The Donovan Family Feud Goes to Trial (Again)
A faked assassination attempt, battles over millions of dollars and multiple luxury homes, allegations of forging documents and doctoring recordings to steal a dead son’s fortune. Inside one of Boston’s strangest family feuds.
he end was imminent, and John Donovan Jr. had one more thing to do: Make sure that his father would have nothing to do with the wife and children he was leaving behind.
The day before he died, John Jr. sent an email to the retired federal judge who was overseeing the arbitration of the decades-long feud that had pitted his father—the former technology guru John Donovan Sr.—against his five children. In it, he asked the arbitrator to issue a permanent restraining order preventing his father from having any contact with his wife, Megan, and their two children. He copied his dad on the email.
Like so many people who’d tangled with his father over the years and gotten burned, John Jr. didn’t trust his dad, especially with his own family, and he wanted to make sure his wishes were clear before he died. “I do not want my father to have any interaction with my children unless Megan chooses to make an exception,” he wrote. “Dad, as my last request to you, I am asking that you consent to my wishes on this.” He signed it “John,” and on the next day, April 25, 2015, he died of a rare form of cancer. He was 43.
Massachusetts’ longest-running soap opera — an epic scorched-earth battle that has played out over two decades— goes to trial (again) today in Essex County Superior Court in Salem. In this latest iteration, Donovan the Elder, or “Professor,” as the former MIT management prof prefers to be addressed, is facing a plethora of criminal charges related to his alleged attempts to cheat his widowed daughter-in-law and grandchildren out of millions of dollars, their home, and other properties by forging documents and doctoring recordings he surreptitiously took of his son John Jr. while he was dying.
This years-delayed criminal trial is merely the latest chapter in the long, strange saga of John Donovan, the self-made, super-rich MIT professor and technology savant (“I tell the future,’’ he once said) who became a punchline after he was found criminally guilty of staging an elaborate assassination hoax in which he blamed Russian hitmen and his eldest son, James for trying to kill him. This time, however, the stakes couldn’t be higher: The 80-year-old could wind up in prison.
As the longtime business editor and “Downtown” columnist at the Boston Globe, I spent more than a decade—starting in the mid-’90s—writing about Donovan. I dubbed him “the Nutty Professor,’’ and he proved to be great copy.
He was known for his entertaining corporate seminars, during which he would preach the gospel of change and send big companies such as AT&T a $300,000 bill for a two-day seminar; in 1994, the New York Times referred to him as the “Johnny Carson of the training circuit.” But when I started looking under the hood, I found this self-styled “visionary” also had a habit of pushing little tech startups out into the then red-hot IPO market, making him and other insiders rich, and the investors who followed poorer.
Unexpectedly, a good business-page story would soon explode into a captivating page-one story. In the early 1990s, after a couple of contentious divorces, Donovan set up trusts in his children’s names, and much of his wealth and his real estate properties were transferred to them, even as he continued to occupy these properties. But the arrangement wouldn’t last: When one of his children accused him of sexually molesting her as a child, the siblings rallied behind her and demanded their father vacate the properties owned by the trusts in their names. In effect, they filed for divorce from their dad, saying in court filings that they wanted nothing to do with him. Donovan, for his part, denied it all, accusing his kids of plundering the trusts—said to be worth more than $100 million—and concocting the abuse allegation to blackmail him.
The story only got stranger from there. On a December night in 2005, Donovan called 911 to report that he had been shot at in a Cambridge parking lot by two Russians. He was saved, he said, by his belt buckle, which deflected the bullets, leaving him with only a flesh wound in the abdomen. Donovan told police he believed his son James, a top money manager for Goldman Sachs, had arranged the hit to appropriate his fortune.
You couldn’t make this stuff up — but, as it turned out, the Professor could. Twenty months after the alleged shooting, Donovan was convicted of filing a false police report and sentenced to two years of probation and community service. Among the evidence: Donovan had scrawled out the entire plan on a menu from the swank Algonquin Club and inconveniently left it in the pocket of his sports jacket. Calling Donovan’s behavior ‘’bizarre and premeditated,” the judge ordered a psychiatric exam.
And on and on it went for years. Donovan and his children wrestled over luxe properties owned by the kids’ trusts in Manchester-by-Sea, Vermont, and Bermuda, the kinds of places that have names such as Seagate, Pomfret Mountain View, and Winsor House. There would be multiple settlements but Donovan would just hire new lawyers and challenge whatever he had agreed to.
