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NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/20/2010 4:47:55 PM ET 2010-08-20T20:47:55
TRANSCRIPT

This Dateline NBC report aired Friday, Aug. 20, 9 p.m./8C.

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He took them down to the river, the one that ran past their farms and orchards, that kept the valley alive. And there, as the cleansing waters flowed round them, he baptized them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This fine, simple man, this charismatic preacher: Pastor Doug.

You'll hear what they say later, of course – the whispers, the arched eyebrows, the shock that came with discovery – but not yet.

At first, the pastor was just who he appeared to be: Doug Porter, the toast of the hamlet of Hickman, up at the north end of California’s central valley. It must have been some kind of God-given talent that turned Doug into the perfect preacher for this little place. He was a hometown boy from the beginning: star athlete on the local wrestling team, married to his high school sweetheart. And then, later, three kids and a swimming pool business and a vocation as the high school's widely admired wrestling coach.

But then – he was 35 at the time, it was the mid-80s – something happened.  And it must have been very powerful – the voice of God, a calling – because Doug Porter suddenly signed up at a divinity school, and then re-emerged two years later as pastor of Little Hickman Community Church.

STACEY CARLSON: When we first started going there, it was under 100 people. So it was just like a big family. 

Stacey Carlson watched those small Sunday gatherings swell. After a few years, people were driving in from towns miles away to hear Doug's unique preaching, to feel his common touch.

STACEY CARLSON: It was a country church. You didn't have to dress up, you—you just—and he said that. "Come as you are, God doesn't care what you wear. He cares what's in your heart. That's what he cares about."

It was contagious, Doug’s energy, his approachability – the preaching wrestling coach, everybody's friend.

STACEY CARLSON: They came because Doug was a real guy, living a real life, dealing with real problems, with a real family, just like all the rest of us. 

A real guy.

And we could leave Doug now, as we could leave the rest of them, confident that God would smile on the little town, its pastor and its remarkably successful community church.

But that's where the atheist joins our story – or, should we say, makes our story.

Doug brought it on himself, of course: It was his boundless enthusiasm that attracted old Frank Craig. It certainly wouldn't have been the preaching. Frank was no fan of religion and didn't care who knew it, either. Ask his relatives...

BUD WHITNEY: Frank was a—a kind of—eccentric individual. He was also a very ornery, cantankerous foul mouth –

KEITH MORRISON: Foul mouth? 

BUD WHITNEY: Foul mouth. Oh, yeah, he swore. 

Bud Whitney, who's married to Frank's niece Marilyn, was a pastor himself once, but he liked old Frank and had no trouble making room for his disbelief. The two of them often stopped in to visit at the old man's little farm in Hickman.

And every time they dropped by, there'd be another treasure they'd have to admire. Of course, “treasure” is not the word most people would use.

BUD WHITNEY: There was never a piece of junk that was worth throwing out in Frank's mind. The community had an old ambulance, and they were ready to junk it.  And Frank said, "No, tow it over to my place." He had a pile of bolts – machine bolts, metal bolts.  And the pile was about 12 foot tall and about 10 foot across. 

And every year that pile grew. That old stuff filled up Frank's living room, and his kitchen and bedroom. There were gadgets, and clocks, and china cabinets and antique furniture. And tractors and trucks spilled out into the backyard, and spread, and grew and rusted all through the 17 acres of frank's farm.

MICHELLE PITTMAN: You could barely walk through the house because there were so many things, or treasures, as he called them.  

Michelle Pittman had kind of adopted Frank as a sort of grandfather.

MICHELLE PITTMAN: There was a beautiful old spinning wheel. And I asked if that was a family piece.  And he said, no, that he had picked it up.  And I asked if—if it was something that I could purchase from him.  And he said no, that that was going to go in a museum someday. And that's when I first heard about the museum...

So that's why he saved all the junk—er, treasures. He'd been dreaming about that museum his whole life: a place where kids could learn what farm life was like back when Frank was a boy. So, if he was a tight-wad, well, he had to be. Wasn't he saving up for a museum?

MARILYN WHITNEY: He had talked for years and years about a museum. And the family knew about it.  But they didn't think it was something that would ever come about. 

BUD WHITNEY:  It was—yeah.

MARILYN WHITNEY: Until after Roy's death.

Roy? That would be one of Frank's brothers, who died in 1998 and left everything he had to Frank. So now, he had a cool $2.5 million.

BUD WHITNEY: Plus, whatever amount of money he had in coffee cans around the house. 

