Prosecutor calls Porter a con man, murderer

Doug Porter crosses the hall in the Stanislaus County Courthouse en route to closing remarks in his murder trial on Thursday, July 31, 2008. Porter smiles as one of his supporters waves a pillow in an attempt to block the view of the photographer. Ted Benson/The Modesto Bee
Doug Porter crosses the hall in the Stanislaus County Courthouse en route to closing remarks in his murder trial on Thursday, July 31, 2008. Porter smiles as one of his supporters waves a pillow in an attempt to block the view of the photographer. Ted Benson/The Modesto Bee Modesto Bee

As he delivered his closing argument in a high-profile murder trial Thursday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, a prosecutor showed three photos of elderly rancher Frank Craig and warned jurors to discount anything former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter said when he testified.

The first photo showed a smiling man in a straw hat who had entrusted his fortune to Porter, because Porter promised his church would help build a museum to commemorate the way things used to be in Hickman.

The second showed a crippled man who barely survived a March 5, 2002, wreck, when Porter's truck veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree, yet lived long enough to start questioning the trust he placed in Porter.

The third showed a man with bruises on his face and a puffed-up chest who drowned when a truck driven by Porter plunged into the Ceres main canal on April 22, 2004.

Soon, 12 jurors will decide whether those wrecks were accidents or crimes. First, they must listen as lawyers sum up the evidence.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Doug Porter is a murderer," Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne said as he began a daylong speech. Defense attorney Kirk McAllister is expected to address the jury today.

Porter, 57, of La Grange has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder, theft from an elder by a caretaker and elder abuse causing death. He has been held without bail since his arrest Nov. 27, 2006.

Mayne said the preacher who led Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades only teamed up with Craig so he could get his hands on Craig's money, which was gone before the first wreck.

The prosecutor dismissed Porter's explanation that the museum was stalled because of permitting problems and a water pressure problem on land purchased with Craig's money, and urged jurors to do the same.

He said money Craig wanted to spend on a museum went toward a four-home family compound around a pond in La Grange, dubbed Rivendell, where Porter lived with his wife, her parents and their adult children.

He reminded jurors that Craig's financial statements were sent to P.O. Box 373 in Hickman, which was rented by Porter and the father of a young man who lived in Waterford but needed a local residence so he could wrestle for Hughson High School, where Porter was a coach.

He showed jurors a copy of paperwork Porter signed to incorporate the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture, in which Porter promised Craig's money would be used for a public purpose.

He argued that letters signed by Craig, and presented by Porter's lawyer, must be fraudulent. One gave Porter $80,000 to purchase a house in Hickman and the other said Porter's parents could live rent-free in a home purchased with Craig's money as long as they made needed repairs.

Who's telling the truth?

And he said the jury's decision will come down to believing Porter, even though he couldn't recall myriad transactions made with Craig's money, or believing a host of witnesses who testified against Porter in the past two months.

"Is it everyone else who is not telling the truth," Mayne asked, "or is it Mr. Porter?"

Porter is suspected of embezzling $1.1 million from Craig, then staging both wrecks to cover his tracks.

Investigators found no signs of braking at either collision, so Mayne argued Porter veered right and intentionally drove into the tree, and two years later veered left so he could land in the canal.

The prosecutor used photos and diagrams to reinforce his argument, but he dwelled on the money because Porter left a paper trail.

When he cross-examined Porter last week, Mayne asked lots of questions about the money, demanding to know how much ended up in Porter's pockets.

Initially, Porter said the money went to unspecified "places." When he was asked to identify the places, Porter said there were "a plethora of possibilities." Next, Porter declined to answer unless confronted with specific checks bearing his signature.

After a warning from the judge, Porter responded to such questions by saying, "I don't know."

As the cross-examination stretched from day one to day two, the amount of money that Porter admitted getting from Craig grew from zero to $20,000 to $55,000. Porter's tally never reached the $167,000 his accountant identified or the $820,000 a fraud investigator traced to Porter's pockets.

Accountant challenged

Mayne urged jurors to dismiss the defense accountant's work because he relied on explanations from Porter's wife and mother-in-law to determine whether transactions were legitimate expenses related to the museum Porter promised to build with Craig's money.

The accountant did not believe everything the Porters told him, discounting a jailhouse note written by Porter that said proceeds from the sale of a home purchased with Craig's money went to Craig, in cash. That's because the sale occurred several months after Craig died.

But the accountant relied on other explanations without documentation, including Porter's claim that he took Craig for "chelation" treatment in Colorado after the first wreck and paid in cash.

The cost of the trip was written off as a museum-related expense. Yet when he testified, Porter couldn't explain what chelation treatment is, recall the name of the town he and Craig traveled to or identify the facility in which Craig was treated.

Mayne said Porter is a con man who could fool his flock by telling any story that suited his purpose, but now is caught in a web of lies.

"He wants to get away with murder," Mayne said. "Don't let him. Find him guilty."

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

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