A preacher who once could draw crowds to his small country church east of Modesto must stand trial in the death of Frank Craig, an elderly rancher who dreamed of using his $2.5 million inheritance to build an agricultural museum, a judge said Friday.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff said he heard enough evidence during a preliminary hearing to order Doug Porter be tried on a murder charge stemming from an April 2004 wreck that killed Craig, an attempted murder charge stemming from a March 2002 wreck that crippled Craig, and a charge of theft.
Prosecutors allege that the former pastor, who led Hickman Community Church for nearly two decades, promised to build a museum to showcase Craig's antique farm equipment, but instead drained $1.1 million from the man's accounts.
The judge's ruling left Porter supporters -- who filled the courtroom during a hearing that stretched over two weeks -- shaking their heads in disbelief. Some cried as they left the courthouse. Others waited in the hallway so they could offer support to Porter as a bailiff led him back to jail.
"Doug is innocent," said his wife, Vicki, who declined to comment in detail for fear of harming her husband's case. "We just want him to be able to get out."
On the other side were people who suspected foul play as soon as they learned that the 85-year-old Craig drowned after his truck, driven by Porter, plunged into a canal.
Several friends had urged Craig to cut his ties with Porter.
"More than one guy was telling him, 'You've got to dump him, get him out of there,' " said longtime friend John Wassum of Hughson. "And Frank would say, 'I trust Doug.' "
Porter, 56, has been held without bail since he was arrested at a Mexico border checkpoint near San Diego on Nov. 27 as he returned to the United States.
He will return to court Sept. 13 for arraignment, and the judge likely will set a trial date at that time.
Craig's relatives filed a lawsuit challenging Porter's control of Craig's trust four months after Craig died.