A bookkeeper noticed financial irregularities only months after elderly rancher Frank Craig made the Hickman Community Church the sole beneficiary of his estate, an investigator testified Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Craig, who inherited $2.5 million from a brother, believed Pastor Doug Porter would help him build an agricultural museum in Hickman to showcase farm equipment he collected over decades.
Years later, Craig is dead, Porter is charged with murder, the money is gone and the museum is an idea that never got off the ground.
It all began in fall 1999, when Craig made Porter's Hickman Community Church the sole beneficiary of his estate and set up a $150,000 foundation that could be used as seed money for the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture.
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Investigator Mike Hermosa of the district attorney's office said church bookkeeper Cathy Bergman was the first to question the preacher.
Bergman asked Porter why she wasn't receiving bank statements for the Hickman Church Foundation Fund, Her- mosa said, and Porter said the statements must be going to Craig's home instead of a church post office box.
When Bergman obtained copies of the missing statements from Bank of the West, it was clear that Porter had been dipping into the accounts for personal reasons. The church board of elders confronted Porter and he apologized, Hermosa said.
On May 3, 2000, the board drafted a letter to Craig to explain the $15,000 that was spent. Attached was a $15,000 check, drawn on Craig's investment account, which Porter had access to.
In effect, Hermosa said, the church and its pastor defrauded Craig twice.
"This letter is absurd, it's absolutely absurd," said Hermosa, who was a detective specializing in financial crimes before he joined the district attorney's office.
In the coming years, Craig's money was used to cover payroll at the church and the church foundation, which was raising money for a $7 million building that would house the church and the museum.
Hermosa said he hasn't had time to trace every check but he rattled off a number of payments he felt were improper:
The district attorney's office alleges that Porter siphoned off $1.1 million of Craig's money before Craig, 85, drowned in the Ceres Main Canal.
Porter, 56, is accused of first-degree murder stemming from a fatal 2004 wreck involving Craig, attempted murder from a 2002 wreck that crippled Craig and theft from an elder.
Porter walked away from the first wreck, in which his Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree, but Craig suffered crippling injuries.
After the second wreck, Porter told the authorities he was unable to save Craig after Craig's GMC pickup, which Porter was driving, hit some rocks on an access road and went into the canal.
A preliminary hearing in the preacher's case began Monday and is expected to conclude early next week. Judge Thomas Zeff is hearing evidence to determine if Porter, who has been held without bail since his arrest in November, should be held for trial.
Hermosa said the church el- ders questioned Porter about progress on the museum one week before Craig died. He said three of six people who attended that meeting recall Porter sug- gesting that things would be easier if Craig were not in- volved.
"He said something to the effect that if Craig was dead the project would be a lot easier," Hermosa said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.