Two California Highway Patrol officers shared their suspicions about wrecks involving elderly rancher Frank Craig on Monday as prosecutors began to lay out their murder case against pastor Doug Porter.
Investigators who testified during a preliminary hearing said they doubted the explanations Porter offered for a March 5, 2002, crash that injured Craig and an April, 22, 2004, crash that killed him.
They spoke before a large audience, because a crowd of Porter supporters came to Stanislaus County Superior Court to back the man who led Hickman Community Church and coached wrestling at Hughson High School.
Porter, who has pleaded not guilty, was arrested in November and is held without bail.
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Craig entrusted Porter with a $1.1 million estate in hopes that the pastor would help build a museum showcasing farm equipment the rancher collected over decades.
The district attorney's office alleges that Porter drained Craig's accounts while making little progress on the museum Craig envisioned.
The CHP determined that there were no mechanical defects in the trucks Porter drove during the two collisions.
Officers told the court that physical evidence found on eastbound Lake Road, where Porter crashed into a tree, injuring Craig, and near the Ceres Main Canal, where Craig drowned, makes them suspicious.
Porter walked away from both wrecks.
Officer Timothy Green said he found no signs of braking when he investigated the first crash, which happened about 1:10 p.m., making him doubt both of the explanations Porter offered.
Porter initially said he fell asleep at the wheel, causing his Toyota Tundra pickup to crash into a tree, crushing the front and the passenger side where Craig sat.
Upon further questioning, Porter said he squinted and swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle.
"It appeared the vehicle had been steered off the roadway, as opposed to just drifting off the roadway," Green said.
The officer determined that Porter was wearing a seat belt, while Craig was not, and that the air bag on Craig's side was turned off, while Porter's deployed.
Porter told the authorities the air bag was off because he transported his grandchildren in the truck and didn't want them to be injured by the air bag.
The officer noted that the truck had an extended cab with a second row of seats.
Green said he was suspicious of Porter five years ago, but closed the case shortly after the crash, because his superiors did not see evidence of a crime.
Officer Daniel Crooker was a rookie when he investigated the second and fatal crash, which happened at about 2:55 p.m.
He said Porter said he was bumped to the right when he hit some large rocks in the road.
Crooker said he inspected the scene and determined that the rocks could not have forced Porter's GMC pickup off the road.
"That vehicle did not travel to the right at all," he said.
Porter told the authorities that he was unable to free Craig after the truck plunged into the canal because the 85-year-old man was trapped by a locked door and fastened seat belt.
Shortly after the wreck, four people who came to the scene suggested that the rocks looked like rocks on Craig's lawn.
A Turlock Irrigation District worker said he was on the canal bank at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and didn't see any rocks.
Crooker collected the rocks and went to Craig's home. He said dirt on the bottom of the rocks looked like the dirt found at Craig's home, but did not match the dirt along the canal bed.
The hearing, which is expected to stretch into next week, is needed so Judge Thomas Zeff can decide whether Porter, 56, should be held for trial on murder, attempted murder and theft charges.
At the end of the first day, Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne asked that a large stack of financial documents be marked as evidence, so they can be presented when the hearing resumes Wednesday.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.