June 26, 2008

Porter's crash story disputed

A California Highway Patrol officer who investigated the crash that killed rancher Frank Craig testified Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, telling a jury that physical evidence did not match the explanation he got from former Hickman pastor Howard "Doug" Porter.

More than four years later, Porter is on trial, charged with embezzling $1.1 million from Craig, then staging two truck crashes to cover his tracks.

Before he explained the steps he took in his investigation, officer Daniel Crooker told the jury about the explanation Porter gave shortly after Craig's truck plunged into the Ceres Main Canal east of Swanson Road on April 22, 2004. As Crooker recalled:

Porter said he and Craig were traveling westbound on the north bank of the canal because they were running errands and Craig wanted to check out his neighbors' walnut orchard on the way.

Porter said he observed some large rocks in the roadway, hit them with his right tires, was bumped to the right and tried to steer to the left to stay in the center of the canal bank, then suddenly found himself in the canal.

Porter said the cab of Craig's GMC Sonoma, which Porter routinely drove, started filling with water immediately because the window was down.

Porter said he got out and walked over the truck bed to open the passenger door, but it was locked. Porter had to go back to the driver's side and roll down the window from the inside. Next, Porter walked over the truck bed again and reached the passenger side door, but struggled to undo Craig's seat belt. Porter returned to the driver's side, climbed into the cab and released the seat belt. After a final trip over the truck bed, Porter was able to pull Craig out of the truck and swim with him, keeping Craig's head above water, to the southwest corner of the canal, where there is a footbridge not far from Swanson Road.

Porter said he ran to a farmworker in a nearby field, who called 911 and helped him pull Craig out of the water. Porter administered CPR, but it was too late.

Next, Crooker told the jury that he became suspicious as he investigated the scene the day of the crash. As he recalled:

The dirt canal bank was smooth and clean, save for four rocks about the size of a fist, which seemed out of place. Tire tracks followed the canal and canal bank as both gradually veered to the right.

Two of the rocks appeared to have been hit by the truck, because one had a tire impression on it and both were lying near holes the same size, suggesting that they had been dislodged. Tire tracks did not veer to the right, though Porter said he had been bumped to the right.

Tire tracks veered abruptly to the left 100 feet after hitting the rocks.

Craig, 85, drowned in the canal, which was so deep that his submerged truck was barely visible in photos Crooker took that day.

The jury also heard from a volunteer firefighter who responded to the scene and said he was surprised by Porter's demeanor because he was so calm. The farmworker who called 911 also testified, saying Porter walked into the orchard to ask for help, and was panting and out of breath.

The fatal crash immediately aroused suspicion among several neighbors and friends of Craig, who rushed to the scene and shared doubts about Porter with authorities. Crooker did not mention their role in his investigation, but his testimony is expected to continue at a later date.

A prosecutor said he plans to present an out-of-state witness today, taking the witness out of order to accommodate his schedule.

The trial began May 12 and is expected to stretch into late July.

In recent weeks, witnesses also have testified about a March 5, 2002, crash that crippled Craig when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree.

Jurors have seen lots of checks cashed by Porter, written on an account Craig set up to fund an agricultural museum the senior dreamed of building. Much of the money was spent on a family compound Porter built in La Grange.

And people who cared for Craig have told the jury that Craig became suspicious of Porter in his final months because little work had been done on the museum after five years.

The two men formed a business relationship in 1999, after Craig inherited $2.5 million from a brother and believed the agricultural museum he dreamed of could become a reality.

Craig made Hickman Community Church, where Porter was pastor for nearly two decades, his beneficiary, and made Porter the executor of his estate. Later, he gave Porter power over his finances and health care decisions as well.

The museum was never more than a plan on paper.

Porter, 57, has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death. He faces life in prison if convicted.

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

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