FRESNO, Calif. – A preacher was arrested at the Mexican border and accused of deliberately crashing his pickup truck and killing an 85-year-old passenger in a scheme to get his hands on the farmer's multimillion-dollar trust fund.
Howard Douglas Porter, 55, of La Grange, was being held without bail Wednesday in San Diego on suspicion of murder, attempted murder and embezzlement from an elderly person.
Porter was pastor at Hickman Community Church, a nondenominational Christian church, when he befriended Frank Craig.
Craig, who was not a congregant of the church, hired Porter to help him develop a museum in Hickman, a town of about 450 residents some 90 miles north of Fresno, said Stanislaus County sheriff's detective Mark Copeland.
Eventually, Porter was named trustee of Craig's reported $4 million in stocks and real estate left to him when his brother died, Deputy Royjindar Singh said. Family members were replaced by the church as heir, Craig's family told authorities.
Porter spent money on museum plans, but nothing was ever built, authorities said.
Investigators said they believe Porter first tried to kill Craig in 2002 when he veered his truck off a rural road and struck an oak tree. The crash crippled Craig, but did not initially raise suspicions.
In 2004, Porter plunged his pickup truck into an irrigation canal and Craig drowned, Singh said. Porter, who walked away from both crashes, gave the eulogy at Craig's funeral.
"The first crash we had investigated as an accident," Singh said. "But after the second one, the family came to us and said there was something more going on."
Craig's family sued Porter for fraud in Stanislaus County Superior Court, contending the elderly man's two sisters were deprived when the trust was changed to benefit Hickman Community Church, said attorney David Jamieson. The family and Porter also settled a wrongful death lawsuit, Jamieson said.
The criminal case languished as prosecutors focused on convicting Scott Peterson and sending him to death row for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci. Porter resigned as pastor last year as suspicions about him mounted.
His home was listed for sale at $895,000 recently, but has since been taken off the market, real estate agents said.
Porter was arrested Monday at the San Ysidro border station as he returned from Mexico, where he was starting a new mission, Singh said.
Porter's lawyer, Robert Orenstein, did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday. Nor did the church or Porter's wife.
The district attorney's office planned to file charges when Porter is returned Thursday, said Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney John Goold. Porter is expected to be arraigned Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
"We're just at the start of this and have to wait and see how the case plays itself out," Goold said. "He is still innocent until proven guilty."