How rich was he? Bud Whitney says Frank boasted once that he was worth $5 million. Enough, surely, to make good on that dream and build his museum.

But, of course, things are never really quite that easy, are they? Certainly, Frank had lots of money now, and he had plenty of old stuff lying all over the place. But he was 80 years old. He didn't have the faintest idea how to develop a museum – one that people might actually want to come to see. Friends told him he'd have to hire a big city attorney, or he should set up a non-profit corporation. And Frank did not want to spend his money on that sort of thing. Instead, he sucked up his profanity-laced disbelief, and went to call on that well-known optimist, the local pastor.

And that's how Doug Porter got mixed up with the one man whose soul he couldn't save... He didn't have a clue how to plan or build a museum, either, which is why he called Stacey Carlson, local real estate whiz.

STACEY CARLSON: He goes, "You know, Stacey, I would have to have you to help me do this because I don't have the real estate knowledge, or the development knowledge and these types of things." 

So Stacey set up a meeting, at which Frank told her all about his dream of an idea.

STACEY CARLSON: And he had envisioned a place where families could come, where the schools could bring young children on a field trip. Basically, he says, "I don't want kids to think that milk comes from a milk carton."

But why would a church get involved in a farm museum? Good question. Stacey asked it, in the form of a possible solution, that is. 

STACEY CARLSON: "Now, are you gonna have a problem if we set up, say, a dining room, and, you know, an area that would've been how a family would've been in the late 1800s, with a Bible on the table?" He said, "No, I don't have a problem with that." And that's when I knew, "Okay, we've got something."

KEITH MORRISON: It's not just about agriculture, but about –

STACEY CARLSON: That's right.

KEITH MORRISON: –religion.

STACEY CARLSON: A Christian heritage.

Seemed like a win-win, as they say: The church could get more space to grow, Frank would get his museum. And that's how a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and a born-again salvation preacher set out on the project of their lives.

And no one thought, not for a minute, that Satan might come along for the ride.

Part 2

Around Hickman, California, everybody knew their preacher, Doug Porter, could talk the birds out of the trees. Pretty soon, he got the Hickman Community Church Board to sign off on Frank Craig's museum idea. Farm and Christian heritage all there in one building? Why not? So Stacey Carlson found the perfect spot for it, a 14-acre empty lot out behind the old church building.

And now they just had to build it. For design inspiration, Frank and Doug took field trips to other museums across the country. The two of them even traveled to Europe together, a six-week research excursion. Frank had the money for it, of course, thanks to that big inheritance from his brother. He was also, apparently, having the time of his life. And Frank’s partnership with Pastor Doug not only survived his salty language and his unshakable atheism, it strengthened. It evolved. It bloomed.

STACEY CARLSON: I think that Doug became the son that he never had. They went—they did a lot of things together. And it actually became way more involved for Doug than he originally thought.

KEITH MORRISON: How'd he feel about him personally? Was he fond of him?

STACEY CARLSON: You know, he was fond of him. Even though he says, "You know, he's cantankerous and he's—can be gruff." But he says, "You know, he's got a wonderful history. And when you get him where you're just one-on-one with him and he's got, you know, he's got great stories. He's intelligent. I enjoy his company."

Back home, Doug and Stacey hired a local architect, shelled out $10,000 or so of Frank's money for a proposed design. It was just what the old guy wanted: a 30,000 square-foot adobe brick building with a copper roof. It was also what Doug wanted, which was a church community center, with plans for a baseball field, an amphitheater and a multipurpose building.  And the county seemed to like it, too. The project was approved in January 2001.

Ah, but you know what they say about best laid plans. As they prepared to enter the construction phase, a little hiccup: Before the county would issue a building permit, certain conditions would have to be met.

STACEY CARLSON: One of the conditions was that we had to put in a paved parking lot.

KEITH MORRIS: And they wanted a big parking lot, didn't they?

STACEY CARLSON: Yes. Well, they wanted one parking place for every one and a half people that—the capacity of the building. So, when you calculated that out, a 30,000 square foot building and the capacity, it—the parking would have been more than the building.

Now that was a problem – and, try as they might, they couldn't come up with a solution. Maybe it was all just too grand. They'd have to scale it down.

And, well, you know how these things can go: Little problems got big and expenses ballooned, as expenses will do.  And everything seemed to take so long. In fact, a full year after that parking lot snafu, there wasn't a single brick on this weedy patch of land out behind the church. Too bad, since now fate – or an act of God if you will – was about to intervene in a most unpleasant way on the partnership of the pastor and the atheist.

