I repaid money, Porter testifies at murder trial

Craig's signature on documents verified

07/25/2008 1:10 AM

07/25/2008 12:21 PM

Testimony from former Hickman pastor Howard "Doug" Porter wrapped up Thursday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, with the man who is accused of murdering an 85-year-old friend clearing up some loose ends from two prior days of questioning.

Porter, who is suspected of embezzling $1.1 million from Frank Craig, then staging two truck collisions to cover his tracks, told the jury that he repaid nearly all of the money he borrowed from accounts he set up with Craig's money.

Next, a forensic document examiner authenticated Craig's signature on letters related to real estate transactions that benefited Porter and members of his family.

After that, the trial came to an abrupt halt, with Judge Thomas Zeff telling jurors that they need not return until Monday. Attorneys will meet with the judge today to determine whether the jury may consider a vehicular manslaughter charge if it rejects the murder charge prosecutors seek.

Porter told the jury that he worked diligently on an agricultural museum Craig wanted to build, noting that he put antiques Craig wanted to display into storage before he bulldozed Craig's farmhouse and sold his land.

"I retained everything that he wanted to go into the museum," Porter said.

Craig and Porter formed a business relationship in 1999, when Craig inherited more than $2 million from a brother and enlisted Porter's help to build the museum. Craig made Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and Porter, its pastor, the executor of his estate.

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 his truck, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and plunged into the Ceres main canal.

Porter, 57, walked away both times, but Craig was crippled in the first wreck and drowned in the second wreck.

The authorities contend that Porter transferred large amounts of money from Craig's personal accounts into accounts he controlled. Prosecutors have presented numerous checks written on those accounts, and much of the money went toward improvements on an estate in La Grange where Porter lived.

Porter said he discussed every transaction with Craig and repaid every loan. He said Craig's name was not on the accounts because Craig wished to remain anonymous.

Only a few months after Craig and Porter struck up their partnership, a church bookkeeper determined that Porter spent $15,700 from a $150,000 account Craig set up as seed money for the museum.

Church leaders questioned their pastor because the money went toward personal purchases, then drafted a letter for Craig to sign to ensure that Craig was in the loop. A forensic document examiner who analyzed Craig's signature told the jury that it was authentic.

M. Patricia Fisher of Oakland said Craig also signed documents related to two homes in Hickman that Porter purchased with Craig's money, in which relatives of Porter lived.

Fisher said she compared signatures on the documents with signatures on documents Craig signed when he set up a trust and gave Porter power of attorney over his affairs. She said the same person signed all of the documents.

She also said she was working with photocopies, and noted that it is possible to cut and paste original signatures onto fraudulent documents.

The trial that began with jury selection May 12 is heading toward a conclusion. The defense will continue presenting witnesses Monday; closing arguments could come late next week.

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

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