Jurors learn more about Frank Craig

08/26/2008 12:32 AM

08/26/2008 7:19 AM

OAKDALE -- It was the kind of story the jurors didn't get to hear in court.

In the summer of 1978, Hickman rancher Frank E. Craig borrowed an 8-foot camper from friend Jim Bennett and they chained it to the back of his GMC flatbed pickup.

Craig planned to take his great-nephew, then-teenager Tom Gibbons, with him to Alaska, and wasn't about to spring for motels along the way.

Before they left, though, Craig had one last chore.

"He said, 'I've got to go home and cut the bumper off,' " Bennett said, laughing.

"It was 6 inches too long for the ferry."

Over the next three weeks, Craig and Gibbons drove more than 8,000 miles.

"We just drove and drove and drove," said Gibbons, 46, of Sacramento.

They stopped only to sleep briefly and to eat. Restaurants? Not a chance.

"He bought a case of peaches and a case of tomatoes," Gibbons said.

"He brought some canned hams. For every meal, we'd have sliced ham and peaches or sliced ham and tomatoes. We did that until we ran out of ham or it turned green."

Yes, Frank Craig was eccentric. Yes, he was a man for whom the Great Depression, in theory and often in practice, never really ended. Yes, he could be a gruff and spew profanity.

But, his relatives and friends said, he had a heart of gold and certainly deserved better than the fate he encountered in dealing with Doug Porter, the former Hickman Community Church pastor convicted Aug. 4 of murdering Craig after spending Craig's sizable fortune.

Too often in criminal trials, the victim is trivialized as the defendant attempts to justify his actions. But victims are real people with real families and friends, and it's not uncommon for jurors to want to know more about them. That's why Jo Ann "Joey" Bruce -- Juror No. 5 in the Porter trial -- invited her fellow jurors to meet with Craig's friends and family members Saturday afternoon at her ranch near Oakdale.

"Frank Craig will not be forgotten," she said.

That so many who knew him attended the gathering was not lost on a woman who would identify herself only as Juror No. 12.

"I see here tons of family and friends," No. 12 said. "He did have a lot of support."

"(The defense) made it sound like he was not even liked, that he was estranged from his family," Bruce said. "That was not very evident here today."

The 50 or so people who attended included five jurors and an alternate. It included seven of Craig's nieces and nephews, a great-nephew and their spouses. Several of Craig's friends, including some who testified for the prosecution, joined them, as did some who once attended Hickman Community Church but long ago had changed their minds about their former pastor.

They talked about the trial, but mostly about Craig, the 85-year-old who dreamed of building an agriculture museum but died when a pickup driven by Porter plunged into a Turlock Irrigation District canal April 22, 2004.

It was the second of two crashes in which Porter drove and Craig was his passenger. The first wreck nearly killed Craig. The second did.

Saturday was a time to laugh and remember the man. For some, such as niece Marilyn Whitney and her husband, Bud, it was a time to vent. In 2005, they filed a civil lawsuit challenging the revocable trust that Craig had changed in 1999. He'd made the church the beneficiary, expecting his $2 million-plus would be used to build the museum. First to me for a 2005 column and again in court, Porter claimed the museum project stalled in part because of the family's civil lawsuit.

Whitney fumed at Porter's spin, citing how Porter gained control of the trust in 1999 and had gone through much of the money before the first "murder attempt," as Whitney called it, in March 2002.

"We filed suit in 2005," Whitney said. "Doug had the gall to stand up in court and claim that we stopped the museum. That money was spent in 2002 -- three years before the lawsuit."

Family members and jurors alike found the get-together to be therapeutic. Host Bruce and some of the witnesses contacted the court to make sure that by meeting they weren't doing anything that would jeopardize the conviction upon appeal or merit a new trial. They were told that their service to the court ended with the verdict, and "they could party with whomever they wanted," Bruce said.

"I had no problem coming out," said Laura Wilson, Juror No. 2. "I was really excited we were able to do this. I think it was really great of Jo Ann Bruce to set this up for everybody -- especially them being here, his family and friends. I'm sure for them this is the end of a long journey."

This kind of event isn't uncommon after high-profile cases. After Scott Peterson was sentenced in March 2005, his mother-in-law, Sharon Rocha, and her family met with the jurors who convicted him of killing his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner.

"I think it can actually be very healing for both groups of people," Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said. "The family members are watching the jurors for weeks or months. The jurors are pretty good about being poker-faced, and (family members) don't know what they were thinking. The jurors are confined for long periods of time, affected by emotions of the case. They can develop compassion and sympathy for victims' family members. (By meeting with them afterward) they get some validation back. For the jury, it makes it more real. They really understand who the victim was."

In Craig's case, the stories and the fondness with which they were told Saturday depicted the man and his eccentricities. These were the stories that weren't told in court, but the stories the jurors wanted to hear -- like the one Bennett told about a pickup Craig basically kept in mothballs for 18 years after buying it new.

"He had a 1965 truck, and I noticed it only had 259 miles on it, and here we were in 1982 or '83," Bennett said. "I said, 'Is that all the miles you really have on that truck?' And Frank said, 'I just drove 26 miles looking for you.' "

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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