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Tuesday, November 28, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor held for murder

Doug and Vicki Porter stand by Hickman Community Church in 2004. A Stanislaus County sheriff's detective and the district attorney have been investigating Porter for two years.

HICKAM, CA — A former Hickman Community Church pastor has been arrested on a murder warrant linked to the death of an 85-year-old Hickman man in 2004.

Doug Porter was detained by federal authorities Monday afternoon at a border checkpoint near San Diego while trying to return to the United States from Mexico.

Stanislaus County authorities said they believe Porter, 55, intended to kill Frank Craig in a pair of auto crashes two years apart in order to inherit Craig's reportedly multimillion-dollar trust. Craig died in the second crash in April 2004.

Porter is in custody in San Diego. He will be handed over to Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies and returned to Modesto, said Vince Bond, a public information officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Ysidro.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver signed the no-bail arrest warrant Wednesday. It includes charges of attempted murder, elder abuse and grand theft, Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said.

"It's just the culmination of a long investigation," Goold said. "We'll get into the courtroom and see how it plays out."

Longtime acquaintances from the Hickman area, Craig asked Porter in the late 1990s to help him build an ag-themed museum.

By all accounts a cantankerous character, Craig inherited stocks and real estate when his brother, J.C. Craig, died in San Mateo County in 1998. Frank Craig's other brother, N.J. Craig, said the trust might have contained as much as $4 million.

Frank Craig dreamed of building the museum in eastern Stanislaus County to showcase farm equipment he had acquired over decades. He turned to Porter when he couldn't find anyone to help him with the project. At the time, Porter was a well-known pastor who had built a large congregation at Hickman Commu-nity Church. He also had coached numerous state wrestling champions, including one of his sons, at Hughson High School.

Porter agreed to help Craig. Soon, he gained control of Craig's finances. In November 1999, Craig signed an amendment to his revocable trust. The changes excluded his two sisters as heirs, replacing them with Porter as the successor trustee and Hickman Community Church as the new heir.

Porter created a board to build the museum, naming to it, among others, Lonni Ashlock, who is to stand trial next year on charges of real estate fraud and grand theft. But Porter never broke ground on the museum. Craig, friends said, became frustrated and vocal about the lack of progress.

In March 2002, Porter and Craig were driving east on Lake Road in Porter's pickup when it veered off the road and struck an oak tree. Craig, the passenger, suffered broken legs and injuries to his pelvis, sternum and lungs.

He never walked again without assistance. Porter walked away with minor injuries.

On April 22, 2004, Craig was again the passenger and Porter the driver when Porter's pickup veered into the Turlock Irrigation District's Ceres Main canal, about 1½ miles west of Craig's ranch.

This time, Craig died. Again, Porter walked away.

Some of Craig's friends voiced their suspicions to authorities soon after the accident, and Stanislaus County sheriff's Detective Mark Copeland began to investigate.

Within days of Craig's death, Porter began removing items from Craig's home, Craig's friends said. Two months after Craig's death, Porter told The Bee that Craig "basically left everything in the trust to me, Doug Porter."

Eight months after the crash, Porter sold Craig's 17-acre ranch to a neighboring nursery for more than $400,000, according to Stanislaus County assessor's records.

Since Craig's death, investigators from the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office have been trying to determine how much money Craig had and how much of it Porter spent.

"It took lots of time," Goold said. "First to get them (financial records) and then to go through them completely."

Porter used $469,000 of Craig's money to buy property for the church, including land where the museum was supposed to stand.

The complicated investigation took more than two years for a number of reasons. It began in the middle of the Scott Peterson case, which tied up many people at the district attorney's office. And in February, Copeland needed five heart bypasses, which took him out of commission for about four months.

Porter resigned from Hickman Community Church in November 2005 "to protect the church from further negative focus," according to an ad the church placed in The Bee. His son, Aaron, replaced him at the pulpit but resigned a few months ago.

Doug Porter's home at a sprawling family complex named Rivendell in La Grange — complete with a lake — is listed for sale at $895,000.

Doug Porter reportedly has been living part time in Mexico while building a new ministry. His wife, Vicki, remains a trustee on the Hughson Unified School District board.

Meanwhile, Craig's family received an undisclosed settlement from Porter's auto insurance provider. They filed a civil lawsuit against Porter in December 2004 contesting the trust. That case is working its way through the courts.

TIMELINE

Late 1990s: Frank Craig enlists Hickman Community Church pastor Doug Porter to help him build a museum to display Craig's collection of farm implements.

November 1999: Craig changes his revocable trust, eliminating his sisters as heirs. He names Porter the successor trustee, essentially giving Porter control of the trust, and names Hickman Community Church as the heir.

March 2002: Craig is the passenger in a pickup driven by Porter. The pickup strikes a tree along Lake Road, west of La Grange. Craig survives, but suffers broken legs and other injuries.

April 2004: Craig again is the passenger in a pickup driven by Porter. This time, the vehicle plunges into an irrigation canal. Craig dies at age 85.

December 2004: Porter sells Craig's ranch to a neighboring nursery for about $400,000.

November 2005: Porter resigns as pastor of Hickman Community Church and concentrates on developing a ministry in Mexico.

Nov. 27, 2006: Porter is arrested on a murder warrant at a border crossing near San Diego as he tries to re-enter the United States from Mexico.

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