July 8, 2008

Daughter-in-law testifies that she disabled air bag

The passenger-side air bag on Howard "Doug" Porter's Toyota Tundra was turned off on March 5, 2002, because he had recently taken his 4-year-old granddaughter on a fishing trip, according to his daughter-in-law, who testified Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Holly Porter told the court that she had taken two courses in car seat safety and gave a lesson on the subject at her women's group at Hickman Community Church, where her father-in-law was pastor and her husband, Aaron Porter, was associate pastor.

The soft-spoken mother of five said she let her daughter ride in the front of the truck, even though the Tundra was an extra-cab model with two rows of seats, but only if the air bag was turned off.

She said she is to blame for the air bag being turned off when Porter and rancher Frank Craig ended up in a crippling wreck.

"It was my negligence to not turn it back on," Holly Porter testified. "I feel bad about that."

Craig broke both his legs and nearly died when the truck, driven by Doug Porter, veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. The man never walked without assistance again, but Doug Porter was protected because the driver-side air bag deployed.

Two years later, the 85-year-old Craig drowned when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, veered off an access road and into the Ceres main canal.

The April 22, 2004, wreck came a day after the preacher suggested that a church building project funded by Craig would be easier if its benefactor were not around. But Jerry Morgan, a church custodian who also is a member of the board of elders, did not see the comment as a sinister prediction.

He told the jury that Doug Porter was trying to relieve tension and defend himself against complaints that he was stretched too thin because he spent too much time caring for the elderly man and working on the agricultural museum Craig wanted to build.

"I thought it was done in bad taste, but we all do things in bad taste," Morgan testified. "There were some people laughing, and then it was over and we all moved on."

The second day of Porter's defense brought five other people to the witness stand to share their recollections of the museum project that tied Craig, Porter and the church together.

Former church elder Dave Piazza recalled that the church scrapped the project after Porter stepped down in fall 2005.

Craig put up $1.3 million for a museum that would have showcased antique farm equipment he collected over decades, but the church project called for a $3 million multipurpose building that would have housed a sanctuary and classrooms along with exhibit space.

By the time Porter resigned, the preacher was talking about moving a historic schoolhouse to land adjacent to the church. Piazza said the elders scrapped the project after they lost faith in their preacher.

"The church was in a state of needing to be reorganized," Piazza recalled.

Craig and Porter formed a business relationship in 1999 after Craig inherited $2.5 million from a brother and dreamed of using the money to build the museum. He made the church his beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate. Later, he also gave Porter control over his personal finances.

The authorities allege that Porter embezzled $1.1 million from Craig and staged both wrecks to cover his tracks.

The museum was never more than a plan on paper.

The jury also heard from Jeff Porter, a nephew of Doug Porter, who returned to the witness stand for a second day. Many of the questions revolved around a truck he got from Craig when Craig was in a rehabilitation hospital.

The young man said he didn't mind when Craig took the truck back, because it needed a lot of work and he didn't have the money to fix it up.

He said he could "vividly" recall Craig coming to his house on crutches shortly after the first collision, seeing the truck in his driveway and making no complaint.

Jeff Porter said his recollection is that Craig approved of the transfer, but numerous other witnesses have told the court that Craig was wheelchair-bound for months after the first collision and only starting to make small steps with a walker in the weeks before his death.

Gary Porter, Jeff Porter's father, said Craig wanted the young man to have the truck and signed its pink slip while he was in the hospital. He said he had no clue why Craig later demanded the truck back.

When a prosecutor displayed a $2,075 check drawn on a museum account, Gary Porter said Doug Porter reimbursed him for work done on the truck after Craig took the truck back.

Holly Porter had trouble with one key detail, too -- just how she turned the air bag off. In a hearing before the trial, a California Highway Patrol officer told the court that the air bag could only be switched on or off if the ignition key were placed in a key slot.

Both the defense and the prosecution repeatedly asked about the method used to turn the air bag off, but Holly Porter wasn't sure if a key was involved or not.

"I don't ever remember putting a key in to switch it off or on," she said.

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

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