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Great divide

A N.E. family of privilege is at war over money, property, and accusations of a father's abuse

HAMILTON -- James Donovan and his two girls, both in their Halloween costumes, were in their driveway, just heading out for a night of trick or treating, when the Hamilton police drove up to their home, Black Rock Farm, a 23-room country estate stretching over 22 acres of pasture land and woods. They served Donovan, a Boston investment banker, with a restraining order: He was not to go near his father's home, just five minutes away, or his father's Cambridge office, and he was to appear before a hearing in four days. Donovan's wife, pregnant with their third child, stood by and wept.

In an affidavit, Donovan's father, John J. Donovan Sr., told the police that he had found a broken window in his bedroom and believed that someone had fired a rifle into his home, Devon Glen, a 68-acre gentleman's farm just across from the exclusive Myopia Hunt Club, where father and son are both members. He told police his eldest son had made threats to "ruin his business and reputation" and said his son was trying "to evict me from my house."

The police found a bullet, but say the son was never a suspect. The restraining order was withdrawn. But the dispute that is destroying one of the wealthiest families in the towns north of Boston goes on and on, spilling out one nasty affidavit at a time in Suffolk Superior Court.

The Donovans are a family that seemed to have it all -- brains, wealth, success, and a new generation coming along to carry on -- and somehow it all imploded instead.

They are a family at war. John Donovan, a well-known former technology and business professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an author and serial entrepreneur, and his five grown children, all accomplished in their own right, tell very different stories about what went wrong in their family. They all tell their varying stories in court documents, correspondence between their lawyers, and angry statements. No family member would be interviewed for this story.

According to John Donovan, his children are trying to force him out of the house where he has lived his entire adult life and to appropriate a fortune estimated at $100 million in property and cash by threatening to tell awful lies about him.

The children -- four of the five, at least -- say they simply want a final separation, a divorce in effect, from the father they have come to loathe. What turned them against their father, they say, is a family secret so vile it could no longer remain buried.

MIT teacher built successful businesses

John Donovan, or Professor Donovan as he likes to be called, has never been an ordinary professor.

He is a "visionary," he will tell you. "I tell the future," he once told The Globe.

Over the years, big companies like Hewlett-Packard and Oracle have lined up to pay as much as $300,000 to sponsor his seminars, an eclectic mix of showmanship and a window into the future of technology as seen by Donovan. The New York Times dubbed him the Johnny Carson of the executive training circuit, and he has written eight books, including basic technology textbooks.

Donovan, 62, was a tenured professor in engineering and business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Tufts Medical School.

He has started a dozen companies, including Cambridge Technology Partners, a computer services consulting company that was once valued at more than $1 billion.

He is always on the lookout for the next big thing. When the market was hot for Internet companies, Donovan was an apostle of electronic commerce, and his little corporate incubator on Vassar Street in Cambridge cranked out Internet companies.

Now, with money pouring into homeland security, Donovan's newest company, CellExchange, is promoting a new security program for military bases and commercial users.

As always, a buzz follows Donovan; NBC News, for instance, did a segment this month on his new security program.

Donovan's smarts and his drive -- he likes to say he lives on three or four hours sleep a night -- have taken him from the third-floor tenement apartment where he grew up on Barrett Street in West Lynn to a $6.5 million farmhouse in Hamilton, where he lives when he is not in his high-rise luxury condo on the Charles River in Cambridge.

He is a man with "a hundred times more ideas than anyone else" and a remarkable ability to connect with people, one on one, said MIT professor Stuart Madnick, once a longtime Donovan business partner. "It is almost like he has ESP into your soul."

A talent for enemies, disappointed friends

Donovan also has a talent for making enemies. Over the years he has fallen out with many of his former associates in business and academia, Madnick included, and they say he promises more than he delivers. Donovan's companies tend to start fast and end badly. His battles are vitriolic and personal; many of them end up in the courts.

For example, four years ago he got into a bitter dispute with some of his wealthy neighbors in Manchester, including Gary Kaneb, president of Gulf Oil, and Stuart Moore, co-chief executive of the technology consulting firm Sapient Co.

They were unhappy with Donovan's plans to build a long dock off his oceanfront property.

A Donovan family trust sought an injunction against the wives of both men, saying they were threatening Donovan's workers. A judge dismissed the complaint; the dock was never built.

"Unfortunately, Donovan escalated a straightforward property dispute into a highly personalized, emotional, and expensive battle," Gary Kaneb said. "I personally never saw my 5-foot-3, 110 pound wife as as intimidating as John's work crew did."

In the past, Donovan explained the battles in his adult life by recounting the days from his childhood when, he said, bullies lay in wait for him on Barrett Street.

"If you look at my life," Donovan said in a Globe interview in 1996, "it's been kids coming out to get me."

Now those coming to get Donovan are his own grown children. On the jackets of his books and in the biography on his corporate website, Donovan refers to his "five wonderful children." But for more than a year, four of his five children have been engaged in a high-stakes battle to end for good their relationship with their father.

Accusation of abuse and a family rupture

At the heart of the dispute is a daughter's assertion, which is vigorously denied by Donovan, that as a child she was sexually molested by her father for years.

In an affidavit in support of a lawsuit filed against Donovan last year, the daughter said: "My father, Donovan Sr., abused me sexually when I was a child. The sexual abuse by my father has caused me tremendous pain, psychological trauma, and anguish, which continues to this day." (The Globe is omitting her name, in keeping with its policy of not identifying alleged sexual abuse victims.)

In his affidavit, Donovan called the accusation "absolutely false" and said his children threatened to go public with the charge if he did not agree to their demands.