It was the fifth of March, 2002. Doug and Frank had set out on yet another research mission, a visit to a tiny museum about 20 miles away. Doug drove, of course, he always did. And maybe it was the weather, or the narrow winding road, but just outside of Hickman... [Sounds of accident]

Later, Doug told responding officers an oncoming car crossed into his lane, he swerved to avoid it, left the road, and crashed into a tree. Frank wasn't wearing his seat belt. He survived, but only just. His right arm and shoulder were mangled; bones were broken in just about every part of his body.

Doug, who was wearing his seat belt, was bruised up but okay – apart from his concern for Frank, that is. He hovered around his old friend at the hospital, brought him things, prayed for him (whether he wanted it or not), and promised Frank that he himself would ensure the farm was cared for in Frank's absence. 

MICHELLE PITTMAN: Everything was being taken care of, all the trees in his orchard were being taken care of and the irrigation in the fields were being taken care of.

Frank was laid up for months. You don't heal so fast when you're past 80, and, even when they finally allowed him to go home, he just wasn't the same old independent cuss anymore. In fact, he was so crippled up, he needed help just to get from one room to another in his treasure-cluttered house.

STACEY CARLSON: After that accident, that's what really bonded Doug to Frank Craig. He wanted to make sure that that man was being taken care of. And we had women at the church that would take, you know, food to him. We had kids that could go over and, you know, run the errands and do things for him. 

Doug hired a physical therapist who'd go right out to the farm to work with Frank. And Michelle, who, after all, thought of herself as something like Frank's granddaughter, cooked for him and bathed him... did his laundry. And it took a while – more months went by – but, bit by bit, he improved.

BUD WHITNEY: You know, he said, "I can—I can walk."

It was April 2004 when he showed off for his relatives, the Whitneys.

BUD WHITNEY: I said, "Frank, you've been in a wheelchair for you know, almost two years now." And he said, "Well, watch me." And so he got up, and he took his walker and set it aside and walked across the room. 

God's will? Frank and Pastor Doug would not see eye-to-eye on that question.

As he got better, the old man pressed the preacher for updates. What had Doug been doing about the museum, he demanded to know. And, two years after the accident, three years after the building permit fiasco and four and a half years after Frank first approached Doug – no sign of progress.

Still, the friendship of pastor and atheist survived. And, partnership renewed, they embarked again on their dream…

Where divine intervention awaited?  No. No, this would be...the other guy.

Part 3

The old atheist of Hickman, California, could feel – well, it must be for him – oblivion closing in. Frank Craig was 85 years old now. He didn't have many years left. He'd managed to recover somehow from the injuries he'd sustained in that accident in Pastor Doug's pick-up truck, but he wasn't any closer to realizing his life's big dream: The agricultural museum.

MICHELLE PITTMAN: That's basically what Frank was living for is to—for this museum.

As he got stronger, Frank tried, without apparent success, to get progress reports from his partner, the pastor. But instead of hard answers...

BUD WHITELY: Doug would turn on his charm.  And Frank would just kind of melt away.

Even Michelle, the woman who treated Frank like a grandfather, got frustrated by the non-answers her patient was getting from Pastor Doug. Still, when she threatened to complain about it…

MICHELLE PITTMAN: Anything that I felt that was negative with what Doug was doing or not doing, he did not want me to confront Doug on anything because he was afraid he would pull out from the program, or the project.

BUD WHITELY: Doug Porter's a really charismatic individual. And Doug Porter was going to do for Frank what Frank couldn't do for himself. He was gonna help him build his museum. And Frank just became glary-eyed over him. 

KEITH MORRISON: Trusted him?

MARILYN WHITELY: Trusted him. 

BUD WHITELY: Trusted him. 

Like father and son, almost, with so much work to do – which, now that Frank was feeling a little better, they could get going on, researching and checking out other nearby museums. Doug would pick Frank up at the farm, and the two of them would drive off, chatting away apparently, talking about the project just like always.

But now, Doug was driving Frank's pickup truck. In fact, he drove it all the time now, since the old man couldn't drive anymore. Frank had learned his lesson after that first accident: He wore his seat belt, because a man can never know what might be coming to meet him. And indeed, something was.

It was April 22, 2004, about three o'clock in the afternoon. Exactly what happened would become, before very long, the subject of dispute. But the simple and unquestioned fact was that Frank's pick-up truck – Doug at the wheel – plunged into the cold, fast-moving waters of an irrigation canal. It wasn't a baptism this time.

