In its advertising, Las Vegas boasts that "What happens here, stays here." But that's not true if you are a well-known San Diego biotech executive who went through a quickie marriage in mid-2005, a week before your previous marriage was dissolved and two months before the court decreed you could remarry. The scientist, Dr. Tina Nova, had the marriage annulled quickly, admitting to bigamy, but now the Las Vegas fellow she married in haste, Lawrence (Lance) Ackland, has filed a suit for $2.3 million, claiming the experience was psychologically damaging to him. Two months after the wedding, she filed a restraining order against him in San Diego, and it was quickly granted after a hearing.
"I made a one-day mistake. I married him and unmarried him in three seconds," says a distraught Nova, although records in North County Superior Court indicate the relationship lasted a little bit longer than that, albeit at long distance.
Nova, who has a PhD, is chief executive of Genoptix, a Carlsbad company providing medical services to hematologists and oncologists. She is on the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee of the state's stem cell research effort, is secretary of the board of trustees of the University of San Diego, and was named "outstanding business leader" of 2006 by California State University San Marcos. She lives in a posh home in Rancho Santa Fe. Her press reviews are uniformly of the rave variety.
According to lawsuits on file in both Las Vegas and San Diego County, and interviews, here's what happened: the two met at Vegas's MGM Grand June 25, 2005, at the 80th birthday party for actor Tony Curtis. After seeing each other a few times, they wed on July 29, 2005. It was a "quickie Nevada wedding ceremony," according to papers filed by Nova's attorney, Steven V. McCue. "The marriage was a spontaneous and immediate event which was not planned in advance by the parties and which occurred after the parties had in essence been partying." However, both Nova and Ackland claim that neither excessive imbibition nor a festive atmosphere actuated the sudden union, which took place at the Little White Wedding Chapel on the Las Vegas Strip. Such dignitaries as Frank Sinatra, Britney Spears, Patty Duke, and Mickey Rooney (twice) have pledged to love, honor, and obey forever in that chapel. The chapel's owner did not return a call seeking comment.
Prior to the wedding, Nova vowed she had been divorced for a year and a half, loved Ackland "intensely," "was a mature lady, not impulsive," and "wanted to marry immediately and not wait a month," according to Ackland's suit, which was filed September 7 of last year.
Not long after the wedding, Nova filed for annulment in North County. "Petitioner Tina Nova seeks annulment of the marriage on the basis that the dissolution of her prior marriage had not been finalized," says her filing. Nova separated from Ackland "several hours after the Nevada wedding and has never resided with him at any time since leaving Nevada. Upon her return to San Diego, [Nova] discovered the problem concerning final judgment of dissolution of her prior marriage, notified [Ackland] of the issue and promptly filed for a nullity."
She also filed for a restraining order, complaining he was bombarding her with e-mails and leaving phone messages with a "threatening tone," saying such things as "you need to be very careful" and "our divorce will be nasty and ugly." Ackland denies he made threats, says he was emotionally shattered and was just trying to reach the woman he had married.
Ackland is the fifth man Nova has exchanged marital vows with. In her defense, she argues that an annulled marriage is not official. In recent times, she married Michael P. Nova, chief executive of San Diego's Kiyon, in 1993. They were divorced in 2001. She then wed Harry J. Leonhardt, general counsel of Senomyx, a biotech, in 2002. The judgment of dissolution of that marriage was on August 5, 2005, and neither party could remarry until September 25, 2005.
She and Leonhardt were major investors in biotech and chronic money-loser Nanogen, and Nova was Nanogen's chief operating officer in 1999. A third major investor in that company also backed Michael Nova in a different venture.
It is puzzling what Nova saw in Ackland. He says he fully revealed his tales of woe. He had lost $6 million to $7 million in three Florida businesses when people close to him allegedly ran off with the assets. He had lost another bundle to the perpetrator of the Bank of Sark scheme, one of the best-known offshore financial capers of the 1970s. A self-professed Baptist seminary student who was never ordained, he manufactured "Saviour" watches that he sold and handed out liberally. He had spent six months in a halfway house for having an illegal cell phone. A book about him, "Minister to the Mob," was written in the early 1990s but never published, he avers. He tried to put together an online poker operation that never got off the ground. Before he met Nova, he planned to go into the ministry with a friend who turned out to have been a colleague of San Diego evangelist Morris Cerullo, who has been charged with tax evasion. After Ackland lost his fortune in Florida, he became suicidal and was under a psychiatrist's care. Before he met Nova, "I wasn't dating anybody, had been seeing a shrink, had been suicidal for a long time," he laments.
But after their ever-so-brief courtship, "She said I was a loving, caring man, and she didn't care that I had lost all my money," he claims.
He says he was trying to put his life back together when Nova entered the picture. Through Match.com he had electronically corresponded with a supposedly wealthy Canadian woman. They discussed several business propositions, such as relaunching the Saviour watches and importing Chinese stone-crushing equipment. These purported opportunities went by the boards when Nova called the Canadian woman, Ackland claims. Nova terminated my interview with her before I could ask her about the alleged incident.
Ackland has his Vegas supporters. Dr. Kathleen Smith, who is certified in emergency medicine, treated him in May of last year and said he was depressed, "adamant that he was financially and emotionally ruined and had no reason to live," she wrote in a report. After she threatened to put him on suicide watch, he agreed to take an antidepressant. In an interview, she says, "He wanted to be left alone to die. He felt totally worthless and devalued when he was dumped like trash. He had looked forward to a great future [with Nova] and -- puff -- it was gone. She undermined him financially."
Says Irene Dessewffy, who helps Tony Curtis and other celebrities sell their art, "She [Nova] told me how fast she fell in love, that God is looking out for her; she was talking like an 18-year-old schoolgirl. Then she put a restraining order on him. I was in shock. This is worse than a soap opera. It is nuts."
One thing is certain: there will be no reconciliation. Says Nova of Ackland: "He is a liar." "A scam artist." "I only saw the man for a week and concluded he was a con man. He is crazy." "He is a creep." Ackland and his Vegas friends "are just people who shake people down." She vows to fight.
Ackland returns the favors: "I caught her in lies," he says. "She is the ultimate con artist."
So he hired Joshua M. Landish, one of Vegas's best-known divorce lawyers, to prepare the suit, which charges Nova with malicious intent to inflict emotional distress, among other things.
"I would have been happy with a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but people said, 'Go for millions,' " says Ackland. Folks do everything big in Vegas.