Murder mystery thickens as Porter is laid to rest

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On Friday night, May 18, 2007, at about 10 p.m., popular Ramsey County probation officer Howard Porter spoke by telephone with his wife, Theresa Neal, a St. Paul public school principal. She was out of town, but would be returning on Saturday, the next day; and the two were scheduled to leave on a family trip on Sunday the 20th.

At 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 19, the body, badly beaten but still alive, of a then-unidentified 6-foot-8-inch African-American man was found in an alley in north Minneapolis, 10 miles from Porter's St. Paul home.

That man in the alley was Porter, 58, a somewhat fleeting, yet iconic, figure in the history of college basketball. After clinging to life for a week, he died May 26 of, as the medical examiner so starkly recorded it, "MBFIs."

Multiple blunt force injuries.


Two weeks later, as Porter's friends and teammates gathered in St. Paul to celebrate and cry about the former Villanova and NBA basketball star, the seven-and-a-half hours between the phone call to Theresa and the discovery of his body remain a painful mystery punctuated by a series of sad question marks.

"At times like these, we are lost for words," the Rev. Gloria-Roach-Thomas told more than 800 mourners at the jam-packed St. James AME Church in St. Paul on Saturday. A thousand more patiently walked through the church earlier to hug Porter's wife and pass his body, a trademark bowler hat on his head, dressed in a sharp dark suit, the letters "HP" and his nickname, "Geezer," stitched into the upholstery of the coffin's lid.

A group of neighborhood ministers, Porter's co-workers and a handful of former teammates -- including Bob Love, who played with Porter on the Chicago Bulls for three seasons in the early '70s -- talked of Porter's serenity, of his sweet disposition, of his fine bass singing voice, of his large hands and his sartorial splendor; he was known to wear orange suits. As he spoke, Love donned a black fedora of his own to honor Porter, and some in the church stood and applauded.

At the time of his death, Porter -- a probation officer for 12 years, a Minnesotan for nearly two decades -- was supervising 102 cases involving a wide range of felons. He earned about $64,000 a year. He cared about his "clients," said his boss, Ramsey County Probation Supervisor Rhonda Rhoades. She called Porter "a role model, a father figure."

"It is horrible," Rhoades said of Porter's death. "Our whole office is hit very hard by this. Clients come in and they're crying; they're struggling."

"Yes," Rhoades said, "it's uncommon" to see felons cry about their probation officer.

Retracing Porter's final hours is all speculation. Too much is unknown. But a rough sketch, based on public documents, provides a few details.

Surely, his final hours began at his home, on Iglehart Street in a beige stucco, 1,000-square-foot, one-story bungalow he shared with Theresa. They'd been together for 16 years. Assessed at $165,000 by the county tax department, the house sits on a tree-lined street one block from St. Paul's Central High School, home to a long line of great boys and girls basketball teams, the alma mater of baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. Pink and purple flowers dot the well-coiffed lawn.

Did Porter voluntarily walk out the house's front door that Friday night and head somewhere to meet somebody or to check on a client on probation?

Or was he forced out?

Did he exit out a side door, toward the garage, to get into a rented Cadillac? Why was the car rented from Enterprise in the days just before his murder?

"If there are any theories, we're not going to share them with the media," said St. Paul Police spokesman Tom Walsh.

According to search warrants on file at Ramsey County District Court, Porter was last seen about 8 p.m. on Friday, May 18, and he last spoke with his wife two hours later.

After that, it gets tragically murky.

Early on Saturday morning, the 19th, when Porter was found in the back alley on Minneapolis' north side and was admitted to nearby North Memorial Hospital, no one knew who the victim was. At that point, Porter wasn't even considered a missing person.

Later, as Porter's family looked for him, trying to reach him on his cell phone, the St. Paul police received two phone calls.

The first came from an informant, a convicted felon. He said, according to a search warrant, "'Word on the street' was that Porter had been kidnapped."

Soon after, Theresa Neal called the cops, too. Her husband was missing.

"The newspaper was still outside," the search warrant reads, "and a television was left turned on, which she stated was abnormal."

Soon after those calls, police found Porter's rented car about two miles east of his home, parked near a collection of low-income housing complexes near downtown St. Paul. The car, on Ravoux Avenue, sat in the shadow of the marbled Minnesota State Capitol.

Blood was found on its rear bumper and side.

"The trunk did not contain any person or body," the police report says. "There was, however, blood and what appeared to be the imprint in blood of a head on the floor area of the trunk. The vehicle was declared a crime scene … "

Was Porter forced to this narrow street one block from busy Interstate I-94, which connects the Twin Cities to Chicago? Was he beaten here, then transported the 20 minutes by car, past the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis, to be dumped in that alley?