The pastor got out all right. He wasn't hurt at all. But Frank was stuck in his seatbelt, and that water filled up the cab of the truck – and then, eventually, of course, Frank's lungs. By the time they pulled him out of the canal here, right about here, he passed on to…well, wherever it is atheists go.

And Doug sure felt awful about what happened to Frank, judging by the letter he wrote to Frank's family: The accident, and the loss of Frank, has been horrific for me, and I know it has been for you, as well. I truly wish that I would have been able to save frank, but that was not to be.

On the very day of the crash, asFrank's body was still cooling on a slab somewhere, a few of his friends went out and poked around at the spot where the truck went in the water. They didn't like what they saw. Was this really an accident? They shared their sentiments with the sheriff's officers who came to investigate. And detectives, just as a matter of routine, of course, asked the pastor for an interview.

DETECTIVE: We just want to make sure everything is on the up and up.

What happened, they asked, when that truck went into the canal?

DOUG PORTER: I told Frank, “Stay there, I'm coming around to get you.” I undid my seatbelt and dove out my window.

Doug told the detectives he made his way to the passenger door but couldn't open it. The water was too strong. The truck cab was filling up fast.

DOUG PORTER: He was holding his head up... He looked scared...

Doug said he went back to the driver's side window, but had to surface for air twice before he finally pulled Frank out of the truck.

DOUG PORTER: I got him out and I started paddling. And I thought, “I'm tired,” and I switched arms, I put him in my right arm and started paddling my left.

But, by the time he got Frank to dry land and ran to call for help, and then performed CPR, it was too late.

Hickman's a small town, remember. Everybody knows everybody. People talk. Doug's supporters – and that included most of the members of his flock – refused to even consider the hateful idea that their pastor would intentionally cause the death of that old farmer. Though, frankly, a few of them knew, they said, that Doug wasn't much of a driver. Besides, said the real estate lady, Stacey Carlson:

STACEY CARLSON: My son's been in three car accidents with one of my good friends. Two of 'em could have been deadly. And did—but d—did I ever think that my friend was trying to harm my son? No. Doug is not a very good driver. Everybody knew that.

So, somewhere in the middle of little Hickman, a wedge came down. Suspicious minds on one side, true believers on the other.

And before long, the gossip leaked out and skipped across the valley to nearby Modesto, specifically to Modesto Bee columnist Jeff Jardine.

JEFF JARDINE: We had a couple calls, I think, from people who were, you know, had their suspicions about what was going on out there. They knew Frank. They knew Porter. They just didn't like what had had happened.

Jeff wrote a column, and then some more, though none of what appeared in the paper came as any surprise to Frank's relatives. No, when they heard about the accident – the truck, the canal, the drowning – they had one word for what happened that day.

BUD WHITNEY: I knew instantly that it was murder. 

Part 4

What a terrible story Pastor Doug Porter had to tell about the day the pick-up truck went into the canal: How he escaped drowning himself by squeezing out the driver's side window; how he risked his life trying to save poor doomed Frank, caught in his seat belt in the cold and muddy current. What a story – and, thought Bud Whitney, what a lie.

BUD WHITNEY: I knew instantly that that it was murder. 

Whitney's mind raced back to that first “accident” when he and his wife Marilyn rushed to Frank's bedside in the intensive care ward.

BUD WHITELY: He was very close to dying.  And so Frank calls Marilyn over to the bed and says, "Marilyn, I wanna tell you something. But you have to promise not to tell every—anybody in the world about this." And Frank says, "It wasn't an accident. He tried to hurt me."

Tried to hurt him?  The Whitneys wanted to go to the police back then, they said. But Frank was a determined man, and, suspicious as he may have been, he would have none of that.

MARILYN WHITELY: "But I don't want you to tell anything because Doug Porter's my man. You know, he's gonna get this museum done."

KEITH MORRISON: Whoa. 

BUD WHITNEY: We didn't go to the authorities. Because, we knew if we went to the authorities and said to the authorities, "This was—this was an attempted murder," Frank would have said, "I never said that."

MARILYN WHITNEY: And he would also have never talked to us.

KEITH MORRISON: Well, what a terrible spot to be in.

MARILYN WHITNEY: Yes.

BUD WHITNEY: It was an awful spot to be in. Very, very awful. 

So now, to their grief and suspicion, they added guilt for not having said something before it was too late...and then, before very long, they were angry, too.

Why?  Because, as Frank's family focused on the dismal business of a funeral, wondering carefully how to reflect Frank's atheism, they were astounded by a phone call from Doug Porter himself.

