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A Matter of Trust

Before Doug Porter got access to Frank Craig's multimillion-dollar trust, he had to gain Craig's trust.

For many years, Porter had been a trusted member of the Hickman community. Charismatic and driven as a preacher, he'd built his congregation to the point where it burst out of the tiny Hickman Community Church and moved its services to the more spacious elementary school gym a block away.

He built a wrestling powerhouse at Hughson High School, developing several state champions -- including his son Kyle.

He brought many people to God, changed lives and counseled young people who had fallen into drug abuse.

And Craig knew the Porter family, having worked at times for Porter's grandfather.

So, when Craig decided he wanted to build a museum in Hickman to showcase his collection of farm equipment and memorabilia, he needed someone he could trust to see the project through.

Pastor Porter, Craig believed, would be the museum's perfect shepherd.

Now, Porter, 55, is in the Stanislaus County Jail, accused of killing Craig, 85, in April 2004 in a pickup crash in which Porter was driving and Craig was a passenger. Porter also is charged with attempted murder involving a crash that Craig survived two years earlier. And he's accused of committing theft from an elder adult by a caretaker -- in essence using Craig's money for things other than the museum it was intended to fund.

What would compel Craig -- described by his friends as a man whose tightfisted ways and often crotchety demeanor that belied his occasionally big heart -- to give anyone, Porter included, total control over his finances and, essentially, his life?

"His one weakness was the museum," said Jerry Cupid of Waterford, a longtime friend of Craig's.

NOT A MAN TO PART WITH MONEY EASILY

Craig, one of eight children, was born in Mississippi in 1920 and came to the valley as a child. He attended Modesto Junior College in 1942 before becoming an aircraft mechanic in the Army, stationed in England. Craig never married, and returned to Hickman -- a quiet little valley town with a school, post office, church, store and little else.

He took care of his mother, Mary Craig, at home for decades before her death in 1978, according to family members.

By most accounts, he placed no trust in banks and stored his money in nooks, crannies and possibly in tin cans on his 17-acre ranch on Riverview Road just west of Hickman.

"He had a water jug full of buffalo nickels," said Jim Puls, who once ran cattle on Craig's ranch. "More buffalo nickels than I'd ever seen in my life."

Larry Allen of Hickman tells of the time Craig left his car in Turlock to be serviced and had returned to Hickman with a friend.

"He was looking for someone to take him back to Turlock because he remembered he'd left $10,000 in a paper bag stuffed up inside the heater vent of his car," Allen said.

Profanities escaped Craig's mouth pretty much whenever he exhaled, and he absolutely hated spending money in any denomination, according to many who knew him. A story they like to tell: Craig had a battery-operated device that amplified the sound from the TV.

"It took one double-A battery to run it," said Bud Whitney. He is married to Craig's niece, Marilyn Gibbons Whitney of LaVerne. "When it went dead, he went to the store to buy one. They came in four-packs. He said, 'Why in the hell would I buy four when it takes only one to run it?' He walked out of the store without buying any."

Yet, Craig had a soft spot for those who were good to him and were in need. He often gave them money or physically helped them, until the first crash, in March 2002, disabled him.

"If you needed something done, he'd help you," said longtime friend Harold Johnson, 86, of Keyes. "But you'd have to do it his way."

Craig loved to travel on the cheap. Those who went along, including his sister, the late Mary T Gibbons, and Porter, told similar stories about his thrifty ways.

"I'd pay for a hotel room because he'd want to sleep alongside the road," Porter said in a 2004 interview with The Bee.

Craig wanted his sister to simply pull over and sleep along the road as well when they went to Alaska together, Whitney said.

AGRICULTURE MUSEUM WAS HIS DREAM

James Leroy "Roy" Craig -- Frank's brother -- died in 1998. He and Frank had feuded for years before reconciling in 1990, Whitney said. In 1993, Frank and Roy decided to serve as each other's successor trustees. The surviving brother would manage the other's trust, with sisters Mary T and Pearl Eastman -- the latter Frank's twin -- next in line.

Upon Roy's death, Frank inherited at least $2.5 million, said Whitney, who lives in Southern California.

Craig's surviving brother, NJ Craig, estimated in 2004 that it might have been as high as $4 million.

With either amount or somewhere in between, Craig had the means to build the agriculture museum that had long been his dream. He asked a couple of friends, including Johnson and John Wassum of Hughson, to help him get the project started.

