Dream of a shrine dies with dreamer

Times Staff Writer

It’s not uncommon in farm country to come across old-timers with a passion for preserving the implements of their trade. These are the folks who convert wooden wagon wheels into patio furniture and vintage tractors into mailbox stands or geranium planters.

Frank Craig had that impulse, and authorities contend it cost him his life.

For decades the old rancher and farmhand collected the artifacts of early San Joaquin Valley agriculture, scattering them across his small ranch outside Hickman, a tiny farm town about 15 miles east of here.

Ten years ago, after he inherited a small fortune from a brother, the bachelor farmer became determined to enshrine his collection of mule-era plows and antique tractors in a museum. He envisioned an adobe building with a copper roof, to be called, grandly enough, the Central Valley Museum of Agriculture.


“He wanted it as a shrine to his past,” recalled Buzz Johnson, a longtime friend. “He wanted to put it all in a building where everybody could see.”

This conversation took place Wednesday, outside Department 5 of the Stanislaus County Superior Court. For three months, Howard Douglas Porter, the preacher whom Craig had entrusted to shepherd his farm museum, has been on trial, accused of stealing the 85-year-old’s assets and drowning him in a staged auto accident. Porter has pleaded not guilty.

Craig died on a spring afternoon two years ago, after the compact pickup he was riding in plunged into an irrigation canal near his home. He had not been able to drive -- let alone walk -- since being injured severely in another wreck two years earlier.

In both crashes, the driver was Porter, a well-known high school wrestling coach and church pastor who had simultaneously built state champion grapplers and standing-room-only crowds at the Hickman Community Church.

Craig considered Porter the perfect man for his museum project. God’s lawyer, Craig called him. In 2000, the farmer gave Porter full control of his finances and property. Land for the museum was purchased behind the church, and plans were sketched out.

But the museum never got built. What did get built was a colony of houses for Porter’s immediate family near the foothills east of Hickman; he also bought residences for other relatives; all, allegedly, with Craig’s money.


In time, according to trial testimony, Craig began to suspect that his trust in Porter was misplaced. He wondered about the first crash. In that 2002 wreck, Porter’s pickup had slammed into a tree on a country road.

Prosecutors have now charged him with attempted murder in that accident.

Porter walked away -- as he did in the second, fatal crash. Craig suffered massive injuries to his head, chest, pelvis and legs.

In his final months, according to trial testimony, Craig worried aloud about whether Porter was draining his finances.

A caretaker overheard him talking sharply with Porter on the telephone. And to a few friends and neighbors Craig confessed a darker concern.

“Frank had said a couple of times to me, ‘I really think Doug’s trying to kill me,’ ” Eleanor Thompson, who lived across the street from Craig’s 17-acre place, said in an interview. “This was just a few days before he died.”

In late July, in the 12th week of trial, Porter, who has been in custody since his arrest in November 2006, took the stand in his own defense. Under questioning from his attorney, he was a confident witness, bounding into court each morning winking at a daughter and other relatives. Dressed in collared shirts and khakis, Porter, now 57, still had the stout chest and rounded shoulders (and cauliflower ear) of the star wrestler he had once been.

“I feel very bad and very sad,” Porter testified, fingering the World War II dogtags he said Craig had given him, “that my actions contributed to his death, but I loved Frank Craig very much.”

Porter testified that he went over every expenditure with the farmer, that Craig “never said he was dissatisfied” with his handling of the museum, and that the two were “in a good place.”

He allowed that he had been in “over his head” managing the project.

He testified that the museum was not built before Craig’s death because of poor water pressure on the site and other setbacks. It was stalled after the fatal wreck, in Porter’s telling, by lawsuits and newspaper inquiries into the mysteries of Craig’s death and depleted assets, estimated at one point to total more than $4 million.

Under cross-examination, Porter’s memory seemed to deteriorate. He fenced with the prosecutor over details of a dizzying flow of transactions through assorted foundations, trusts, checking accounts and real estate properties.

“Where did the money go?” Assistant Dist. Atty. John Mayne asked at one point.

“Which money?” Porter shot back.

Money from the Frank Craig estate, the prosecutor persisted.

Porter paused.

“Places,” he said finally.

What places?

“I can’t remember.”

Although more than 100 witnesses were called, the one who could have cleared up the most contentious points was dead. That left Porter to provide the only firsthand account of the crash. He testified that he picked up Craig to run errands on the morning of April 22, 2004. While driving along the canal bank, Porter said, he struck a small, jagged rock and ended up in the water.

“I put my arm out to block him,” Porter testified, “and then we were in the canal. That’s all I remember.”

Porter said his window was rolled down. He said he told Craig to “stay right there. I’ll be right around to get you out.” He said he clambered into the bed of the truck, and then “it started sinking really fast.”

He said he had trouble opening Craig’s door and unbuckling his seatbelt, but testified that the farmer was still conscious. He said he swam away from the truck, carrying Craig head first under his arm. The current carried them downstream toward a small bridge and dam with concrete pillars.

Earlier, a medical examiner testified that Craig had been underwater five to 10 seconds, and that he had suffered blows to his face and head that were severe enough to knock him out.

Porter, though, estimated in court that Craig had been underwater less than two seconds. “At some point,” Porter testified, Craig’s head “whacked,” maybe two or three times, against the concrete dam. He managed to lift Craig’s torso onto the canal ledge, and went to get help.

Porter said Craig uttered only two words throughout the ordeal: “I remember him saying one little thing when we went off. He said, ‘Oh, crud,’ but not exactly that word.”

That Frank Craig’s last word was an expletive would be in character, his friends acknowledged outside court. He could cuss with the best of them. Yet, he also cared for his mother until she passed at age 95 and, though comically frugal, he at times displayed great generosity to others.

“I never had any trouble with him,” Johnson said. “I’d just give it right back to him. Anyway, he didn’t deserve to go out that way.”

Johnson and a few other friends have turned out regularly for the trial, taking seats apart from Porter supporters. It makes for a tense hallway during breaks, and the judge several times has warned the gallery to behave. Similarly, the case has divided Hickman and nearby farm communities.

While Porter’s backers insist that the man portrayed by prosecutors is a fiction, attendance at Hickman Community Church has dropped off quite a bit.

Where all Craig’s tractors wound up, nobody seems to know. Acting as trustee, Porter sold off Craig’s place shortly after his death.

The buyer was a commercial nursery, and neighbors and friends say Craig would not have been pleased.

“He didn’t believe in growing things in pots,” said Eleanor Thompson.

She pointed down the road to where Craig’s house once stood. It’s gone now, and the lot is covered with rows of redwood saplings, growing in black, plastic pots.

The case went to the jury Friday.