A parishioner who testified on Howard "Doug" Porter's behalf Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court said her former pastor was the "ultimate optimist," but out of his league when it came to building an agricultural museum on the grounds of Hickman Community Church.
Stacey Carlson, who was known as Stacey Monaghan when she worked for Porter associate Lonni Ashlock, said she helped sketch plans for the museum shortly after Porter told her that rancher Frank Craig had $1 million or more to spend on the project.
As a real estate broker, Carlson knew how to check out properties, and she recalled homing in on two possible spots, then cutting a deal so the church could purchase 14 acres behind its historic parish.
It soon became clear that Craig's money was not going to be enough for the land and a 22,000-square-foot multipurpose building the pastor envisioned, so the church hired a fund-raiser to solicit donations to boost the building project.
After another year passed without progress, Carlson scrambled to get permit extensions from the county and gave Porter scaled-down versions of the project to pitch to Craig. In the end, nothing happened, and Porter is on trial, accused of stealing Craig's money, then killing him.
"We were Little Leaguers trying to play in a professional game," recalled Carlson, who eventually dropped out of the project. "It was very discouraging."
Closing arguments near
Porter's trial began May 12 and is heading toward closing arguments. He is suspected of embezzling money Craig set aside for the museum that would serve as a showcase for antique farm equipment Craig collected over decades, then staging two truck crashes to cover his tracks.
Craig was 83 in 2002, when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Porter walked away from the wreck, but Craig nearly died and was never able to walk without assistance again.
Craig was 85 in 2004, when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter in the two previous years, veered off an access road and landed in the Ceres main canal, where Craig drowned.
Porter, 57, of La Grange, has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder and elder abuse causing death.
Carlson said Porter got resounding "no's" from Craig when he pitched the idea of building the museum in a 3,500-square-foot metal building, or moving an old schoolhouse to Craig's property near the church. She said Craig insisted that his museum be built of adobe brick, something they could not afford.
The proposed museum's connection to Ashlock also remained a bit muddy, though Ashlock testified previously in Porter's trial and his name came up as Carlson answered questions.
Architect recalls plans
Several weeks ago, Ashlock told the jury that he ran a dozen corporations from a mobile office on the church grounds. But he couldn't recall his work on a board that was supposed to oversee the museum project Porter spearheaded on Craig's behalf.
Jurors were told that Ashlock received immunity for his testimony, but they were not told that he had been sentenced to one year in jail for his role in a mortgage fraud scheme that cost 20 families their homes and was run through Ashlock's former office on the church grounds.
Architect Ernie Yoshino, who testified before Carlson, recalled drawing up concept plans for a multipurpose building that would have exhibit space for Craig's museum, a shared kitchen and office space for the church, and a room that could double as a church sanctuary and basketball court.
Yoshino recalled Ashlock being present when he shared his plans with church leaders. The plans also called for a softball field and an amphitheater that could be used for community concerts.
He said church leaders dreamed of adding a classroom building as well, but noted that the concept never got past the engineering phase. Yoshino, who was paid $10,000 from a fund Craig set up to seed the museum, never met the church's benefactor.
"I was told that they had someone who was interested in this museum and had approximately $1 million that they were going to put toward this project," Yoshino recalled.
Carlson acknowledged that Ashlock was her boss in a real estate business, but her list of people who worked on the building project did not include Ashlock.
She said she met with Craig before she got started on the project to make sure his generous offer was real. After that, Porter was in charge of communicating with Craig, but Carlson seemed sure that he was kept in the loop.
"Mr. Craig was the ultimate decision maker," Carlson said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.