howard "Doug" Porter guilty of murdering an 85-year-old rancher, along with three other felonies, Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Six men and six women who weighed the credibility of more than 90 witnesses hugged shortly before bailiffs escorted them from the courthouse. Some spoke to The Bee but asked not to be identified. They said Porter hurt himself by testifying in his defense, because his story did not hold up.

"I believe justice was served," said one male juror.

"The evidence was overwhelming," a female juror quickly added.

Porter family members who faithfully attended the trial since it began with jury selection May 12 were crushed. Most did not get the word in time to hear a clerk read the verdicts, but they got the news upon arriving at the downtown Modesto courthouse.

Some formed a tight circle with their heads bowed as they offered a tearful prayer. Porter's mother and others sobbed on courthouse benches, while others talked in subdued tones on cell phones. Daughter Monica Tanner, who wrote a daily blog about the trial, said she would not speak to reporters.

Another Porter supporter, who did not identify himself, said: "I wouldn't say anything to The Bee. It's a dirty, rotten, filthy paper."

Porter has been held without bail since his arrest Nov. 27, 2006.

Authorities charged Porter with embezzling $1.1 million that rancher Frank Craig wanted to spend on an agricultural museum. The two men teamed up in 1999, after Craig inherited more than $2 million from a brother and believed the museum he had long dreamed of could become a reality with Porter's help.

Craig made Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate. Authorities said Porter used much of Craig's money to build a family compound, dubbed Rivendell, in La Grange.

Craig was broke March 5, 2002, the day Porter's truck veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig drowned April 22, 2004, after his truck, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and plunged into the Ceres main canal. Porter then sold Craig's ranch, pocketing $415,000.

Four bailiffs stood guard in a quiet courtroom as a clerk read the verdicts: Guilty of first- degree murder, attempted murder, elder abuse causing death and theft from an elder by a caretaker. Judge Thomas Zeff said he will sentence Porter on Sept. 2. The conviction with the special circumstances of murder for financial gain and murder to silence a witness to theft carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne said he was pleased to see the jury do the right thing, yet surprised that the verdicts came so quickly. "It was his own actions that put him here," he said.

Defense attorney Kirk McAllister said he was disappointed, but accepted the verdict even as he promised an appeal. "This is a long trial. It was a hardworking jury; we hoped that they would see the evidence in a different light," he said. "But we respect their judgment and their serv-ice."

As word of the verdicts spread, Craig's friends and family said the district attorney's office had unmasked a con man.

Henry "Bud" Whitney, who is married to Craig's niece and lives north of Truckee, filed a lawsuit after Craig's death, to keep a criminal investigation alive. He said Porter's relatives should share in the blame, because they cashed checks drawn on Central Valley Museum of Agriculture accounts.

"They knew that the money was to go to the museum," he said. "They were getting the money, so they're all co-conspirators."

Barbara and John Wassum of Hughson, friends of Craig for more than half a century, sat through most of the trial and sometimes fielded angry comments from people who support Porter. They said they didn't believe a word Porter said.

"Frank did not deserve this," John Wassum said.

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

Reporter Garth Stapley contributed to this report. He can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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