He envisioned an adobe-brick building with a copper roof, friends said.

Johnson agreed to help, and suggested that since Frank had no lawyer, Johnson's lawyer could create the nonprofit organization needed to build the museum.

"Frank asked me how much that was going to cost," Johnson said. "I said, 'I don't know ... maybe $3,000 to $5,000.' He said, 'Oh, that's a lot of (expletive) money.' "

Johnson said he also told Craig to find maybe six people he trusted to be on the museum's board.

"I told him he had to do it right," Johnson said. "I said, 'You're going to turn your money over to me, and we're going to be fighting like cats and dogs. I know you, Frank.' "

Instead, Craig approached someone else about building the museum and wanted Johnson to meet him. That person was Porter.

"He said, 'I found a good, honest man -- a preacher -- who is going to do it for nothing,' " Johnson said. "I said, 'Frank, nobody is going to do something for nothing. You're handing all your money over to him. You'd better be careful.' "

Again, Johnson said, he urged Craig to set up a nonprofit organization and a board to oversee it. And again, Johnson said, Craig wouldn't listen.

"He said, 'He'll (Porter) think I don't trust him,' " Johnson said.

In October 1999, Craig wrote a letter to the San Jose firm that handled his revocable living trust, instructing it to "amend my trust and will to provide that all of my remaining assets, including my real estate and personal property, upon my death be directed to an account I have set up with the Fidelity Advisor Charitable Gift Fund entitled The Hickman Community Park Private Foundation."

The community park foundation was the initial name of what was supposed to become the museum project, Whitney said.

Craig also amended it to add Porter as the successor trustee.

"He basically left everything in the trust to me -Doug Porter," Porter said in 2004. "There was no mention of the church."

But when Craig signed the document a month later, it had listed the Hickman Community Church -- not the park foundation -- as the beneficiary. It also excluded Craig's sisters as heirs.

Craig's family didn't learn about the change until after he died in 2004, Whitney said.

"We'd suspected it," he said. "But Frank was very confidential and did not want to talk to us about his business. We knew when Roy died, Mary T and Pearl were in the will."

Eastman and her late sister's heirs, including the Whitneys, are contesting the trust in Stanislaus County Superior Court. The trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in March, according to their attorney, David Jamieson of Modesto.

In 2000, Porter obtained a use permit for a museum and church expansion. He used $469,000 of Craig's money to buy property near the church where the museum and a ball field were supposed to go, but never took out a building permit.

Richard Peterson, whom Craig hired as a live-in caretaker after the first crash, said Craig told him much of the inheritance came in stocks. Those stocks took a beating when the market began its plunge in the spring of 2000, Porter said.

Peterson confirmed that.

"(Craig) told me he lost $24,000 in one month," Peterson said.

Even so, Craig believed the museum project was well under way, his friends said. But beyond a conceptual drawing, little was happening. Porter had created a board for what now was called the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture. Among its members was Lonni Ashlock, who will stand trial on real estate fraud charges next year. Ashlock maintained an office in a trailer on the church grounds for several years.

SEAT BELT NOT WORN, AIR BAG DEACTIVATED

The first crash happened March 5, 2002. Heading east on Lake Road, about five miles west of La Grange, Porter's pickup veered off the road and struck an oak tree on the passenger side. Craig, the passenger, wore no seat belt and the passenger-side air bag had been deactivated, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Porter claimed he swerved to miss a westbound car that had crossed the center line and forced him off the road.

Craig was hospitalized for a couple of weeks before spending several months in a rehabilitation hospital in Modesto.

Two of Craig's friends, Jerry Cupid and neighbor John Veldhuizen, visited him almost daily. Both men said Craig voiced suspicions that the crash was no accident.

He also wondered what was happening to his money, since Porter now was getting his financial statements in the mail, they said. And he wondered about the progress on the museum project, Veldhuizen said.

"He said Doug had told him the foundation had been poured," Veldhuizen said. "(Craig) asked me, 'Would you go up and see it?' I knew there was nothing going on over there."

Craig asked several other friends, including Wassum and Cupid, to do the same. They all came back with the same answer: Sorry, Frank, there's no foundation.

Yet, whenever anyone suggested Craig take back his trust from Porter, "(Craig would) change the subject," Veldhuizen said. "He would absolutely not talk about it."

