Frank Craig was a cranky old bachelor who lived like a pauper but dreamed of using $2.5 million he inherited from a brother to build a museum that would showcase farm equipment he collected over decades.
The rancher knew he couldn't build the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture alone but thought he found the perfect partner in Howard "Doug" Porter, a country preacher who was known for turning Hughson High School students into championship wrestlers.
What followed is the subject of a trial that will raise allegations against a man who had the respect of many in his community. Jury selection in Porter's two- to three-month trial begins Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Authorities allege Porter drained Craig's accounts without making progress on the museum, then killed Craig to cover his tracks by staging two auto crashes in which Porter was behind the wheel and Craig his passenger. The first crash crippled Craig, the second one killed him.
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Porter's friends and family argue that the charges are preposterous, with the two wrecks producing evidence of nothing more than bad driving.
And a couple who raised suspicions about Porter as soon as they heard that the 85-year-old Craig had drowned, then filed a lawsuit to keep a criminal investigation alive, wish they had done more to protect their relative.
"I wish he had talked to me," said Henry "Bud" Whitney, a retired administrator who is married to Craig's niece, Marilyn. "The museum would have been bright and shiny and in place today."
Lawyers involved in the case declined to comment for this story, but Deputy District Attorneys John R. Mayne and John Baker have promised to produce a mountain of financial documents and call 80 witnesses, including a young man from Wisconsin who was Craig's caretaker and told authorities he heard lots of arguments between the preacher and Craig.
Defense attorney Kirk McAllister told the court he has numerous witnesses who can attest that Porter is a man of good character but a lousy driver.
Judge Thomas Zeff's courtroom likely will be full of people who support Porter, because they have faithfully attended hearings since his arraignment 17 months ago.
Porter was arrested Nov. 27, 2006, near San Diego as he returned to the United States from Mexico, where he was building a ministry. He resigned his post at Hickman Community Church a year earlier, after the Whitneys' lawsuit prompted headlines in The Bee and talk in the community.
In addition to first-degree murder, Porter is charged with attempted murder stemming from the crash that crippled Craig, as well as theft or embezzlement from an elder adult by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death.
The district attorney's office alleges that Porter killed Craig for financial gain and to quiet a witness who could have exposed his embezzlement. If the prosecutors prevail, Porter, 57, would face life in prison. He has been held without bail since his arrest.
The Whitneys, who split their time between Los Angeles and a small town north of Truckee, visited Craig several times each year and stopped to see him six days before he drowned in the Ceres Main Canal.
According to Bud Whitney, Craig had recovered from the initial wreck, was convinced that his money was gone, and said he was going to take control of his finances again. "Did he have a motive?" he asked referring to Porter. "He certainly had motive: Frank was ready to confront him."
Story starts November 1999
It all began in November 1999, when Craig decided to make the Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and named Porter the conservator of his estate. In the years to come, Craig expanded Porter's reach, giving him power of attorney over his property, investment accounts and health care.
Three months after he was appointed to head up the museum project, Porter spent $453,000 of Craig's money to buy land adjacent to the church, property records show.
Porter's initial plan called for moving the old Rowe Schoolhouse to the site as a home for the museum, a church bulletin said. Later, the plan envisioned a $7 million meeting hall with ball fields, a prosecutor said.
Neither plan had much in common with the dream Craig's friends recall: They said Craig wanted an adobe brick museum to house a dozen old tractors and other antiques.
Six months after Porter signed on to the museum project, a church bookkeeper suspected financial improprieties because account statements were not coming to the church as she expected.
According to court records, the bookkeeper got duplicate statements from the bank and confronted Porter, who had taken $15,700 from the museum fund.
Porter apologized. The church drafted a letter to Craig, blaming a "clerical error," attaching a check drawn on Craig's accounts to cover the losses, a point the prosecutor stressed at a preliminary hearing in Porter's case.
That was the tip of the iceberg.
In the months to come, Porter dipped into at least four accounts that were set up to fund the Central Valley Museum Association, court records said, using Craig's money to pay his tithe at church, his property taxes and make home repairs.
Used funds for credit cards
Here are a few examples culled from court records:
$75,000 for expenses and payroll at the church.
$30,000 so James TenNapel, an employee who was hired to help raise money for the museum and meeting hall project, could make a down payment on a home.
$18,631 to the East Side Youth Fund, which is identified several times in court records but not defined.
$15,830 to son Kyle Porter, with some checks noting that the money was for coaching fees.
$15,189 to pay Porter's credit cards.
According to an affidavit filed in support of an arrest warrant, Craig's investment accounts at A.G. Edwards & Son Inc. had $1.1 million when Porter took over Craig's finances and less than $20,000 on March 5, 2002, when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree.
Craig, who was a passenger, broke both legs, a hip and several ribs. He was not wearing a seat belt and his air bag was turned off. Porter, who was wearing a seat belt, was knocked unconscious when his air bag deployed. He walked away from the wreck.
Porter told authorities that he believed he fell asleep but later said he squinted because he was tired, then swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle.
Officer had his doubts
A California Highway Patrol officer who testified at a preliminary hearing said he doubted Porter's stories because it looked as if the pickup had been steered off the road. Porter was not given a ticket or charged with a crime.
Craig spent months in a rehabilitation hospital. Porter told an insurance investigator that Craig had no living relatives and would not file a lawsuit. The insurance company settled the case, with Porter depositing a $25,000 check into Craig's account but taking out $7,000 in cash, court records said.
Craig was suspicious of Porter, his friends said, frequently complaining that he received only junk mail and wanted his financial statements as well.
Craig also asked his friends if a foundation for the museum had been poured as Porter claimed and vomited when a longtime buddy took him to the site to show him that he had been deceived.
Despite his suspicions, Craig refused to break his ties with the preacher.
"Doug Porter has a way of smoothing everything over and calming Frank down," said former neighbor John Veldhuizen of Oakland, who lived near Craig on Riverview Road in Hickman for many years.
One day before Craig's death, the church board of elders questioned Porter about his lack of progress on the museum, and Porter said the project would be easier if Craig were dead, according to court records and testimony at the preliminary hearing.
The defense said Porter's comment was meant to relieve tension in the room.
Craig's GMC truck, driven by Porter, plunged into the Ceres Main Canal on April 22, 2004. Craig's friends and neighbors immediately suspected Porter, and several of them rushed to the scene to tell investigators that the wreck could not be an accident.
Porter, who was sitting on a footbridge with members of his family when the authorities arrived, told investigators that he hit some rocks and lost control. The CHP found no signs of fishtailing and determined the truck veered into the canal 100 feet from the rocks.
A neighbor who rushed to the scene said the rocks looked like ones she placed under a tree on Craig's lawn. After testing soil on the rocks, the authorities concluded that the rocks, which seemed out of place on the canal bank, indeed came from Craig's lawn.
No immediate action was taken against Porter, who was charged with murder more than two and a half years after Craig died. Mayne, the lead prosecutor, declined to discuss the reason for the gap between Craig's death and Porter's arrest.
In the weeks after Craig's death, Porter gave the eulogy at his former friend's funeral, tore Craig's house down and sold Craig's land for $415,000, pocketing money that should have gone to the church, which was Craig's beneficiary.
During the cleanup, Porter and his helpers carted away valuable antiques and piles of scrap metal the elderly rancher couldn't part with.
They may have stumbled upon cash in the process, because Craig was known to keep cash, sometimes as much as $10,000, in coffee cans around his farmhouse.
And they sold a dozen tractors Craig wanted to preserve in a museum.
"Frank never saw a piece of junk he didn't fall in love with," Whitney said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.