July 3, 2008

Prosecution rests in Porter trial

The government's case against former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter drew to a close Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, after a prosecutor showed a video taken this spring on the grounds of Hickman Community Church.

As a camera slowly panned across the scene, jurors saw a country church with its pretty steeple reaching skyward, an unfinished baseball field with poles that could become a backstop, and a paved roadway leading to the site where rancher Frank Craig hoped to build an agricultural museum.

At the end of the presentation, Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne asked his lead investigator only one question.

"While you were out there, did you see a museum?" he said.

The reply from investigator Mike Hermosa was a simple "no."

With that, Mayne said the people would rest their case.

It was a simple ending to the first portion of a high-profile trial that began with jury selection May 12 and is expected to stretch into late July.

The prosecution called 63 witnesses to talk about a partnership Craig and Porter formed in 1999, two truck crashes involving both men and a steady stream of checks Porter drew on Craig's museum accounts, much of it going toward a family compound Porter built in La Grange.

When the 19th day of testimony begins today, defense attorney Kirk McAllister will be in the driver's seat.

In his opening statement more than a month ago, McAllister said Porter was a devoted friend who reluctantly agreed to help Craig build the museum, but could not deliver because the plans were too ambitious and the building fund suffered losses in a stock market downturn.

He noted that Porter continued working to make the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture a reality long after Craig and his money were gone.

Now he has to prove it.

Craig and Porter entered a business relationship in 1999, after Craig inherited $2.5 million from a brother and believed his dream of building a museum to showcase farm equipment could become a reality. Craig, who called a dozen old tractors and other aging farm implements his "treasures," made the church his beneficiary and its pastor the executor of his estate. Later, he gave Porter control of his finances and health care decisions.

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

Craig was crippled in a March 5, 2002, crash in which Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into an oak tree. Porter was protected by an airbag, but Craig was sitting in a passenger seat that often was used by one of Porter's grandchildren, and his airbag was turned off.

Craig drowned April 22, 2004, when his GMC Sonoma, driven regularly by Porter, veered off an access road and into the Ceres Main Canal. Doctors told the court Craig, 85, died of suffocation from drowning.

The preacher told investigators he was bumped off course after hitting rocks. Investigators said they are suspicious of that story because they found no signs of braking or fishtailing, and tire tracks veered toward the water 100 feet after hitting one of four fist-sized rocks.

After the fatal crash, Porter told a detective Craig's museum accounts held $250,000. When authorities checked, they found that most of Craig's money was gone before the men slammed into the tree years earlier.

Porter has been held without bail since his arrest Nov. 27, 2006. He 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 without the possibility of parole if convicted of the stiffest charges.

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

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