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Ex-pastor enters no plea in murder case

A former Hickman pastor and high school wrestling coach was in shackles and a red jumpsuit Friday when he appeared in Stanislaus County Superior Court for his arraignment on murder and other charges.

Spectators filled the courtroom as Doug Porter sat before the judge who will hear his case. He listened to the charges but did not enter a plea because he has not retained an attorney.

His supporters had no doubts about his innocence.

"Anyone that knows Doug Porter knows without a shadow of a doubt that these murder charges are completely erroneous," said longtime friend Zen Voorhies, who is pastor of the Jamestown Christian Fellowship.

Judge Loretta Murphy Begen continued the arraignment until Dec. 11.

She also took steps she said are aimed at ensuring a fair trial. She sealed an affidavit that outlines the grounds for Porter's arrest. She ruled that Porter can wear street clothes in court. And she banned cameras from the courtroom.

Defense attorney Kirk McAllister said such restrictions are needed "to enhance the chances of our being able to try this case in this county."

Porter, 55, is accused of killing longtime Hickman resident Frank Craig to inherit a multimillion-dollar trust Craig wanted to spend on a museum showcasing farm equipment he had acquired over decades.

Craig, 85, died April 22, 2004, after the second of two auto crashes in which Porter was at the wheel and Craig was a passenger.

Craig drowned after a pickup driven by Porter plunged into an irrigation canal. Craig had survived a March 5, 2002, crash in which Porter's pickup veered off a road and struck an oak tree.

A retired rancher, Craig inherited stocks and real estate from a brother. Family members believe the trust may have contained as much as $4 million.

CRAIG'S DEATH AROUSED SUSPICIONS

In 1999, Porter, then a pastor at Hickman Community Church, promised to help Craig build the museum. Craig amended his trust, excluding two sisters who had been heirs.

A few months after his death, Craig's family filed a lawsuit against Porter, contesting the trust that left Porter in charge of Craig's finances.

Bud Whitney of La Verne, in Southern California, is married to Craig's niece.

He said the family filed the lawsuit to keep the investigation alive, and has no hopes of recovering Craig's money, which they believe was spent on church activities and Porter's home in La Grange.

Whitney said Craig was like TV's Archie Bunker, because he was cranky and loudmouthed and notorious for his frugality. He said Craig trusted Porter because he couldn't build the museum on his own.

Whitney said he was suspicious of Porter as soon as he heard of Craig's death. Ten days earlier, he said, Craig shared plans to confront Porter about his spending and lack of progress on the museum.

Porter told investigators he swerved to avoid some rocks in the road. Whitney thinks Porter put the rocks in the road because they appeared to have been taken from a rock garden on Craig's lawn.

"Our goal has been to see justice done," Whitney said. "And I think this is a step in the right direction."

The museum was never built, but Porter created a board to oversee the effort, naming businessman Lonni Ashlock its project director.

Ashlock and two associates face trial in an unrelated case in which they are accused of swindling seven families who were facing foreclosure.

McAllister represents Ashlock, so he may not be able to represent Porter. Deputy District Attorney John Mayne said he has heard from two other firms that may take Porter's case.

Porter was arrested Monday near San Diego as he returned to the United States from Mexico, where he was building a ministry near Ensenada.

He left the Hickman Community Church a year ago. His wife, Vicki, is a trustee on the board of the Hughson Unified School District. Doug Porter coached numerous state wrestling champions at Hughson High School.

The Porters' sprawling family compound -- known as Rivendell and featuring its own lake -is listed for sale at $895,000.

DA WON'T BRING CAPITAL CHARGES

The district attorney's office charged Porter with first-degree murder, including a special circumstance that alleges that the murder was carried out for financial gain.

If convicted, that allegation makes Porter eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. But Mayne said his office will not bring capital charges.

Prosecutors also charged Porter with attempted murder for the first crash, along with an enhancement for inflicting great bodily injury on a person older than 70.

Craig could not walk without assistance after the first wreck.

A third charge accuses Porter of theft or embezzlement of more than $400,000 from an elder adult.

Porter is being held without bail.

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

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