CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – What the former MIT professor and wealthy businessman told police sounded like a scene from a bad spy novel: He was shot by two masked men with Russian accents, and saved only because two of the bullets bounced off his belt buckle.
Five months later came the indictment — against him.
Prosecutors say John J. Donovan Sr. staged his own shooting to gain an advantage in a legal battle with his own children for control of trusts that he claims are worth at least $180 million. He's accused of trying to get back at his oldest son by falsely accusing him of hiring his would-be killers.
The accusations and the civil case — and even a daughter's molestation allegation — are overshadowing the career of a man once dubbed "the Johnny Carson of the training circuit."
Donovan, 65, a business professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1969 to 1997, made a name for himself as a technology guru. He commanded big fees as a sought-after speaker to Fortune 500 companies, started more than a dozen companies and published 11 books.
Donovan is charged with filing a false police report, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum one-year sentence. His trial is scheduled to begin Friday in Middlesex Superior Court.
"John Donovan repeatedly provided false information to police about a crime that did not occur in order to 'frame' his son for a crime his son did not commit and had no part in," prosecutors claim in court documents.
Donovan adamantly denies any role in his shooting and insists he was attacked by two strangers who approached him as he got into his car in the parking lot of his business, Cambridge Executive Enterprises, on the night of Dec. 16, 2005.
During the 911 call Donovan made from his cell phone after the shooting, he told a state police dispatcher that his son James, now 40, "laundered $180 million" and had threatened to kill him.
Prosecutors say Donovan made up the story to exact revenge, but his lawyer Barry Klickstein calls Donovan "the innocent victim of a violent crime."
"Professor Donovan does not know who shot him. He certainly didn't shoot himself, and he didn't have himself shot," Klickstein said.
Prosecutors say their evidence includes a surveillance tape showing Donovan, before the shooting, reaching up and moving a security camera that had been trained on the parking lot. The tape allegedly shows Donovan moving the camera so that it captured the ceiling and wall, but not the parking lot where he later said the shooting took place.
In the pocket of a sports jacket worn by Donovan the night of the shooting, investigators said they found a cryptic "to-do list" written by Donovan on the menu of the Algonquin Club, an elite business club in Boston. The notations included words such as "gloves," "tool," "rifle," and "shells," according to court documents.
Prosecutors cite contradictions between Donovan's story to police and the injuries he received.
Donovan told police he had been shot twice in a large belt buckle he was wearing. But the emergency room doctor who treated him said he did not see the type of injuries he would expect if the belt were on when the shots were fired.
Donovan received a gunshot wound to his left abdomen. In hospital medical records, it was noted that Donovan "survived relatively unscathed," according to court documents filed by prosecutors.
Klickstein would not discuss the surveillance tape or any other evidence before the trial, but said, "The physical evidence that the district attorney relies on will not support the charges."
In addition to his various businesses and teaching job at MIT, Donovan was a clinical professor of pediatrics at Tufts University for 10 years, where he did research using computer and statistical analysis to track birth defects.
Throughout his long, multi-faceted career, Donovan has made a lot of enemies. In 2005, he was involved in more than a dozen lawsuits with former business associates and relatives, including a bitter fight with his five children over trust assets.
Donovan's children were beneficiaries of just one trust that is worth far less than the amount claimed by their father, according to a spokeswoman for four of the five children. The two sides have a mediated settlement, but the case ended up back in court after a judge found that the elder Donovan did not comply with the terms of the agreement, according to court documents.
In 2002, one of Donovan's daughters told her siblings that Donovan had sexually abused her when she was a child. Donovan vehemently denies the allegation, and said through his attorneys that his children are using it to gain leverage in the dispute.
People who know Donovan say he is a complex man who inspires both fierce loyalty and animosity.
"He is a person who has more ideas per second than anybody else in the world, but not all the ideas are good necessarily," said Stuart Madnick, an MIT professor who started a computer training business with Donovan in the 1970s. Madnick later sued, saying Donovan failed to pay the $1.4 million he owed him for buying his share of the business. They ultimately settled the case.
"On one hand, he has fantastic charisma, and on the other hand, he does things that can infuriate people," Madnick said.