BUD WHITNEY: Doug Porter decided that he was going to do Frank's funeral. And—

KEITH MORRISON: Wait a minute, you suspected he killed Frank.

BUD WHITNEY: Exactly.

MARILYN WHITNEY: Yes.

KEITH MORRISON: And now he's going to conduct Frank's funeral?

BUD WHITNEY: He was going to do Frank's funeral.

Pastor Doug, recall, was a man of considerable persuasive powers. The Whitneys, even though Bud had been a preacher himself for many years, could not stand in his way. But, when they listened to Doug deliver a religious eulogy, well, they were furious. 

BUD WHITNEY: Doug Porter, in the funeral service, tells—said, "In the last month or so, before Frank's death, Frank and I have been talking about this."

MARILYN WHITNEY: Privately.

BUD WHITNEY: "And Frank, privately, has told me that he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior."  And—and so he went on to about how salvation, you know, now—now Frank is going to heaven. 

KEITH MORRISON: Did you believe that?

MARILYN WHITNEY: No.

Even in death, it seemed to the Whitneys, Doug was determined to control Frank's affairs. 

The Modesto Bee's Jeff Jardine attended that funeral, too, but, while the Whitneys were furious, Jardine was simply...puzzled.

JEFF JARDINE: But it just didn't seem like a very impassioned speech – I can tell you that – like you would expect from someone who'd been in the car with the guy who died.  It just didn't ring with emotion, from what I could see.

These views were not confined only to Frank's family and one curious news columnist.

Why? To cut to the chase, it was one word: money.

Pastor Doug's eulogy aside, everybody knew Frank did not like religion; he avoided church like the plague.  But he did like the pastor, trusted him so completely at one point, in fact, that he gave him power of attorney over his affairs – not just the museum project, but all his affairs, his heath care and finances. Frank even made the Hickman Community Church the beneficiary of his will.

MICHELLE PITTMAN: Doug the pastor was the one who was driving the vehicle in the first incident, and then come to find out that he was also power of attorney over everything. It sort of raised some red flags, that "Hey, wait a minute, this is the guy that caused the accident." 

So that's why those sheriff's deputies seemed so interested in the accident. It was about the money.

DETECTIVE: So I have to ask you directly, did you in any way cause the death of Frank Craig?

DOUG PORTER: No, I did not.

DETECTIVE: Okay.

DOUG PORTER: You know, I don't know what they think, but Frank was pretty special to me. I'd just been around me for so long. I changed more diapers. I fed him more. I took him not only all over the country but all over the world.

Convincing?  Well, he did have a point.  Frank and Pastor Doug were very close once, like father and son. Still, as months passed, those investigators continued to quietly go about their work. There were bank accounts to look into, property records, assets. They followed the money.

And Doug wasn't seen quite so much around town.  He'd started up a new ministry...in Mexico.

It was a year and a half after the accident in the canal, November, 2005, when church elders placed an ad in the Modesto Bee. Doug Porter has resigned, said the ad, to "protect the church from further negative focus." They asked the community for prayers. Oh, they would need them.

Part 5

Modesto Bee columnist Jeff Jardine was hooked: The small town mystery out in little Hickman just got more and more interesting. But when the Community Church Board announced that Pastor Doug was leaving “to protect the church from negative focus,” the real reason seemed clear enough to Jardine.

JEFF JARDINE: They had come to realize that there was some funny stuff going on with the money.

KEITH MORRISON: He was a problem?

JEFF JARDINE: Right. He'd become a liability.

But, now, a somewhat distant liability. Pastor Doug began spending quite a bit of time away from Hickman – in fact, outside the country altogether. He set up a ministry in Mexico.

And the law? Well, the law wasn't about to let it go, even if, around town, the negative focus faded a little over succeeding months because deputy district attorney John R. Mayne was very interested indeed. What, if anything, had the pastor done to the old atheist? 

JOHN MAYNE: The thing that really intrigued me about it was that you had two separate collisions. And there were, at least at that point, rumors or thoughts that there was some fairly severe financial malfeasance here. So I wanted to find out what happened in both of these collisions. I wanted to find out what happened to the money. 

In fact, wondered the D.A., had Frank found out before the second crash here at the canal that Doug was cheating him? That he threatened to expose the pastor? Well, that would ruin his ministry, could even send him to jail...so, as Doug Porter was driving along beside this canal, Frank as his passenger, was he a man loaded with a motive for murder?

