A former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was once convicted of staging a shooting, was indicted Thursday by an Essex County grand jury on charges he tried to cheat his grandchildren and widowed daughter-in-law out of property.
John J. Donovan, 75, of Hamilton, is facing seven counts of forgery and single counts of attempted larceny, obtaining a signature by false pretenses, and witness intimidation, among other charges, according to a statement from the Essex district attorney’s office.
The indictment is the latest chapter in the Donovan family’s battle over real estate on the North Shore.
Donovan allegedly faked the signature of his late son, John J. Donovan III, to the codicil of his will. The elder Donovan’s actions allegedly allowed him to gain the titles of properties in Hamilton, Manchester, Beverly, and Essex, according to the DA’s office.
Authorities also allege the elder Donovan forged the signature of two notary publics and filed with the Registry of Deeds a forged special power of attorney and other forged documents, including a discharge and release of civil judgment and a discharge of mortgage.
Reached by phone late Thursday afternoon, Donovan said he was shocked to hear of his indictment.
“I know nothing about this,” said Donovan, once a businessman who last taught at MIT in 1997.
He denied forging his son’s signature and fabricating other legal documents. He said John III in 2002 gave him “power of attorney,” which granted him broad powers to act on his son’s behalf.
“Why do I have to forge something if I have power of attorney?” he asked. “It’s inconsistent.”
Southern Essex Register of Deeds John O’Brien alerted the Essex DA’s office in March after becoming concerned about documents Donovan filed with his registry, according to authorities.
Donovan will be arraigned in Salem Superior Court on a date that has yet to be determined, according to the DA’s office.
Donovan on Thursday said he only owns one property, in Essex, and that any suggestion he owns other properties is not true.
“I’m amazed something like this ever rose to an indictment,” he said. “No properties were ever given to me. Something else was behind this . . . because it makes no sense.”
John Donovan III, who owned Manchester Athletic Club and was a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School, died in April 2015 after a battle with adrenal cancer. He left a wife and two children.
He was the youngest of five siblings.
In a statement released Thursday night, the Donovan siblings said their father “has a long history of making false statements and lying.”
“As the indictment clearly indicates he tried to steal from his youngest son’s widow and children, his own grandchildren,” read the statement. “Donovan Sr. was convicted of filing a false police report in 2007 when he lied to Cambridge police. Then a court-appointed arbitrator found that he has repeatedly lied under oath. Now he is lying again. We are heartbroken that our brother’s widow and children must endure more of his outrageous claims.”
Donovan said he is currently estranged from his four remaining children.
The filial estrangement has included nasty litigation. An arbitrator earlier this year determined that Donovan tried to defraud his deceased son’s widow and children “of millions of dollars,” all the while claiming that he was trying to carry out his son’s wishes.
Donovan, wrote arbitrator John S. Martin Jr., 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 ever wanted.”
Donovan has faced legal troubles before. In 2005, Donovan accused his son, James Donovan, of hiring Russian hit men to shoot him as he sat in the parking lot of his Cambridge office.
Authorities found that the elder Donovan staged an elaborate hoax that included shooting himself in the stomach in an attempt to implicate James in a murder plot. He was eventually convicted of filing a false police report.
James Donovan, the son he falsely accused, was President Trump’s nominee to the number two job at the Treasury Department earlier this year. However, he backed out of consideration in May, citing personal reasons. A message left with James Donovan was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.John R. Ellement and Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.