"I told him he needed to get a lawyer and get his trust back,' " Hickman resident Marylin Allen said. "He said, 'I've got God's lawyer, Doug Porter.' "

Cupid also said that while in the rehab hospital one day, Craig wanted him to go to Porter's house in Hickman and tell Porter he needed to see him.

By that time, Porter had moved 19 miles east to La Grange, where he and his wife, Vicki, had bought 15 acres in 2001.

"Frank didn't even know where he lived," Cupid said.

After leaving the rehab hospital, Craig returned to his ranch on Riverview Road. Craig's injuries -- two broken legs, a broken pelvis and damaged sternum -rendered him unable to walk without a walker.

SUSPICIONS GROW

In 2004, Porter disputed claims that Craig was upset with him.

"Nobody ever saw us have negative things at all," Porter said.

He took good care of Craig -- more so than anyone else, he claimed.

"I changed more of Frank's diapers ... fed him more meals," Porter said. "He was like an older relative. I started taking care of him because it was the right thing to do. Where were they?"

Members of the Hickman Community Church congregation also brought meals, though Craig never had been a member of the nondenominational church.

"He didn't want to join a church," friend Dave Bradley said. "He just wanted to be Frank."

Craig would complain to some of his longtime friends about the lack of progress on the museum and worry that his money was dwindling.

"I saw him about two weeks before he died and he seemed kind of nervous," Cupid said. "I said, 'Frank, what's wrong? You don't seem like yourself.' He said, 'Jerry, I think I'm broke.' I said, 'Frank, how can you be broke? You had over $2 million.' "

Veldhuizen said Craig found himself in a real bind.

"There were lots of things he questioned," Veldhuizen said. "On the other hand, he wanted that museum so badly, and the person who was going to do it was Doug Porter."

SECOND CRASH WORRIES FRIENDS

Instead, Craig died in the second crash, when a pickup driven by Porter plunged into an irrigation canal just over a mile from Craig's home. Porter said Craig had asked him to take him to look at the way other farmers irrigated. Porter took the canal bank, which is posted as being off-limits to unauthorized vehicles.

He said Craig was complaining about receiving a $6 refund from the Department of Motor Vehicles, thinking it was a waste of taxpayer money for such a small amount. Porter said he reached over and took the check from Craig about the same time they came upon a bend in the canal road.

Porter claims he hit rocks on the canal road, which had been graded just two weeks earlier by a Turlock Irrigation District crew, according to the utility.

The pickup went into the water, and Porter said he tried to save Craig, propping him on a ledge before going for help. But Craig took on too much water and drowned, according to Stanislaus County sheriff's Detective Mark Copeland.

Although few in Hickman had viewed the 2002 crash as anything more than an accident, the second one raised more eyebrows.

Craig's friends immediately talked to investigators to convey their suspicions, as did Craig's relatives.

And some, including Whitney, saw a red flag when Porter officiated at Craig's funeral and told the crowd that Craig had found God in his final days.

"Doug flat-out lied at the funeral about Frank being saved at the end," said Whitney, himself an ordained Methodist minister.

Accusations and insinuations made their way around town, and the Porters said they received calls from friends to that effect.

"We've had friends -- supporters -- tell us what I call some mean-spirited people have said," Vicki Porter said in 2004. "They said, 'What? How can you say that?' It hurts."

That Doug Porter began clearing off Craig's property and sold it to a neighboring nursery for $415,000 eight months after Craig's death did little to quiet his critics. Craig had long told friends he never wanted his property to go to the nursery, they said.

The investigation took nearly 2½ years because the district attorney's office was focused on the Scott Peterson murder case at the same time. And Copeland, the lead investigator on the case, needed major heart surgery and was out for several months.

Cases involving potentially large sums of money often take many months for investigators to obtain the financial statements and other documents needed to determine whether to file criminal charges.

The Porters, meanwhile, unveiled a plan shortly after Craig's death to move an old schoolhouse to the church property and restore it to become the museum. But it was nothing like the building Craig's friends said he envisioned. And it never happened.

Doug Porter resigned from the church in November 2005, spending much of the time since building his ministry in Mexico. He was returning to the United States when he was arrested at a customs checkpoint last week.

Now, the old man is dead. The pastor is in jail, and authorities are combing through the paper trail to see how much money, if any, remains.

And if the case goes to court, a jury could decide whether Porter deserved Craig's trust or abused it beyond anything anyone could imagine.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News.

He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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