June 27, 2008

$30,000 secret spilled in Porter trial

As Frank Craig lay in the emergency room, a man who had been hired to raise money for an agricultural museum Craig wanted to build broke his promise to former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter, according to testimony Thursday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

James TenNapel, a former newspaper reporter who didn't raise any money during a year and a half as a fund-raiser, said he held Craig's hand, comforting him as he asked for a blanket and to hear Psalm 23.

TenNapel said he broke his vow of silence about $30,000 Porter had given him, drawn on an account Craig set up to fund the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture, by telling his benefactor how grateful he was for the money to put a down payment on a three-acre farm in Hickman.

"Not knowing if he was going to live or not, I thanked him for the money to get into the house," TenNapel said, recalling that Porter had advised him not to tell Craig or anyone else about the money.

What happened next is disputed and goes to the heart of whether Craig knew how Porter was handling his money.

Porter, 57, of La Grange, is on trial, suspected of embezzling $1.1 million from Craig, then staging two truck crashes to cover his tracks.

In court, TenNapel told the jury that Craig seemed to receive him warmly, but was in so much pain he couldn't be sure if Craig understood what was said.

In a deposition taken in a civil case a year earlier, which defense attorney Kirk McAllister read in court, TenNapel said Craig responded to his words of thanks by saying that he had never liked the previous owners of the home, then squeezing his hand.

Either way, the money came from a fund Craig set up so he could build a museum for farm equipment collected over decades.

Porter walked away from the March 5, 2002, crash in which his Toyota Tundra hit a tree off Lake Road, but Craig spent months in a rehabilitation hospital and never walked without assistance again.

Craig drowned April 22, 2004, when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, left an access road and went into the Ceres main canal.

The two men formed a business relationship in 1999, when Craig inherited $2.5 million from a brother and believed the museum could become a reality. He enlisted Porter's help, making Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and its pastor the executor of his estate.

The money was spent or lost in a stock market downturn, but the museum was never more than a plan on paper.

TenNapel, who covered sports for The Bee for six years and also worked for the Merced Sun-Star, said he became friendly with Porter because the pastor coached the Hughson High School wrestling team. He said he took a job on the museum project after a short stint working in public relations at Foster Farms.

TenNapel said he hoped to be the museum's curator and take on pastoral duties at the church. He was grilled about several unsuccessful attempts to get the Foster family on board, hoping that their support would lead to other donations, and acknowledged that he was a failure at fund raising.

Despite Craig's hopes for the museum, the church was interested only in a project that would benefit the congregation and planned a multipurpose building with a sanctuary in addition to the museum.

Weeks after seeing Craig in the hospital, TenNapel began hearing differing accounts of the first collision and started to get suspicious of Porter. TenNapel also saw Craig's truck, which was driven by Porter after the first wreck, speeding along the canal bank the day before the fatal wreck.

TenNapel said he and Porter argued about the $30,000 after his termination. Porter said the money was a loan, though he and TenNapel had signed paperwork that referred to the money as a gift.

TenNapel also acknowledged that he never repaid the money and didn't track down Craig after the wreck to make sure he was OK with the gift.

Despite the argument over money, TenNapel said he remained friendly enough with Porter to talk with the preacher about the museum project after his departure. He told of two conversations in which Porter allegedly suggested that the project would be easier if Craig wasn't in the picture.

Before the first wreck: "One of the things he said right before the oak tree crash was that if Frank was gone that there would be a lot of funds that would be available for the project and that would take a lot of pressure off of all of us," TenNapel testified. "Things would be better."

Before the second wreck: "If the old man was not around anymore," TenNapel recalled Porter saying, "this would all be a lot easier and taken care of."

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

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