Or did the crime occur in Minneapolis, the car abandoned in St. Paul later?

"It's really hard to figure that somebody would do this," said his boss, Rhoades. "He was a gentle teddy bear."

The Minneapolis, St. Paul and Philadelphia news media -- which have covered the Porter murder most completely -- have hinted at two theories about the crime: (1) Perhaps it was payback by a disgruntled criminal on probation; or (2) perhaps Porter had returned to his addiction and, somehow, that went wrong.

Officials in the Ramsey County probation office say the former scenario would be highly unusual. Although there is danger in the job, no one can remember any violent incidents involving probation officers.

And the latter theory -- a drug relapse after Porter's exemplary life in the years since his treatment in 1989 -- doesn't ring true to those who knew him.

"Absolutely not," said Rhoades, who worked with Porter before he joined her agency and who has been his co-worker and boss for a dozen years.

"Howard had everything going for himself right now," said Kwame McDonald, a retired college administrator and St. Paul community activist. "I think he had reached in life what he was hoping for and aiming for all along … Howard was so committed to life, really. I don't see him falling back [to drugs]."

The Rev. Darryl Spence spoke with Porter a few days before his disappearance. Spence and Porter worked together with teenagers in St. Paul's toughest neighborhoods. While acknowledging that anyone with an addiction can relapse, Spence said he is angered by such speculation. Spence heads up a group called the "God Squad," which ministers to crime victims and works with the St. Paul police.

"All of a sudden, we had to hear and read again that he was in recovery from addictions," Spence said. "I think it's a wonderful example what he overcame, but only if he was the one telling the story, not the press. I hope we will know that didn't play a part in his death. To me, he was a man who achieved. African-American men have a hard role just to say, 'We achieved.' It seems we have to tell everybody all our wounds."

Porter had his share of both wounds and achievements. He grew up poor during an era in which Florida's high schools were still segregated. He went north to Villanova and led the Wildcats to the 1971 NCAA championship game. The Wildcats lost the final game 68-62 to UCLA, but Porter was named the Final Four MVP. He averaged nearly 23 points and 15 rebounds a game at Nova, and his No. 54 was retired in 1997.

More significantly, he became a symbol -- even a victim -- of the shifting tectonics of sports business in the early '70s, a time when college basketball players were expected to be "amateurs" and devoted to dear ol' U rather than seek the one-and-done exit strategy of so many players today. Porter was at Villanova during a brief and chaotic time when there were competing pro leagues, the now-defunct American Basketball Association and the NBA.

Those were the pioneer days of free agency and athletes gaining their rights in all sports, and they mingled with shady agents seeking the signatures of kids from poor backgrounds who as often as not took the money as quickly as it appeared under their needy noses.

Porter, a three-time All-American, was caught up in the messy details of the ability to play one league off against another. He signed a contract with the ABA while he was still at Villanova. That was a no-no, and he got caught. His was stripped of his Final Four MVP award, and Villanova forfeited its games, lost its NCAA Tournament runner-up status and had to return $72,000 in Final Four earnings -- a measly sum today, but good money in the Nixon era.

Eventually, he signed a $1.5 million contract with the Bulls, but his seven-year pro career was mediocre. He played for four teams, never averaging more than 13 points a game. It ended in 1978 with a blood clot in his lung and an addiction to cocaine. By 1989, broke and literally busted, he came to Minnesota -- Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers, as the locals joke -- and fought the drug disease. After he whipped it, he stayed in the Twin Cities.

The stardom, the tumble, the recovery … that was all so long ago that few people who worked with or were touched by Porter in the Twin Cities knew about his basketball past. Rhoades, his recent boss, worked with him for five years before she knew he'd been a star. She read about it in Sports Illustrated.

"It was nothing he ever bragged about,'' she said.

By all accounts, Porter had been clean of the cocaine for nearly 18 years and was a devoted volunteer in St. Paul's churches and neighborhoods, where -- as in any big American city -- teenage boys too often encounter crime and drugs.

"He had overcome a lot of stuff," Spence said. "He's a person who helped changed my way of thinking. I will always remember the one thing he told me: 'Every child has a chance,' he'd say. He'd tell me that over and over. Before he told me that, I thought there were some kids where there was no hope. Howard didn't believe that."

There will be another funeral for Porter on Tuesday in Villanova, Pa., and yet another on Saturday, June 9, in Eatonville, Fla. There is a $25,000 reward posted for information about the crime. A joint investigation by the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments continues.

There have been no arrests.

Jay Weiner is a freelance sports journalist based in St. Paul.