"They demanded that I abandon all my rights to my home, Devon Glen, and that I move from and never return to the North Shore, my lifetime home. They also demanded that I resign from the Myopia Hunt Club and that I never visit the club again."

Through a lawyer, the children deny threatening to publicize the abuse charge.

In fact, Donovan and his children disagree on almost everything, including what ignited the family breakup.

The children say they were appalled when their sister first raised the issue of sexual abuse, in the fall of 2002.

"Based on her statements, my perception, and other information available to me, I believe my sister," James Donovan said in an affidavit. "From this point, as soon as I knew what our father had done . . . and understood how much suffering our father had inflicted on his own child, I knew that I would never have a relationship with my father."

With the exception of John Jr., the youngest, the other Donovan children have joined in the legal action against their father. Even John Jr. has said he wants nothing more to do with his father. In a letter to one of his sisters, he called his father a liar. "What we have learned about dad is monstrous, and we should have nothing to do with him," he wrote, according to correspondence between lawyers. Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse between the father and his namesake. John Jr. left the executive training firm where he had worked for years with his father. In November, Donovan had John Jr. charged with unlawfully entering the father's Vassar Street headquarters. The complaint, like the one Donovan brought against his older son James, was dropped.

A spokesman for the elder Donovan says his daughter only made her abuse claims after she and her husband took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a family-owned fitness company. According to the spokesman, George Regan, an audit found that the daughter and her husband had improperly taken at least $413,000 from the family business to cover child care and other costs. When Donovan and his wife were divorced in 1981, the court appointed a psychologist to examine the family, Regan said, and found no evidence of abuse.

"The record is clear," Regan said. "Professor Donovan's daughter was caught stealing from her own family. Then she made her false claim. Are we to believe her or a psychologist who examined the family during the divorce and found `no evidence of abuse'?"

A spokeswoman for the children, Nancy Sterling, called Donovan's charges of missing money "a shameless smokescreen."

"The victim never stole any money," Sterling said. In addition, Sterling said that the sexual abuse was disclosed to several doctors years ago and that Donovan's "24-year-old report" was prepared by his own psychologist in an effort to discredit his wife during the divorce.

The daughter and three of her siblings have retained Jeffrey Newman, one of the lead plaintiff attorneys in the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal, to represent them against their father.

A dispute is fought with land and money

Money is the weapon of choice in the Donovan family. At stake: $100 million in assets, including hundreds of acres of undeveloped land on the North Shore and in Vermont.

The children have sued to confirm their control over family trusts that include expensive houses and land in Hamilton, Manchester, Essex, and Ipswich in Massachusetts and in Vermont and Bermuda. Lawyers for the children have valued the properties at between $60 million and $100 million.

Another $18.5 million was transferred from the family to the children in November 2002, court documents show. In addition, a preliminary settlement between father and children called for Donovan to pay $6 million to his children in exchange for a life estate and options to buy back some of the properties.

The crisis in the Donovan family grows out of the first of his three marriages. He and his wife, Marilyn, had five children, but split in an acrimonious divorce after 17 years of marriage. "He was a cheat, a thief, in my opinion, a dishonest man, and in no way was a husband," Marilyn Donovan said in a deposition at the time of the divorce. She also declined to be interviewed for this story.

The five children remained with their mother. Maureen Donovan Lantz, 39, the oldest, has an MBA from the University of Rochester and is the mother of five children. James Donovan, 37, graduated from MIT's Sloan School of Management and Harvard Law School and is a managing director of Goldman Sachs in Boston. Carolyn Donovan Rosenbaum, 35, graduated from Yale and Georgetown and is a doctor with two children. Rebecca M. Brown, 34, has an MBA from the Sloan School at MIT and is married to a venture capitalist. John Jr., 32, graduated from Yale and worked for his father until the recent falling out.

According to documents filed in Suffolk Superior Court, the children first raised the charges of sexual abuse and demanded a separation of the assets at a meeting in November 2002. That meeting was the first in a series in which both sides negotiated a detailed separation agreement, confirming the children's ownership of the properties, but providing a life estate for their father in most of them and an option to buy some of them.

But almost immediately after signing the agreement, the elder Donovan started backing away. In a court filing, he complained that he had settled only because the children's lawyer, Steven Rosenthal of Mintz Levin, threatened to go public with the sexual abuse charge.

"On more than one occasion during that meeting, in order to intimidate me, Mr. Rosenthal picked up a telephone to tell someone on the other end of the line to temporarily hold the press release," Donovan said in his affidavit. Donovan's lawyers have also tried to disqualify Mintz Levin from the case, saying the firm had represented Donovan and his companies on other matters.

Mintz Levin says Donovan was represented by his own lawyers throughout the long negotiations. The firm denies it ever threatened to publicize anything and denied any conflict of interest. What Donovan signed, the firm said, is a "binding agreement," and the children have sued to enforce it.

A dispute conducted through their lawyers

Donovan and his children now speak to one another through lawyers and explain their dispute in statements. "It is very painful for us to have family issues of the most personal and horrific nature covered in the media," the four children said through a spokesman. "We have spent years trying to resolve our differences with our father. We love and believe our sister and will do everything we can to support her."

Said Donovan through his own spokesman: "I am terribly saddened by my daughter's accusation, which I deny with all my heart. I hope and believe that my family can resolve our differences. If necessary, however, I will defend myself in court, where the facts will vindicate me."

In the end, a court can sort through the Donovans' competing claims over their millions. No one, it seems, has any hope of ever putting this family, which once had so much, back together again.

Steve Bailey can be reached at 617-929-2902 or at

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