Porter rebuts witnesses on stand in his murder trial

Former preacher says he was rancher's friend, didn't try to enrich himself

07/22/2008 5:39 AM

07/22/2008 7:00 AM

Former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter watched prosecutors call 63 witnesses to question his character, including several friends who testified during his murder trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court because subpoenas left them with no choice.

He sat quietly as his attorney called 18 witnesses to lay the framework for his defense against an allegation that Porter embezzled $1.1 million from a man in his 80s and then staged two truck collisions to cover his tracks.

Now, the man who led Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades is telling his story.

Porter, 57, of La Grange, smiled at supporters as he approached the witness stand Monday, promised to tell the truth, then started answering questions, beginning a process that likely will stretch across several days.

He described his friendship with Frank Craig, the man who dreamed of building an agricultural museum with help from the church and its pastor.

He recalled his initial reluctance to get involved and the eventual realization that money Craig inherited from a brother would not stretch far enough to build a $3 million multipurpose building that would suit the growing country church and a man who collected farm equipment as a hobby.

He said he traveled extensively with Craig -- including a six-week trip to Europe that retraced Craig's steps as an airplane mechanic during World War II -- because he enjoyed his company.

He rebuffed the notion that he enriched himself without Craig's knowledge, hired an incompetent caretaker after a 2002 truck crash left Craig crippled and in diapers, or suggested to friends that the museum Craig dreamed of need never be built.

And he said he hoped for divine intervention as his friend lay dying on the bank of the Ceres main canal, east of Swanson Road, more than four years ago.

"I was praying for Mr. Craig," said Porter, who often gestured as he recalled details for the 12 jurors who will decide his fate.

Craig was 83 on March 5, 2002, when Porter's Toyota Tundra veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig was 85 on April 22, 2004, when Craig's GMC Sonoma, routinely driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and landed in the canal.

Porter walked away both times, but he faces life in prison if convicted of the stiffest charges the district attorney's office has filed against him. Porter has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker, and elder abuse causing death.

The trial began with jury selection May 12 and is heading toward a conclusion. Porter's cross-examination by prosecutors is yet to come.

Porter recalled both wrecks for the jury, using a forbidden word -- "accident" -- three times as he answered questions. Judge Thomas Zeff banned the word from the trial, saying attorneys and witnesses must refer to the wrecks as "collisions."

Porter said he lost control during the first wreck because he was tired, yawned and rubbed an eye, then swerved to avoid an oncoming car that crossed the center line.

He said he took care of Craig after the first wreck, even bathing his friend after Craig returned home from a rehabilitation hospital.

Porter said he lost control during the second wreck because he was driving too fast, bumped a rock that jolted the truck, received another jolt from a second rock and suddenly landed in the canal.

He said he struggled with a seat belt but eventually was able to pull Craig from the truck and swim to shore. He said he administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation but was not able to revive a man who had swallowed too much water.

Defense attorney Kirk McAllister presented Porter with letters signed by Craig, written on stationery for the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture, to show that Craig let Porter pay some personal expenses with museum money.

One letter involved an $80,000 loan Porter needed to cover costs incurred when he built a four-home complex around a pond in La Grange, where Porter lived with his wife, his mother- and father-in-law, as well as several adult children and their spouses.

Porter said he was expected to repay $100 a month, but Craig forgave the debt.

Porter said he purchased two homes in Hickman with Craig's knowledge, including one where Porter's parents lived and another that Porter sold to a niece. Porter said Craig's name was not on the deeds because Craig "didn't want the government to know any of his business."

Porter also said the museum was not built because the church board of elders dropped the ball, backing away from the project after an initial $600,000 from Craig was spent, then dropping the project after Craig's relatives filed lawsuits challenging Porter's role as executor of Craig's estate.

In Porter's view, publicity about the lawsuits sealed the museum's fate.

"We were under a tremendous amount of pressure," Porter recalled. "The Modesto Bee had been writing some vicious articles, with much lies added into them, and it was a lot of pressure on us."

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

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