So D.A. Mayne sent investigator Mike Hermosa out to the scene of the accident, the canal near Hickman, and told him to snoop around. Why? To check out Pastor Doug's description of the crash.

MIKE HERMOSA: You can see, coming around this turn, he said, he hit the rocks over there, started fish-tailing, went out of control, went into the canal.

And to compare it with what he saw out here and the official accident report ...

MIKE HERMOSA: The highway patrol photographs showed the tire prints. He was going along and did a gradual turn into the canal. There was no—if he started fishtailing, you would have seen signs of that.

The more Hermosa thought about it, the more troubling it was. For example, those rocks Doug said he ran into – why didn't anyone else see them?

MIKE HERMOSA: The ditch tender for this canal had been by just a short time before and didn't see these rocks.

Had the pastor put them there himself to stage the accident?

Then there was Doug’s claim that he'd been driving here with his window open. It didn't make any sense.

MIKE HERMOSA: You don't drive in a canal bank with your window rolled down because the dust from the loose soil just envelops into your car.

So why might he have left that window down?

MIKE HERMOSA: I think that was for two reasons. He knew that water would come into the truck, sink it faster. And also, it was an escape route.

Escape for him; death for Frank. But that was merely what, an investigator's guess? Reasonable speculation?  Not exactly hard evidence. But D.A. Mayne had suspicions of his own to look into.

JOHN MAYNE: We investigated over, I think, a dozen bank accounts that were involved in this case.  There were personal accounts; there was something called C&P Investments; there was Eastside Youth Fund. 

Bank accounts that seemed to multiply like the loaves and fishes: Why so many? What was going on?

MIKE HERMOSA: One day, I came down here on a Saturday and I just, on the floor I put—he had like 8 different accounts—I starting moving money, seeing what the flow of the money was, and I just saw it. It was from account to account to account to account. But it all landed in Doug Porter's account or the accounts of his children.

But, of course, Frank had given Pastor Doug power of attorney, and thus, the right to set up the accounts and receive the monthly checks from Frank's retirement accounts. Still, what was he doing with that money?

MIKE HERMOSA: What he would always do is he would deposit it less cash. So here, he makes a deposit of a check and he takes out $1,000 cash. This was on June 2. June 4, he deposits a check, takes out $200 cash. June 6th, he deposits a check, takes out $1,000 cash. June 24, he makes a deposit and takes $3,000 cash.

In just four months, said Hermosa, Doug took more than $13,000 in cash from Frank's retirement fund. Was that for Frank's care? Or was it for himself?  But, more importantly, was any of it a motive for murder by a beloved pastor?

STACEY CARLSON: I can't find a motive.  I really can't.

As the investigation continued, it looked to many people around Hickman like a pretty thin case –innuendo, really, unsupported accusations. After all, said Doug’s friend Stacey Carlson, hadn't he tried desperately to save Frank's life in the canal that day? Even tried CPR to revivehim? Hardly the behavior of a murderer.

STACEY CARLSON: If somebody's gonna murder somebody, you're not gonna put your own life on the line, are you? And that's what I couldn't understand. So I told the D.A. that. I said, "I—I don't understand. I mean, I don't understand where you guys are going with this case." The same thing with the first accident, you know—a little bit further one way or the other, Doug could have been killed in that accident.

And as for the money… A big chunk of it vaporized, all right, said Stacey. But it didn't go into Doug’s pocket. Frank lost that money in the stock market, she said. And the rest was sucked up by initial expenses for the museum project. And most important?  Frank Craig himself, she said, approved every action Pastor Doug took, every penny he spent.

KEITH MORRISON: And you and his family and others around him are convinced that this is what…?

STACEY CARLSON: An accident.

So imagine the surprise: It was November 2006, and Doug Porter was returning to Hickman from his new church in Mexico. He reached a border checkpoint near San Diego, California, and was met by a welcoming committee with a warrant for his arrest. The charge? First degree murder.

Part 6

Around Hickman, California, were more than a few who believed that this time, D.A. John R. Mayne had bitten off more than he could chew. Mayne had charged their popular former pastor with first degree murder, claimed Doug Porter took Frank's money, and then staged an accident to kill the old atheist.

But surely not the Doug Porter Hickman knew so well: After all, Doug had been a star athlete, a popular coach, a loved pastor. He'd simply tried to help an old man realize a lifelong dream to build a museum. And now, here he was, hauled into court like a con man and a murderer.

