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Ex-professor found guilty of staging own shooting

Given probation in elaborate plot

John Donovan Sr. (center) was comforted by his attorney Michael Doolin (left) in Middlesex Superior Court yesterday. John Donovan Sr. (center) was comforted by his attorney Michael Doolin (left) in Middlesex Superior Court yesterday. (ASSOCIATED PRESS pool)

CAMBRIDGE -- A former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor yesterday was convicted of staging an elaborate hoax -- which included shooting himself in the stomach -- as part of a bizarre attempt to implicate his oldest son in a murder plot against him.

The state's top prosecutor called the actions of John Donovan Sr. on Dec. 16, 2005, a "corruption" of the criminal justice system, while the judge who presided at his trial called the millionaire "bizarre."

The 65-year-old Donovan was convicted of filing a false police report by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fishman, who sentenced him to two years' probation following a jury-waived trial. "Mr. Donovan's behavior . . . can be described as nothing short of bizarre and premeditated," Fishman said of the Hamilton resident who has been feuding with his adult children for the past several years.

"I had nothing to do with the shooting," Donovan told the Globe after the verdict. He said his conviction "was a complete surprise. An absolute surprise."

Donovan asserted he was targeted by Russian hit men as he sat in the Vassar Street parking lot of his Cambridge business office.

Sitting in the front seat of his minivan, Donovan said, he called police on his cellphone and accused his son James of laundering $180 million, of hiring two Russians to murder him, and of launching a simultaneous attack on his wife, Linda, at their home in Hamilton.

But, according to Attorney General Martha Coakley and testimony at Donovan's trial, Donovan shot himself in the abdomen, shot up his own minivan, kept a spent bullet in his mouth, rearranged a surveillance camera to prevent the taping of his hoax, and laid out the entire plan in a form of shorthand on the dinner menu of the Algonquin Club to which he belonged. Police found the "to-do" list in his pocket.

"He used this false allegation for his own personal agenda against family members . . . in a way that is a total corruption, really, of the way the system should work," Coakley said following the verdict.

That night, police found signs of a break-in at the elder Donovan's home. They also questioned James and his wife that night and had a team of officers search the couple's Hamilton home while their children were asleep.

Coakley and the trial prosecutor, acting Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Lynch, estimated that Cambridge, Hamilton, and State Police spent as much as $100,000 searching for the Russian hit men that did not exist and on forensic testing that led them to conclude the "hit" was a product of Donovan's imagination.

"This was treated initially as the kind of thing that would bring terror and concern to an urban area," Coakley said. "It did take more of our resources than some of our actual homicide cases."

Lynch asked the judge to order Donovan to reimburse the government for its expenses, but Fishman said he did not have legal power to do so.

Lynch also asked that Donovan be sent to prison for six months and undergo a psychiatric examination. Lead defense attorney Michael Doolin requested that his client be given probation.

Fishman said because Donovan had no prior convictions and due to his age, he was not going to imprison him. Besides putting Donovan on probation, the judge fined him $625, ordered him to perform 200 hours of community service, and insisted he undergo a psychiatric examination.

At the request of prosecutors, Fishman also ordered Donovan to stay away from his son James and his three daughters and their spouses. The fifth child, John Donovan Jr., is not covered by the stay away order and is not currently aligned with his siblings.

In a joint statement, James and his sisters applauded Fishman's verdict. "His bizarre allegations, including that this case involved "hundreds of millions of dollars," are as fictitious and phony as the one about Russians with rifles," the siblings said. "We are grateful that John Donovan, Sr. has been found guilty of the crime of knowingly filing a false police report."

Through his attorney, John Donovan Jr. declined comment.