Jury finds Porter guilty of murder
Susan Herendeen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
August 5, 2008
The Modesto Bee
Jurors deliberated for less than one day before finding former Hickman pastor Howard “Doug” Porter guilty of murdering an 85-year-old rancher, along with three other felonies, Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Six men and six women who weighed the credibility of more than 90 witnesses hugged shortly before bailiffs escorted them from the courthouse. Some spoke to The Bee but asked not to be identified. They said Porter hurt himself by testifying in his defense, because his story did not hold up.
“I believe justice was served,” said one male juror.
“The evidence was overwhelming,” a female juror quickly added.
Porter family members who faithfully attended the trial since it began with jury selection May 12 were crushed. Most did not get the word in time to hear a clerk read the verdicts, but they got the news upon arriving at the downtown Modesto courthouse.
Some formed a tight circle with their heads bowed as they offered a tearful prayer. Porter’s mother and others sobbed on courthouse benches, while others talked in subdued tones on cell phones. Daughter Monica Tanner, who wrote a daily blog about the trial, said she would not speak to reporters.
Another Porter supporter, who did not identify himself, said: “I wouldn’t say anything to The Bee. It’s a dirty, rotten, filthy paper.”
Porter has been held without bail since his arrest Nov. 27, 2006.
Authorities charged Porter with embezzling $1.1 million that rancher Frank Craig wanted to spend on an agricultural museum. The two men teamed up in 1999, after Craig inherited more than $2 million from a brother and believed the museum he had long dreamed of could become a reality with Porter’s help.
Craig made Hickman Community Church his beneficiary and Porter the executor of his estate. Authorities said Porter used much of Craig’s money to build a family compound, dubbed Rivendell, in La Grange.
Craig was broke March 5, 2002, the day Porter’s truck veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig drowned April 22, 2004, after his truck, driven by Porter, veered off an embankment and plunged into the Ceres main canal. Porter then sold Craig’s ranch, pocketing $415,000.
Four bailiffs stood guard in a quiet courtroom as a clerk read the verdicts: Guilty of first- degree murder, attempted murder, elder abuse causing death and theft from an elder by a caretaker. Judge Thomas Zeff said he will sentence Porter on Sept. 2. The conviction with the special circumstances of murder for financial gain and murder to silence a witness to theft carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne said he was pleased to see the jury do the right thing, yet surprised that the verdicts came so quickly. “It was his own actions that put him here,” he said.
Defense attorney Kirk McAllister said he was disappointed, but accepted the verdict even as he promised an appeal. “This is a long trial. It was a hardworking jury; we hoped that they would see the evidence in a different light,” he said. “But we respect their judgment and their service.”
As word of the verdicts spread, Craig’s friends and family said the district attorney’s office had unmasked a con man.
Henry “Bud” Whitney, who is married to Craig’s niece and lives north of Truckee, filed a lawsuit after Craig’s death, to keep a criminal investigation alive. He said Porter’s relatives should share in the blame, because they cashed checks drawn on Central Valley Museum of Agriculture accounts.
“They knew that the money was to go to the museum,” he said. “They were getting the money, so they’re all co-conspirators.”
Barbara and John Wassum of Hughson, friends of Craig for more than half a century, sat through most of the trial and sometimes fielded angry comments from people who support Porter. They said they didn’t believe a word Porter said.
“Frank did not deserve this,” John Wassum said.
Jurors returned four guilty verdicts against Howard “Doug” Porter, holding him responsible for the drowning of rancher Frank Craig, 85.
MURDER: The jury said Porter is guilty of first-degree murder stemming from an April 22, 2004, truck crash, and two special circumstances that carry a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. They are: murder for financial gain and murder to silence a witness to theft.
ATTEMPTED MURDER: The jury decided that Porter also tried to kill Craig in a March 5, 2002, truck wreck. The sentence is seven years to life for attempted murder, plus five years because Craig was more than 70 at the time of the crash.
ELDER ABUSE: These two charges stemmed from Porter’s role as a caretaker for Craig because Craig gave Porter power of attorney over his financial and health care decisions. The jury agreed that Porter abused his position, causing Craig’s death, meaning he could face as much as 11 years in prison. Jurors also believed Porter abused his position as a caretaker to embezzle from Craig, meaning he could face up to six years in prison.
Preacher stole, then killed to cover his tracks
August 5, 2008
The Associated Press
Friends of an elderly millionaire who was killed by a local pastor sensed something was wrong long before his death.
