The minute Henry "Bud" Whitney heard that his wife's elderly uncle died in a wreck, he suspected foul play by Hickman Pastor Doug Porter, who was at the wheel, Whitney testified Wednesday during a preliminary hearing in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
In the few hours after the wreck, Whitney called the Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol and the district attorney's office to make sure the authorities knew about a conversation he had six days earlier with the crash victim, retired rancher Frank Craig.
Craig had inherited $2.5 million from a brother in 1998 and dreamed of building an adobe brick museum with a copper roof to showcase the farm equipment he had collected over decades.
The 85-year-old man gave Porter power of attorney over his affairs and believed the preacher would build the museum on land adjacent to Hickman Community Church.
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After a crippling accident on March 5, 2002, with Porter driving, Craig believed the museum's foundation had been poured, though no such work was completed, Whitney said.
Less than a week before the fatal April 22, 2004, wreck, Craig complained that Porter had spent his money to build a big house on a hill, Whitney said.
"He was going to take care of his own matters and he was going to tell Doug it was all over, and he was going to do something different with his money, whatever was left," Whitney said.
Porter, 56, has been held without bail since his arrest in November. He has pleaded not guilty and Judge Thomas Zeff is hearing evidence to determine if the man who led a large congregation and coached wrestling at Hughson High School should be held for trial on murder, attempted murder and theft charges.
Porter is taking an active role in his defense, taking copious notes as witnesses testify and conferring frequently with defense attorney Kirk McAllister. He also smiles at family members and other supporters in the audience, but he may not talk to them.
Porter walked away from both of the crashes, and prosecutors contend that neither of the wrecks was an accident. They also allege that Porter drained $1.1 million from Craig's accounts, according to court records.
Craig not wearing seat belt
In the first crash, about 1:10 p.m. on Lake Road, Porter slammed his Toyota Tundra pickup into a tree. The driver-side air bag deployed, but the passenger side air bag had been turned off. Porter was wearing a seat belt while Craig was not.
Investigators told the court they did not believe either of Porter's explanations, that he fell asleep at the wheel or that he swerved to avoid an oncoming car.
According to Whitney, Craig had his arm wrapped around the seat belt because Porter told him the belt did not work. Whitney said Craig told him that story while he was recovering in a rehabilitation hospital.
According to an insurance adjuster, Porter told Unigard Insurance Co. that Craig did not like to wear seat belts and may have slipped his off.
Insurance adjuster Robert Oats told the court that Porter said Craig would not file a negligence claim. Such a claim would have been worth more than the $250,000 policy limit, he said. The company settled the claim for $25,000, plus $5,000 in medical expenses, he said.
Crash into canal
In the second crash, about 2:55 p.m., Porter veered off a canal access road and plunged Craig's GMC truck into the Ceres Main Canal, east of Swanson Road. He told investigators he was not able to rescue Craig, who was pinned in by his seat belt and a locked door.
Porter said he was bumped to the right when he hit some rocks in the road, but investigators say they think Porter may have put those rocks there, because they were the only ones in the immediate vicinity and appeared to come from a rock garden at the base of a tree on Craig's lawn.
CHP officer Daniel Crooker said several people who knew Craig came to the crash site as soon as they heard of his death, reporting suspicions about Porter. He said the wreck is the only fatal crash he has investigated in which he suspected foul play.
Whitney said his wife sued Porter over Craig's estate, but never expected to inherit anything from her uncle.
He said Craig was crippled in the first crash, but was improving and was able to walk across the living room without his walker the last time they met.
Craig talked about going back to physical therapy, Whitney said, and complained bitterly about Porter. Craig said he believed church members used his money to pay for a trip to Monterey, Whitney said, and he said Porter once left him outside in his yard all night.
Whitney said he did not confront Porter on Craig's behalf, but believed the old man, who was known to have a cranky disposition, would take action soon.
"He knew at that point that the museum was not being built. He was going to confront Doug," Whitney said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.