Porter murder case with jurors

Ex-pastor not a murderer, defense lawyer tells panel

08/02/2008 4:22 AM

08/02/2008 8:40 AM

As he delivered a closing argument in Stanislaus County Superior Court, a defense attorney said an agricultural museum at the center of a high-profile murder trial was a work in progress that evolved, then stalled, even though former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter gave it all he had.

Attorney Kirk McAllister, who shared his thoughts before jurors began their deliberations late Friday afternoon, said the museum could have been built if the board of elders at Hickman Community Church had not pulled the plug on their pastor.

The defense attorney pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of key prosecution witnesses, particularly those who suggested that rancher Frank Craig had become disillusioned with Porter after five years of talk and little progress on the museum.

He said the case revolves around a friendship and is not the story of a thieving preacher who exploited an old man's dream.

He also insisted Porter had no murderous intent when a truck he was driving veered off an embankment and landed in the Ceres main canal, where Craig drowned. Without that intent, or evidence of a plan to kill, the wreck is an accident and not a crime.

"All the ranting about the money, all the guessing and speculation, does not fill that hole," said McAllister, who spoke in a courtroom filled to capacity.

After a rebuttal argument by Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne, the case was sent to the 12 jurors after two months of testimony.

In his closing argument Thursday, Mayne argued Porter embezzled $1.1 million from Craig, then staged two truck collisions to cover his tracks.

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 GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and landed in the canal east of Swanson Road.

Craig was crippled in the first wreck and drowned in the second. Porter walked away both times. He is charged with murder, attempted murder, theft from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death.

Porter, 57, of La Grange, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of murder and either of two special circumstances, that he killed Craig for financial gain or to deter Craig from testifying about the embezzlement.

Porter testified in his defense last week, saying Craig gave him permission to loan museum money to his children, purchase a home where his parents lived rent-free as long as they made improvements and spend museum money on church and youth activities.

Porter said he also received an $80,000 loan from Craig, but took only $40,000. He said the money helped cover construction costs at a four-home family compound in La Grange, dubbed Rivendell, where Porter lived with his wife, her parents and their adult children.

Letters signed by Craig, which have signatures that were corroborated by a forensic document examiner, back his story, though a prosecutor doubts their authenticity.

McAllister showed jurors legal documents in which Craig gave Porter the right to sell his property and make financial transactions, as long as the deals were meant to benefit the museum. He said Porter's belief that he was acting within the bounds of their partnership is a defense against the theft charge.

Porter diligently worked on the museum, his attorney said, even though the plan had to be scaled back when it became apparent Craig's money would not stretch far enough.

Initially, church elders agreed to build a multipurpose building that would have a sanctuary for a growing congregation and an exhibit hall for antiques and old farm equipment Craig collected over decades. A baseball diamond, outdoor amphitheater and classroom wing were to be added later.

Later, parishioners helped Porter design a smaller structure that could house the museum but learned from Porter that Craig did not like the scaled-back plan.

The final plan called for moving an old schoolhouse from a dairy owned by Foster Farms to land adjacent to the church, which had been purchased with Craig's money.

The museum was never more than a plan on paper, though some fencing and sprinklers were installed on museum land. According to the authorities, Craig's money was gone before the first wreck.

McAllister said Porter kept working on the schoolhouse plan even after a lawsuit by Craig's relatives and media publicity forced him out of the pulpit. He said Porter and his wife, Vicki, would have made good on their promise to Craig if church elders had not stood in their way.

He also recalled a scene in which Craig entrusted the dog tags he wore during World War II to Porter. He said the preacher got in over his head when he agreed to build the museum, but is no murderer.

"Do him justice," McAllister told jurors. "Find him not guilty."

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

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