The agricultural museum that the Rev. Howard Douglas Porter had promised to establish using the old man’s life savings wasn’t being built, so one day Les Orr decided to let his friend see for himself. Orr drove 85-year-old Frank Craig to the site on Thanksgiving Day 2003 and there behind Hickman Community Church, where Porter was the pastor, was nothing but an empty grass lot.
“As soon as he saw there was no foundation, that nothing had been done at all, he started vomiting,” said Orr, casting his blue eyes down as he recalled the feelings of betrayal that overwhelmed his friend of 60 years. “Then he said, ‘Take me home.’”
Porter, 57, was found guilty Monday on four charges first-degree murder, embezzlement, elder abuse and attempted murder.
The once lively town debate of whether Porter was to blame for Craig’s death had, by the time the verdict was read, become one-sided, and most people, residents said, seemed resigned to a guilty verdict.
“Lately the people from the church have been quiet,” said Jarnail Singh Malhi, who owns the Lakeview Market around the corner from the church where neighbors can stop by to catch up on community events. “The more that comes out in the trial, the more quiet they are.”
Prosecutors say Porter had staged two car wrecks one in 2002 that left Craig unable to walk and the other in 2004 that killed him to cover up the fact that he was stealing money from the man he had befriended.
Mary Horn, of Hickman, said what once was a contentious topic was over for her after prosecutor John Mayne outlined Porter’s questionable spending of Craig’s $1.1 million fortune and revealed that in the first wreck the passenger-side air bag had been disabled. Mayne said part of the sum Porter stole from Craig financed a housing compound for his extended family in nearby LaGrange on the Tuolumne River.
The case put on by veteran defense attorney Kirk McAllister, who argued that Porter is just a bad driver who took gifts of money and loans from Craig, did not sway her or her friends.
“The senior citizens,” Horn said, “think he’s guilty. Sometimes the people from the church used to disagree, but now they don’t say anything.”
At the tidy sanctuary where Porter once preached, a receptionist shook her head when asked for comment on the case, then printed a statement from elders saying they believe that “God’s ultimate purposes” are being “worked out” through the process of the trial.
Today the church has a new leader, but the sports fields Porter was building next to the field he claimed would be home to Craig’s museum are still nothing more than poles set in ground delineating a baseball backstop and outfield fence.
Frank Craig, a lifelong bachelor who served as an Air Force mechanic in World War II, spent his life working jobs at a dairy farm, then at a gravel pit on the Tuolumne River near his 20-acre property, where he leased pasture to a cattle rancher.
Craig was frugal, keeping wads of cash stuffed into clocks and other hiding places around his place, according to his nephew by marriage, Bud Whitney.
“He was a spendthrift,” Whitney said.
Four years before he died, Craig inherited more than $2 million from a brother, Whitney said. That’s when he began dreaming about the legacy he could leave with his accumulation of tractors, mule-drawn plows, spring-tooth rakes and other rusting machinery that he said would stand testament to the hardworking men and women who turned the Central Valley into the world’s most prolific farming region.
For months Craig didn’t want to believe friends who told him Porter was not spending money on the museum. Finally he asked Orr to take him.
Orr drove east from Craig’s on Riverview Road past countless acres of a wholesale tree nursery Craig detested because “they covered good farmland with gravel and pots,” past the Lakeview Market with the American flags painted on the side, to I Street where the church steeple towers over the landscape.
There was nothing in the field but grass. Craig’s fortune was gone with nothing to show for it.
Whitney said the family has filed a civil suit against Porter in the hopes of recovering some of Craig’s small fortune.
Porter is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 2, and faces life in prison without the possibility of parole because of the special circumstances of murder for financial gain and murder of a witness.
Today Craig’s home is gone, sold by Porter to the tree nursery that put endless rows of redwood saplings and oleander trees in black plastic pots in its place. The beneficiary of the $415,000 sale was Hickman Community Church, and Porter even sold the land next to the church where the agriculture museum would have stood.
The money, investigators said, ended up paying for construction loans on Porter’s own house, which sold for $895,000 while the fallen preacher sat in jail. Porter later testified he did not know what happened to the proceeds of the house built with Craig’s money.
“Mr. Porter ended up hiring arguably the best attorney in the county on a complex case,” Mayne said. “As to where it went, I have no independent evidence of where it went, but Mr. McAllister did not work for free.”
Whether Craig indirectly paid for the defense of his murderer, as some friends believe, will remain the subject of speculation.
“I don’t get into things about my client’s finances in terms of how I might be paid,” McAllister said. “That’s a little reaching, I think.”