In the criminal case going to trial today, Donovan has been accused of forging part of his son’s will in a scheme to take possession of at least four North Shore properties, along with a host of other charges, attempted larceny and witness intimidation among them. Authorities began investigating after a local registrar of deeds raised questions about documents filed in the sale of hundreds of acres in 2016 and referred the case to the district attorney’s office. Donovan has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Now a jury will decide the fate of Donovan and examine his complex relationship with his youngest child, John Jr., the good son who despite it all maintained a relationship with his father and helped negotiate with his siblings to create a trust to provide for his aging father. In the end, prosecutors say, Donovan repaid that loyalty by trying to defraud John Jr.’s widow and children of the estate he left behind.
Over the years, Donovan has burned through more than a dozen law firms — big-name New York and Boston ones among them — in his downwardly mobile battle with his kids. His latest is a little three-man law office “serving the Saugus MA area,” as its website says, located in a house on Route 1, next to a doggy day care and a Barn Car Wash.
Will the Professor testify? “A criminal defendant has a right to remain silent,” Robert Strasnick, the fifth attorney to represent Donovan since he was indicted, told me. “We will see if he exercises that right. He maintains his innocence,” he said, adding that his defense “will come out in court” and that his client wasn’t available for an interview.
Few people know more about what went wrong in the Donovan family than former judge John S. Martin, who spent 12 years as the arbitrator among the warring parties. In an extraordinary 86-page document Martin left behind to memorialize what he found, he leaves no doubt where he stands. He uses words like “reprehensible” and “shocking” to describe Donovan’s treatment of a son who somehow still cared for his dad. “False” and “fraudulent” are two of Martin’s other favorite words. “While Professor Donovan is a highly intelligent man who has had substantial academic and business success, he apparently thinks the rest of us are devoid of intelligence or common sense,” Martin wrote in 2017. “It was obviously with that mindset that he conceived a fraud that had him representing that all he wanted to do was fulfill John’s dying wishes when in fact he was doctoring videotapes, audiotapes and legal documents in a manner that was so childish that even the least intelligent of us would never believe that what he was proposing was anything that John would have wanted.”
According to Martin’s findings, Donovan manufactured documents purporting to show that his son had written a secret addition to his will and given him a special power of attorney to transfer assets from John Jr.’s widow and children to Donovan and cancel millions of dollars in debts. In addition, Donovan secretly recorded conversations with his son and had employees from one of his startup companies, operating out of a barn at his home in Hamilton, alter the video and audiotapes, Martin found. “It is shocking that Professor Donovan would record his dying son, who was stricken with terminal cancer, for months without his knowledge or consent, and then alter the recordings to attempt to steal money and property for his son’s widow, Megan Donovan, and children and to harm his other four children and their families,” Martin wrote.
One piece of evidence the jury won’t hear is the video John Jr.—who owned the Manchester Athletic Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea—made eight months before he died. In it, John makes “explicitly clear” that he wants his father to have nothing to do with his children after his death, according to Martin’s arbitration report. The judge in the current trial, Salim Tabit, ruled it inadmissible on Friday. The jury will also not hear about Donovan’s conviction for filing the false police report in the assassination hoax because it occurred more than 10 years ago.
Another testimony they may not hear is mine. In full disclosure, my long-ago conversations with Donovan about his family trust, I recently learned, have landed me on the prosecution’s witness list for the upcoming trial. I left Boston years ago and am now a columnist in my hometown of Charlestown, South Carolina. I can save them the trouble of bringing me on the stand: Read my old columns. What I wrote then is everything I know, and no one ever asked for a correction.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for John Donovan. He had grown up in a working-class neighborhood in West Lynn. From there, the smart Irish boy made it to Yale and Harvard and MIT, became a tenured professor, started two dozen companies, and authored 20 books. He was fabulously wealthy — for a while.
At one point he owned more than 1,000 acres in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Bermuda. He saw himself as creating a legacy — he was the patriarch of the Donovans of the North Shore, modeled on the Kennedys of Cape Cod. Etched into the stone of the fireplace of his Manchester-by-the-Sea home were the words “Donovans stick together.” Today, he and his wife, Linda, live above their barn in Hamilton—a nice barn, to be sure, that they call the Stables. In court papers, Donovan has claimed that he is indigent.
By this point in the story, we know all too well that these Donovans don’t stick together (and they’re no Kennedys). Years ago, John Donovan sat with me and tried to explain why so many people had so many awful things to say about him. Donovan is a storyteller and as we talked, he kept returning to Barrett Street in West Lynn, where he grew up in a third-floor tenement apartment. It was a place where the bullies were constantly out to get him and his brother, Paul. “These kids used to jump out and really lay on us from these alleys,” he said.
So it has been through his life: The bullies, he said, are still after him. “If you look back at my life, it’s been kids coming out to get me.”
Over the past 20 years, however, the kids he has been battling are his own children, and what they want is to escape their dear old dad. It may be tempting to see this latest chapter in what has been one of the strangest family sagas in Boston history as the last one. But anyone who has followed this story understands there is always another chapter when it comes to the Professor.