- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

HICKMAN, Calif. (AP) | 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 drove 85-year-old Frank Craig to the site.

There, behind Hickman Community Church, where Porter was the pastor, stood 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,” Mr. Orr said, recalling the feelings of betrayal that overwhelmed Mr. Craig, his friend of 60 years. “Then he said, ‘Take me home.’ ”

Porter, 57, was convicted Monday of first-degree murder, embezzlement, elder abuse and attempted murder. By the time the verdict was read, the once-lively town debate over whether Porter was to blame for Mr. Craig’s death had become one-sided, and most people, residents said, seemed resigned to a guilty verdict.

Prosecutors say Porter staged two car wrecks — one in 2002 that left Mr. Craig unable to walk, and the other in 2004 that killed him — to cover up that he was stealing money from the man he had befriended.

Hickman resident Mary Horn said what once was a contentious topic was over for her after prosecutor John Mayne outlined Porter’s questionable spending of Mr. Craig’s $1.1 million fortune and revealed that in the first wreck the passenger-side air bag had been disabled. Mr. Mayne said part of the sum Porter stole from Mr. Craig financed a housing compound for his extended family in nearby LaGrange.

The case put on by defense lawyer Kirk McAllister, who argued that Porter was merely a bad driver who took monetary gifts and loans from Mr. Craig, did not sway Ms. Horn or her friends.

“The senior citizens think he’s guilty,” she said. “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 declined to comment on the case, then printed a statement from church elders saying they think “God’s ultimate purposes” are being “worked out” through the process of the trial.

The church has a new leader, but the sports fields Porter was building next to the spot he claimed would be home to Mr. Craig’s museum are still nothing more than poles set in the ground delineating a baseball backstop and outfield fence.

For months, Mr. Craig didn’t want to believe friends who told him Porter was not spending money on the museum. Finally, he asked Mr. Orr to show him.

On Thanksgiving Day 2003, Mr. Orr drove Mr. Craig past countless acres of a wholesale tree nursery Mr. 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.

Mr. Craig’s family has filed a civil suit against Porter in the hopes of recovering some of his small fortune.

Porter is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 2.

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