Nearly 100 witnesses walked through the doors of the Modesto courthouse to testify. But none of them told a more illuminating tale than this silent witness – the money. Remember all those bank accounts Pastor Doug set up once Frank gave him power of attorney?

For the jury, and for us, the prosecutor spelled it out.

JOHN MAYNE: These were really phony baloney accounts. They were accounts that were just designed to hide what was going on. 

KEITH MORRISON: Couldn't there have been some other explanation than design to hide?

JOHN MAYNE: As it turned out, no—there could have been, but not when you look at what happened with the money.

And that's why the D.A. gave a forensic accountant center stage at the trial of Pastor Doug.

JOHN MAYNE: We were able to show that $820,000 of Mr. Craig's money went directly to benefit Mr. Porter. 

Benefits? They included property improvements to Doug’s new home in La Grange, a 15-acre spread with a private pond and four houses. There was a $30,000 paved roadway, an $8,500 electronic entry gate, $21,000 to move one of those houses onto the property, even $2,000 to stock the pond with fish.

Then there was another $300,000 that had gone to organizations and interests that the pastor was involved in… But even that wasn't all. Once Frank was dead, Doug Porter – against Frank's most fervent wish – sold his farm to a local nursery, got $400,000 for it. The money, and all those treasures? Just kind of disappeared.

The total transfer of wealth from Frank Craig to Doug Porter: $1.1 million.

Frank's fate was sealed when he threatened to expose the pastor's scam, or so said the D.A. to the jury. And how could jurors know that happened? The D.A. called a witness named Paul Harvey, a local phone technician and friend to both men. This, said Harvey, was his conversation with Frank, not long after the old man learned the truth:

PAUL HARVEY: I said, “What's the matter, Frank?" And he said, "Well, Doug Porter is taking my money."

Paul says he encouraged Frank to call the police.

PAUL HARVEY: He said, "No. Doug's still my friend and I don't want him to go to jail." He says, "I got myself into this mess and I'll get myself out of it."

Still, just before the second “accident,” said Paul Harvey, Frank made a vow. It still echoes in his memory.

PAUL HARVEY: He said he was going to confront Porter, and he said that it was called a revocable trust and he was going to revoke it.

Then, Paul suddenly remembered the first car crash.

PAUL HARVEY: I said, "Well, Frank, whatever you do, don't get in a car with him." And he laughed and he said okay. He says, "Okay, I won't get in a car with him," and he says, "And if anything happens to me," he says, "Then you, Mr. Harvey will have to see to justice."

That was the conversation, Paul says, he just can't forget. It was powerful stuff, but entirely circumstantial. The remembered snatches of conversation, theopinionsof experts, the implications of financial numbers…but actual hard evidence? Of that, there was nothing.

And then Pastor Doug himself took the stand. If anybody could persuade a jury of his innocence, surely it would be he. Sadly, there were no cameras in the courtroom; we can't show you his testimony. But we can tell you the pastor put it as clear as day – any money he spent, be it on the museum or on himself, was approved by Frank. And those two accidents were just that – accidents. So, good idea to testify?  Maybe not.

JOHN MAYNE: The first question I asked him was, "How much money did you convert to your own use?"  His answer was, "None." And that was an answer that was inconsistent with his own accountants, fairly ridiculous testimony. We started off with he had zero dollars going to his benefit, and then the numbers would change: $10,000, $55,000. Where the money went would change.  He would say—he said—I asked him, "Where did the money go?" and he said, "A plethora of possibilities."

Two and a half days. The D.A. and the pastor. Not pretty.

JOHN MAYNE: He had been telling lies to a lot of people for a long time and people had believed them.  People believed them because he was a pastor. People believed them because he was politically powerful in his area.

The jury, made up of the good, regular folk of Stanislaus County, was given four charges to contemplate, from theft from an elder by a caretaker, to first degree murder. They were back in less than a day: Guilty on all counts. The sentence: life, without parole.

JOHN MAYNE: Evil is not that sophisticated. Evil is not that smart. And Doug Porter was an evil man. He took the man's money. He took the man's health. He took the man's life.

STACEY CARLSON: I know that Doug Porter loves the Lord.

Around Hickman, Doug Porter has supporters still, though Stacey Carlson is one of the few who'll talk now about the town's opinion divide...Pastor Doug, a murderer? Not a chance, she says.

STACEY CARLSON: He's too real in that area of his life to wear a mask.  I just—I could never believe it.  And haven't.  And I've had fights with some of my good friends about it.  They—“Oh, you're just naive."

KEITH MORRISON: I was gonna say, this has not exactly welded the community together?

