On a breezy afternoon in April 2004, then-pastor Doug Porter stood before a crowd at Turlock Memorial Park and delivered a short, emotionless eulogy of one Frank Earl Craig.
I noticed how a group consisting mostly of elderly men, who I later learned were Craig's longtime friends, stood in the background. Their faces didn't conceal their skepticism and distrust.
Another group, most likely members of Hickman Community Church with a few of Craig's family mingled in, crowded around the preacher. Many seemed to pity Porter, as if he, not the 85-year-old rancher who'd died in a crash a few days before, were the victim.
That was forgotten throughout the case leading to Porter's conviction Monday for murder, elder abuse and other crimes that likely will put him in prison for the rest of his life.
Never miss a local story.
Frank Craig, never Doug Porter, was the victim. Prosecutors claimed Porter had spent Craig's fortune before two crashes in which Craig rode as Porter's passenger. The first, in March 2002, nearly killed Craig. The second, 25 months later, finished the job. He went to the grave unaware his dream of building an agriculture museum in Hickman had died long before he did.
Porter tried to fib his way out of it, but the jury bought none of it. His stories never matched up -- not his explanations of the crashes, of where Craig's money went or why the museum never materialized.
Yet over the past four years, Porter, his supporters and family tried to blame everyone else, including prosecutors and The Bee, for his predicament. Poor Doug. So maligned. So pure. So misunderstood.
So ... convicted felon.
A man who had lectured so many others on morals ultimately made a mockery of the Ten Commandments, among them: You shall not commit murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; and You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
A few weeks after Craig's death, I met with Porter and his wife, Vicki, in his office at the church. Townsfolk in Hickman had questioned why the museum hadn't been built and wondered aloud if Porter hadn't done Craig wrong in the worst possible way. Vicki Porter called such comments "insulting and painful."
Ultimately though, a jury deemed them accurate.
Doug Porter told stories that day that didn't mesh with what he later testified to in court. His consistently inconsistent answers are what got him convicted. The most telling bit of information that day, though, came when he discussed Craig's revocable trust that reportedly included $2.5 million Craig inherited from his brother in 1999.
To get the museum built, Craig gave Porter some control that eventually morphed into power of attorney. Porter kept a separate post office box so Craig wouldn't see his financial statements, prosecutors showed.
Within days after Craig died when a pickup driven by Porter plunged into the Ceres main canal April 22, 2004, Porter began dismantling Craig's ranch.
"He basically left everything to me, Doug Porter," Porter said. Then, he added, "There was no mention of the church."
Funny, I hadn't mentioned the church, either. He just threw it in.
In fact, Craig's revocable trust had been changed to exclude Craig's sisters as heirs, listed Porter as the successor trustee and made Hickman Community Church -- not Porter -- the beneficiary.
A successor trustee is similar to the executor of a conventional will. But other than in tacky made-for-TV movies, the executor usually doesn't execute the primary trustee.
Lawsuit challenges altered trust
The Porters assured me in 2004 they were still working on the museum -- Vicki Porter was now the project manager -- and that it really would happen.
When I called Doug Porter a year later to ask if they were making progress, he told me the project was delayed because Craig's niece and other family members had filed a lawsuit challenging the changes in the trust.
"Everything's on hold until after that's over with," Porter said. "There are some nieces and nephews -- people that I've never met -- who are challenging the trust."
Really? According to the prosecutors, whom the jury believed, the money was gone before the first crash, in 2002. That was more than two years before the family sued.
Later, in court, Porter blamed "vicious" stories filled with "lies" in The Bee for sinking the project.
Indeed, it was always everyone else's fault, even though he used some of Craig's money to build a family complex in La Grange instead of the museum.
Worse yet, not while meeting with him that day in 2004 and not during his testimony in court did I ever detect remorse or sadness about Craig's injuries or death.
In describing the fatal crash, Porter spoke in technical terms, more like a guy lecturing about fuel injectors at an auto show than someone anguishing over the death of a cherished friend.
Rivendell and an old ranch
He told the jurors that, in essence, Craig had no problem with Porter using money from the trust to build the family compound -- complete with a pond and a stone-and-iron gate bearing the name "Rivendell," from "Lord of the Rings" -- while Craig lived in squalor by comparison at his old place in Hickman.
That's why it's important to remember that Craig, a crotchety but basically good-hearted old guy, was the victim.
It was his money, his dream and his life -- and it all vanished thanks to Porter.
Now Porter must pay for his sins in prison while the lawyers sift through the rubble of his crimes. His family and supporters will never admit his guilt and mostly likely will continue to blame others. One went so far as to claim early on that, "It was never Frank's money. It was God's money."
All of which takes us back to the day in April 2004, when Porter delivered a mostly pedestrian eulogy in Turlock. He told the crowd that Craig had found God in his final days, according to Henry "Bud" Whitney, who is married to Craig's niece, Marilyn.
At that moment, Whitney knew something was amiss.
Why? Craig didn't know he was in his final days. He hadn't planned on dying.
"Doug flat-out lied ... about Frank being saved at the end," said Whitney, himself an ordained Methodist minister.
Perhaps Porter should have simply stuck to Bible readings. Matthew 7:15, perhaps?
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com.