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Jeff Jardine: Fulfilling dream now matter of trust

In "Lord of the Rings," Rivendell was the beautiful place where the council met to decide what should be done with the ring -- the symbol of power and corruption.

When Doug Porter, pastor of the Hickman Community Church, recently built a stone-and-iron gateway at his family's property in LaGrange, he had the name "Rivendell" placed atop the gate.

"It means a place for peace, for respite," Porter said. "My wife (Vicki) likes 'Lord of the Rings.'"

In essence, Porter is the keeper of the ring -- in this case, the Frank E. Craig trust.

The trust purportedly includes millions of dollars that went to Porter after Craig died in April 2004. But because Porter drove the pickup in the crash that killed the 85-year-old Craig -- and also was the driver in a crash that seriously injured him in 2002 -- a cloud hangs over the money and its intended purpose.

Craig dreamed of building a museum dedicated to agriculture and its role in the town of Hickman. His 17-acre ranch on Riverview Road was strewn with old trucks and equipment he hoped to showcase some day.

Porter promised he would do that by developing the museum. In 2000, Porter used $469,000 of Craig's money to buy land next to the church for the museum and a ballfield. He also planned to move the old Rowe Schoolhouse, which sits on a dairy owned by the Foster family of Foster Farms, to church property and make it into the museum.

But nearly 14 months after Craig's death, there is no museum.

There's a ballfield -- with a fence, backstop and parking lot -- just waiting to be cleared of weeds and for grass to grow.

But there is no museum, nor has Porter obtained the necessary permits from the county to build one.

Why?

It's simple, Porter said. The Frank C. Craig Revocable Trust is tied up in court.

"Everything's on hold until after that's over with," Porter said. "There are some nieces and nephews -- people I've never even met -- who are challenging the trust."

Court documents list Craig's sisters -- Mary Gibbons of Southern California and Pearl Eastman, who splits time with relatives in Colorado and Texas -- as the applicants challenging the trust.

Craig created the trust in 1993, naming first his brother, J.C. Craig, and then his sisters as beneficiaries.

In 1998, J.C. Craig died and left his estate to Frank. A year later, Frank Craig amended his trust to exclude his sisters. He replaced them with the Hickman Community Church, naming Porter as the successor trustee.

In a living trust, a successor trustee can take control of the finances if the trustee dies, becomes incapacitated or incompetent, or resigns.

Even before Craig's death, Porter controlled the trust. Craig clearly was incapacitated after the 2002 accident in which he broke both legs and suffered injuries to his sternum, pelvis and lungs, plus cuts and bruises. He never walked again without a walker.

In the challenge filed in August 2004, Craig's sisters cited "grounds which may include, but are not necessarily limited to, duress, undue influence and fraud."

Craig died April 22, 2004, when he was passenger in a pickup Porter drove along Turlock Irrigation District's Ceres Main Canal. Approaching a bend, the pickup plunged straight into the canal. Porter said he pulled Craig from the truck, got him to the side of the canal and went to get help. Craig, though, had swallowed too much water and died.

While no criminal charges have been filed against Porter, the case remains open and under review by the Stanislaus County district attorney's office.

"I've never been issued a ticket," Porter said.

Hickman residents criticized Porter for taking items from Craig's ranch within days of the death. And in December, Porter sold Craig's ranch to Hickman nursery owners Tim and Mitzi Frantz for more than $400,000, according to the Stanislaus County assessor's office. The land has been cleared, including Craig's farmhouse and barns.

By all accounts, Craig was a crotchety old codger who spoke his mind and rarely kept his tongue in check.

Marilyn Allen and Jim Puls, two Hickman residents who knew Craig, said he was adamant that his place should never become part of the nursery.

"That was the last thing he would have wanted," Puls said. "Those (nursery) plants were not grown in the ground. They're grown on concrete and on gravel. To him it wasn't ag."

What Craig did want was the museum, and it's no closer to reality than it was a year ago.

"Not until this thing's done," Porter said, referring to the lawsuit.

The next hearing is scheduled June 20. The case could go to trial in the fall, Porter said.

In the meantime, he's the keeper of the ring -- the lord of the trust -- and he bears responsibility for all trouble it can bring.

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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