STACEY CARLSON: No, it hasn't. In fact, it's divided us painfully. We have—the way I see it, we have three camps. We have the Doug Porter camp, and then we have the Craig side camp. And then we have the camp that wants to really just act like it never happened.

Sad, what it’s done to Hickman, said the Modesto Bee's Jardine:

JEFF JARDINE: I wrote about a mother and her daughter who no longer speak. The daughter stayed in the church. The mother le—had left it.

KEITH MORRISON: It's the kinda thing that makes people—

STACEY CARLSON: It actually—

KEITH MORRISON: —lose faith.

STACEY CARLSON: You know what it did? It made me lose faith in people – not in God, in people.

Frank Craig, the old atheist, put his faith in a man who claimed to work for God. He's discovered now what – if anything – comes in the great beyond. And Pastor Doug maintains he's innocent, and preaches in prison now.

And if he's right about eternal judgments? Maybe he'll meet old Frank again one day.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Explainer: 'Deadly Current' in pictures

  • Somewhere in the middle of little Hickman, a wedge came down: Suspicious minds on one side, true believers on the other.

  • An atheist and a born-again

    Wrestling Coach Turns Pastor
    Adrian Mendoza/Modesto Bee

    Frank Craig had been dreaming about building a museum his whole life: a place where kids could learn what farm life was like back when he was a boy.

    But he was 80 years old. He didn't have the faintest idea how to develop a museum – one that people might actually want to come to see. Friends told him he'd have to hire a big city attorney, or he should set up a non-profit corporation. And Frank did not want to spend his money on that sort of thing. Instead, he sucked up his profanity-laced disbelief, and went to call on that well-known optimist, the local pastor. And that's how Doug Porter got mixed up with the one man whose soul he couldn't save...

  • The country preacher

    Local real estate whiz Stacey Carlson recalled, "It was a country church. You didn't have to dress up, you—you just—and he said that. 'Come as you are, God doesn't care what you wear. He cares what's in your heart. That's what he cares about.'"

    It was contagious, Doug’s energy, his approachability – the preaching wrestling coach, everybody's friend.

  • Frank's treasures

    Bud Whitney is married to Frank Craig's niece, Marilyn. He said, "There was never a piece of junk that was worth throwing out in Frank's mind. The community had an old ambulance, and they were ready to junk it. And Frank said, 'No, tow it over to my place.' He had a pile of bolts – machine bolts, metal bolts. And the pile was about 12 foot tall and about 10 foot across."

  • It's all about the money

    Bud Whitney, husband to Frank Craig's niece, explained, "Whatever amount of money he had in coffee cans around the house."

    How rich was he? Whitney says Craig boasted once that he was worth $5 million. Enough, surely, to make good on his dream and build his museum.

  • The first accident

    Doug Porter and Frank Craig were in a car accident on March 5, 2002. The pastor told responding officers an oncoming car crossed into his lane, he swerved to avoid it, left the road, and crashed into a tree. Craig wasn't wearing his seat belt. He survived, but only just. His right arm and shoulder were mangled; bones were broken in just about every part of his body.

  • Building Frank's dream

    For design inspiration, Craig and Porter took field trips to other museums across the country. The two of them even traveled to Europe together, a six-week research excursion. Craig had the money for it, of course, thanks to that big inheritance from his brother. He was also, apparently, having the time of his life. And his partnership with Pastor Doug not only survived his salty language and his unshakable atheism, it strengthened. It evolved. It bloomed.

  • Seeing to justice

    Paul Harvey is a local phone technician and a friend to both Craig and the pastor: "I said, 'Well, Frank, whatever you do, don't get in a car with him.' And he laughed and he said okay. He says,'Okay, I won't get in a car with him,' and he says, 'And if anything happens to me,' he says, 'Then you, Mr. Harvey, will have to see to justice.'"

  • The second accident

    It was April 22, 2004, about three o'clock in the afternoon. Exactly what happened would become, before very long, the subject of dispute. But the simple and unquestioned fact was that Frank's pick-up truck – Doug at the wheel – plunged into the cold, fast-moving waters of an irrigation canal. It wasn't a baptism this time.

  • Pastor Doug, murderer

    Modesto California News - August 04, 2008
    Modesto Bee/ZUMApress.com

    The jury, made up of the good, regular folk of Stanislaus County, was given four charges to contemplate, from theft from an elder by a caretaker, to first degree murder. They were back in less than a day: Guilty on all counts. The sentence: life, without parole.

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