Porter interview played in court during murder trial

Authorities dispute pastor's remarks about crash death

06/28/2008 12:59 AM

06/28/2008 12:59 AM

Five days after Frank Craig drowned, former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter sat down with two detectives who had questions about his role in two wrecks involving the elderly rancher, according to an audiotape played during a murder trial Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

During an April 27, 2004, interview at Hickman Community Church, the country preacher seemed saddened by accusations that had been brought by Craig's friends and relatives and were swirling through the small town east of Modesto.

Porter was cordial to the detectives, offering them documentation about a trust Craig set up to fund an agricultural museum, which made the church his beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate.

He said he traveled throughout the western United States and Europe with Craig, reluctantly agreed to help with the museum because he liked Craig despite the man's cranky disposition, and even changed Craig's diapers after he was crippled in a March 5, 2002, crash.

"I don't know what they think, but Frank was pretty special to me," Porter told the detectives during an interview that lasted about 90 minutes.

More than four years later, Porter, 57, of La Grange is on trial, accused of embezzling $1.1 million from Craig, then staging the two crashes to cover his tracks. He has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death.

Porter faces life in prison if convicted of the stiffest charges.

On the second crash, he told the detectives that Craig was pinned by a seat belt Porter struggled to release, and looked scared as the water crept up to his chin. He said they were on their way to Turlock and drove along the canal so Craig could look at the walnut orchards of a friend who had just died.

Porter also said several things authorities dispute:

Craig drowned after his truck, driven by Porter, veered off an access road and plunged into the Ceres Main Canal. Porter told the detectives that he never had been on the road before, but a man who worked for Porter on the museum project and lived nearby said he saw the truck, which Porter regularly drove, racing along the canal's opposite bank the day before the fatal crash.

Porter told the detectives that the truck ended up in the water because its front tire hit something, jolted, hit something else, then plunged into the water. Porter said he later found four large rocks along the roadway and assumed that they were the culprits. A California Highway Patrol officer found four rocks, a little larger than a fist, and tire tracks on one of them. The officer said tire tracks observed hours after the crash did not turn left toward the canal until 100 feet after the rocks, and he found no signs of swerving in any of the tire tracks.

Porter told the detectives that Craig's accounts, which he supervised, still contained $250,000. When they followed the money, authorities found that most of Craig's money was gone before the initial wreck more than two years earlier, in which Porter's truck veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree.

Testimony from sheriff's Detective Mark Copeland resumes Monday.

Prosecutors also called a doctor and a forensic pathologist to establish that Craig died from suffocation caused by drowning, suggesting that the senior had been submerged in water for five to 10 minutes.

Travis Owens, who lives on Swanson Road south of the site of the fatal crash, also took the witness stand Friday. He was called by prosecutors who have suggested that his home is closer than a field where Porter summoned help from a farmworker after he pulled Craig from the truck and to the edge of the canal.

Owens told the jury that Porter and his wife, Vicki, had been in his home years earlier. Later, after jurors were excused, Owens' brief testimony caused some fireworks because Owens told an investigator that Vicki Porter had confronted him in the hallway outside the courtroom earlier in the day.

Vicki Porter, a member of the Hughson Unified School District board of trustees, has been barred from the courtroom until after she testifies. But she has been in the courtroom twice in recent days, before jurors returned to their seats, and frequently waits outside in the hallway.

According to investigator Mike Hermosa of the district attorney's office, Vicki Porter spotted Owens speaking to a couple who had been friends with Craig and demanded to know whose side he was on.

Hermosa told the judge that Owens responded that he wasn't taking sides. The judge said he would take swift and stern action should he hear of such a thing again.

"If there's any further indication of similar conduct," Zeff said, "Mrs. Porter is going to be barred from the courthouse, except for her testimony."

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

  • WHAT: The murder trial of Howard "Doug" Porter, 57, of La Grange
  • THE ALLEGATIONS: Porter, pastor of Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades, is accused of embezzling $1.1 million from rancher Frank Craig, then staging two auto crashes to cover his tracks. Craig was crippled in a 2002 crash, and he drowned in a 2004 crash at age 85. Craig gave the preacher control of his finances because he thought Porter would help him build an agricultural museum to showcase farm equipment. Porter has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or misappropriation from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death.
  • FRIDAY'S ACTION: Testimony from a California Highway Patrol officer who investigated the fatal crash concluded; doctors said Craig died of suffocation from drowning, suggesting that he was submerged in water for five to 10 minutes; Porter's wife, Vicki, was accused of interfering with a witness; and Judge Thomas Zeff said he will ban her from the courthouse if he hears of such conduct again.
  • WHAT'S NEXT: The trial resumes Monday, with testimony from a detective who interviewed Porter. The prosecution is expected to rest by midweek, when the defense will begin presenting its case.
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