SALEM — The former MIT professor from Hamilton accused of trying to swindle his son’s widow and children out of nearly $5 million pleaded not guilty to the charges on Friday in Salem Superior Court. 

John Donovan Sr., 75, was clutching a set of rosary beads as he entered his plea before Judge Timothy Feeley. 

Donovan was indicted last month by an Essex County grand jury on 13 counts, including larceny, forgery and witness intimidation. 

Prosecutor Jack Dawley did not seek cash bail for Donovan, instead agreeing that he could remain free on personal recognizance, on condition that he surrender his passport to a probation officer and agree not to apply for a new one while the case is pending. 

A pretrial conference is scheduled for March 7.

The indictments came following an investigation that was touched off when title examiners, preparing for the sale of 340 acres of land in Hamilton and Essex to the Trust for Public Lands, discovered a flurry of unusual filings at the Salem Registry of Deeds. 

The two dozen filings included quitclaim deeds, mortgage transfers and even a will codicil, all of which, investigators say, would have resulted in funds from the nearly $5 million transaction — and his late son’s home in Manchester and other property — being turned over to Donovan Sr. The filings also would have absolved him of responsibility for debts he owed to his son’s estate. 

Some of the documents bore dates from years earlier. Prosecutors allege that the elder Donovan also duped notaries into notarizing the forged paperwork.

John Donovan Jr. died of a rare type of cancer at the age of 43. 

An arbitrator overseeing a decade-long civil lawsuit between Donovan Sr. and four of his five children concluded last year that the documents were part of what he called a “childish” scheme on the part of their father. The scheme also involved an attempt by the elder Donovan to bolster the credibility of the forged documents by doctoring secretly recorded audio and video of his dying son to make it appear that he was expressing his wishes to his father. 

Donovan Jr., who had owned the Manchester Athletic Club, was the only one of the five children who, before he died, was still on speaking terms with their father, according to the arbitrator’s findings.

The sale of the land, briefly delayed, was completed in the fall of 2016. It is now part of Essex County Greenbelt’s Sagamore Hill conservation area. 

Following a judge’s formal acceptance of the arbitrator’s findings, first reported by The Salem News in 2016, Register of Deeds John O’Brien asked the district attorney’s office to investigate. 

The elder Donovan’s attorney, John Andrews, declined to comment after the brief hearing Friday.

It’s the second time Donovan Sr., a retired MIT professor who made a fortune partnering with various businesses, has faced criminal charges. 

He was convicted of filing a false police report after staging his own shooting in 2005 and then trying to frame his other son, James “Jim” Donovan, on the eve of a court proceeding involving the two. 

Donovan Sr. served two years of probation in that case. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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