August 6, 2008

Questions, complications in recouping Craig's money after murder trial

Now that the guilty verdicts are in and the fate of former Hickman pastor Howard "Doug" Porter is clear, people who cared about rancher Frank Craig have one big question: Do members of the Porter family get to keep the stuff they purchased with money that was supposed to be spent on a museum?

The short answer: Yes and no.

A restitution order must follow Porter to prison, where he might earn some prison wages. But liquidating any property the country preacher shared with his wife, Vicki, would be tricky, and property records show that a home they built in La Grange in 2002 was sold for $540,000 in 2007.

Homes bought with Craig's money, on I and Davis streets in Hickman, were sold to Porter relatives years ago. And most of the money Porter used to pay off construction loans and credit card bills was gone before Craig died in the second of two truck collisions involving both men.

To complicate matters, Craig left his estate to Hickman Community Church, where Porter was pastor for nearly two decades. But Craig's relatives have challenged his trust, in part to keep the criminal case alive.

So even if restitution were paid, the prosecutor who handled the case isn't sure who should be named beneficiary.

"I don't know how that will work out," said Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne, adding that he will do some legal research to prepare for Porter's sentencing Sept. 2.

Story of money and murder

Jurors deliberated for less than one day before returning verdicts Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, finding Porter guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder, theft from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death. Porter faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The story of a grumpy old farmer who was known to hide cash around his ranch, and a wrestling coach who build a four-home family compound around a private pond on a preacher's salary, is one of money and murder.

Craig struck up a deal with Porter in 1999, after he inherited more than $2 million from a brother and believed his dream of building an agricultural museum to showcase farm equipment he collected over decades could come true.

Porter and church elders spent about $600,000 on the project, paying for improvements to the church, purchasing 14 acres near the parish, and hiring an architect and engineer who worked on plans for a multipurpose building that would have included an exhibit hall for Craig's collection.

According to authorities, Porter also siphoned $1.1 million from Craig's personal accounts, then staged 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. Craig was 85 in 2004, when his GMC Sonoma, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and plunged into the Ceres main canal. Craig was crippled in the first wreck and drowned in the second wreck.

Porter walked away both times.

He gave Craig's eulogy. He didn't bother to update the headstone Craig purchased years earlier, which says 1918 to 19--. He bulldozed Craig's home, pocketing $415,000 that should have gone to the church.

Porter has been held without bail since his arrest at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing Nov. 27, 2006.

Ernie Johnson, a longtime friend of Craig's who lives near Seattle, said Craig was a lifelong collector who dreamed of building the museum because he spent many years caring for his ailing mother, never found a spouse and didn't have any children, but wanted to leave something behind.

"The only thing now is the story -- and people in jail," Johnson said.

Pete Pereira of Pacifica, who grew up with Craig, said he hopes Craig's relatives recoup some of Craig's losses from Porter's relatives because he believes they helped Porter take advantage of an old man.

"They should have to give it back because it's fraudulent."

Some antiques and a lawsuit

As Mayne pointed out in his closing argument, there may be little left to recoup, save for some of Craig's antiques, including grandfather clocks and silver tea sets, which the Porters stored at their home in La Grange.

A restitution order would follow Porter alone, not his relatives, and recouping losses through a criminal conviction is unlikely because restitution is always ordered but rarely paid.

Meanwhile, Craig's niece and her husband, Marilyn and Henry "Bud" Whitney, are pursuing the Porters in a civil lawsuit they filed years ago, when they feared that little or nothing would happen with the criminal case.

If they prevail, they could win a monetary judgment, which might give them a right to put liens on property if the property was fraudulently conveyed by Porter to friends and family. Such judgments typically are enforced when property changes hands.

The Whitneys, who split their time between homes in Northern and Southern California, also could conclude that justice has been served and drop their claims.

They were jubilant when they heard about the verdicts.

They also conceded that their main point -- that Porter took advantage of Craig, then killed him -- had been proved.

"I thought it was falling under the table," Bud Whitney said as he recalled the impetus for the lawsuit. "After two years, they hadn't arrested the guy. I thought he was going to get away scot-free."

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

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