July 1, 2008

Senior's land sold fast after he died, witness testifies in Porter murder case

Frank Craig did not want his property to become part of a neighboring nursery, but the executor of his estate, who is on trial charged with murdering Craig, did not have such reservations.

As he testified Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, the owner of Frantz Nursery recalled a conversation with Craig about eight or 10 years before the elderly rancher drowned, noting that Craig declined to sell his 20-acre ranch at 12225 Riverview Road in Hickman.

Timothy Frantz also recalled a similar conversation with former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter the summer before Craig drowned. He said Porter, who was executor of Craig's estate, was interested in a sale.

"He told us we would have first chance at it," Frantz said.

Two weeks after Craig died -- in the second of two collisions in which Porter was at the wheel -- Frantz called Porter and struck a $415,000 deal.

Four years after Craig's death, Porter is on trial, suspected of embezzling $1.1 million from the senior, then staging two truck crashes to cover his tracks.

Craig was crippled in a March 5, 2002, wreck when Porter's Toyota Tundra pickup veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig drowned April 22, 2004, when his GMC Sonoma, commonly driven by Porter, veered off an access road and went into the Ceres main canal east of Swanson Road.

Porter, 57, of La Grange walked away from both wrecks.

The two men struck up a business relationship in 1999, after Craig inherited $2.5 million from a brother and believed his dream of building an agricultural museum to showcase farm equipment collected over decades could become a reality.

Craig made Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and gave its pastor control over his finances. Numerous witnesses told the jury previously that Craig grew suspicious of Porter in his final months, because five years had passed and the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture was just a plan on paper.

After Craig's death, authorities determined that most of Craig's money had been spent by Porter or lost in a stock market downturn before the first wreck. Porter has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death.

The prosecution is expected to rest this week, turning a trial that began with jury selection May 12 over to the defense. Prosecutors spent much of Monday tying up loose ends, calling several witnesses who testified about the fatal wreck.

Porter told investigators he was bumped off course, and into the canal, after the truck hit some rocks on the canal bank.

A canal tender who works for the Turlock Irrigation District said he didn't see any rocks when he traveled the same stretch of road three hours earlier. And a retired California Highway Patrol officer said the truck had no mechanical defects.

The trial was delayed an hour as attorneys met with the judge behind closed doors. When they emerged, Judge Thomas Zeff said a juror had been dismissed and replaced with an alternate, then advised the panel not to speculate as to the reason.

That leaves two alternates after two other jurors were dismissed last week.

The most interesting testimony Monday came from Frantz, who said he expected to take possession of Craig's land in mid-August 2004, but had to delay the close of escrow until December 2004 because the ranch was filled with old farm equipment that had to be hauled away.

Previous witnesses told the jury that Craig took a dim view of the neighboring nursery because it grew trees in pots, something he found unnatural. Aerial photographs shared with the jury show that Craig's land now holds row after row of shade trees, all grown in pots.

His farmhouse and barns, as well as the gardens he once grew, are long gone.

"It's part of the nursery now," Frantz said.

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

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