Jurors defend murder, abuse convictions of Doug Porter

In interviews, they suggest Porter's former church build victim's planned museum

August 8, 2008 

  • THE CHARGES

    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.

As the trial of former Hickman pastor Howard "Doug" Porter stretched from weeks into months, juror Cameron Miller started to worry that others on the panel might not see that the country preacher was a con man.

The 12 jurors had been warned not to talk about the pastor who had been accused of murdering a man after stealing his fortune, so there was no way for Miller to know which way the others were leaning.

As deliberations approached, Miller mapped out a strategy in his mind, going over all the things that proved Porter drove Frank Craig into a tree in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him, then finished the job two years later by driving into a canal in which Craig drowned.

Yet inside the deliberation room Monday morning, Miller did a complete turnabout.

In an interview Friday, he recalled becoming somewhat alarmed because a few jurors seemed ready to convict Porter without discussing key pieces of evidence. Though he still felt Porter was guilty, Miller found himself arguing that they should all take another look at the defense, just to be sure.

"It was a little surreal," said Miller, 24, who got a break from his job stocking shelves at Wal-Mart in Modesto while helping to decide one of the more sensational cases to come through Stanislaus County Superior Court in recent years.

The jury took just six hours to agree that evidence of Porter's guilt was overwhelming.

Three jurors -- foreman Mark Torres, Miller and a woman who asked that her name not be used -- said the jury deliberated carefully, despite the swiftness of the verdict.

Prosecution witnesses were believable, they said, while people who testified for the defense seemed interested in blaming anyone but Porter.

Defense experts told stories that didn't stand up to scrutiny, particularly a certified public accountant who said expenses Porter paid with Craig's money could be justified through "the magic of accounting."

And Porter's decision to testify on his own behalf eliminated any doubts the jurors might have had about his guilt. That's because Porter answered his attorney's questions in great detail, but developed a memory lapse when it was the prosecutor's turn to ask questions.

"I think that was a mistake on his part," said Torres, 53, who works in the treasury department at Bay Area Rapid Transit.

Craig was 83 in 2002 when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road west of La Grange and slammed into a tree. Craig was 85 when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and plunged into the Ceres main canal near Swanson Road.

Jurors said they paid close attention when investigators said they found no signs of braking at either collision scene.

Caregiver quality noted

Craig was crippled in the 2002 wreck, and Porter had power of attorney over his finances and health care decisions. So testimony about the quality of caregivers Porter provided was important, too.

A paper trail mattered because Craig was a lifelong collector of antiques and junk, and he dreamed of using more than $2 million he inherited from a brother to build an agricultural museum to showcase his treasures.

The authorities traced $1.1 million Craig wanted to spend on a museum to Porter and members of his family, saying much of it went to build a family compound in La Grange that was dubbed "Rivendell" and stood behind an electronic gate.

The money gave Porter a motive, but crucial testimony came when Porter described the wreck that claimed Craig's life in a tone that seemed cold and aloof.

The juror who asked that her name not be used said the jury looked at autopsy photos, pondered bruises on Craig's face and torso, and concluded that he had met with foul play after he plunged into the water.

The jury did not believe Porter's description of swimming with Craig and bumping into canal pillars when they got caught in the current, she said. And the jury assumed that Craig was dead before Porter asked a nearby fieldworker for help, she said.

"We figured that he let him drown," the juror said. "Then when he got them out, to make sure, he really did bang his head up against the pillars."

Interview tape cut short

After tentatively agreeing that Porter was a murderer, the jury asked to hear a taped interview he gave to a sheriff's detective a few days after Craig drowned. Jurors planned to inspect a transcript of Porter's testimony next.

Instead, they cut the tape short, skipped the transcript and took a final vote.

"Things just didn't jibe," Torres said.

Porter was found guilty of:

- First-degree murder and two special circumstances that will send him to prison without the possibility of parole -- that he killed Craig for financial gain and to silence a witness to his theft.

- Attempted murder stemming from the first wreck.

- Elder abuse causing death.

- Theft from an elder by a caretaker.

Judge Thomas Zeff said he will sentence Porter on Sept. 2.

Some of the jurors suggested that Hickman Community Church, at which Porter was pastor for nearly two decades, should make good on its promise to help build Craig's museum, particularly because it still owns land purchased with Craig's money on which the museum was to be built.

Calls to the church Friday were not returned.

The three jurors interviewed said they won't lose any sleep over their verdicts.

Miller said Craig's dream will live on in his head, if nowhere else, because the rancher seemed like an interesting person who fell victim to tales of a pathological liar.

"I printed out a picture of Mr. Craig, just to have, so I can look at it every now and again and say, 'We did justice for you, buddy,' " Miller said.

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

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