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Sunday, June 26, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Wayne's Daughter Used True Grit To Finish Law School -- Involvement In Criminal Case Spurred Her To Pursue The Career Path That Her Father Had Planned To Take

Orange County Register

John Wayne dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but he became an actor instead.

His daughter Aissa dreamed of becoming an actress, but became a lawyer instead.

On May 29, after nearly four years of 2 a.m. study sessions and six years of her own real-life courtroom drama, she realized her father's vision for himself: Wayne received her law degree.

"My dad didn't want me to go into acting," she said. "He told me it was too competitive, that the people were strange, that it's not a good life - that you just get turned away all the time, and your ego gets deflated. I've discovered that as a trial attorney, you have to act. So I guess I get to be a latent actress after all." Wayne, 37, and a single mother, graduated from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, Calif.

"My dad would be so proud of me," says Wayne, interviewed before graduation. She disappeared out the door of her Newport Beach, Calif., ranch home in a flash of blonde.

"Afuera! Afuera!" She chased her wrinkly Shar-Pei dogs, Sake and Chelsea, outdoors. "They understand Spanish, because the gal who works for me talks to them in Spanish," she explained.

She settled stiffly in a straight-back chair, facing a tall bronze of the Duke and sipping a glass of Chardonnay to celebrate finishing her final exams.

Her success is sweetened by its unexpectedness. Nobody quite expected a law degree from this daughter of an American icon, this Newport Beach rich kid, whose glamour-girl destiny was chiseled out at 4, when she made her first public appearance, draped in $850,000 worth of Cartier diamonds on the cover of Cosmo. It seemed she would marry well. Live off Daddy's fame.

Father's words inspired her

She married well but unhappily. And when the royalties got divided by seven children, it became clear to her that she must work. Entering her 30s, the divorced mother of three needed to find a way of her own. And it was during her search for her own way in life that the words of her father kept coming back to her: "You must have something to fall back on. And you must always finish what you start."

Aissa Wayne often had toyed with the idea of going into law, of finishing what her dad had started. But what happened to her one morning in her boyfriend's Newport Beach garage sealed her conviction.

Wayne and financier Roger Luby were getting out of his car Oct. 3, 1988, when two gunmen approached and tied them up. One man slashed Luby's Achilles tendon; another pinned Wayne to the floor with a gun behind her head, according to Luby. He said one of the gunmen told Wayne, "If you move or yell, you're dead, a dead lady." He then smashed her face into the concrete floor. Wayne required 30 stitches; Luby to this day experiences numbness in his leg.

Ex-husband charged

Wayne's ex-husband, prominent surgeon Thomas Gionis, in 1992 was convicted on charges of plotting the assault and was given a five-year sentence. Then in February, an appeals court overturned the conviction, because the judge maintained that the deputy district attorney unfairly attacked the defense attorney's character. Among the critical points, Wayne said, was the prosecutor's use of a Shakespeare quote.

"I can't ruin my life fretting about this," Wayne said. "But when the judge overturned the case, it did make me nervous about crime in Orange County. Twelve jurors found him guilty on the basis of evidence. Twelve. And it was overturned because the attorney quoted Shakespeare? God forbid if somebody gets attacked in their home in Orange County."

Wayne got good news in May: The state Supreme Court, in a rare decision, agreed to review reinstating Gionis' conviction.

Gionis' attorney, William Kopeny, said he has advised Gionis not to comment. Kopeny said he welcomes the chance for Supreme Court review and is hopeful that his side will win and that the decision will establish a legal precedent about misconduct in the courtroom.

The criminal case dragged out throughout Wayne's college years, with the biggest legal guns in the land taking their shots at her on the witness stand. The flamboyant F. Lee Bailey grilled her. Attorney Bruce Cutler, who had represented mobster John Gotti, spared few allusions.

"She stood tall through rigorous cross-examination," said her attorney, Jeoff Robinson, the deputy district attorney in the case who now has a private practice. "Mr. Cutler told the jurors that she was a lazy slob, a self-indulgent person. He criticized the Newport Beach lifestyle. He mocked her, scoffing at the idea that she ever would have worked. He made fun of her going to law school."

Book didn't help

It didn't help that Wayne amid it all came out with a book, "John Wayne: My Father."

In the book, she detailed her experiments with marijuana, cracking up her Christmas present from her father, a Porsche, at 16, and sampling the Newport party life - not exactly the picture of a spotless witness. Cutler tried unsuccessfully to introduce the juicier portions of the book into the testimony.

"If being under siege and baptism under fire has any meaning (toward her career in law), then Aissa Wayne is the personification of that," Robinson said. "If anybody can appreciate what it takes to survive in a courtroom, I would think she can."

Reluctantly, she had to drop out of law school for a semester because the pressures of the trial had become too demanding. But the courtroom drama gave her the impetus to continue in her study of law. In a strange way, the legal case also balanced her life.

"When you go through all these criminal trials and you're on call all the time, sometimes it's all you can think about," she said. "Law school helped me focus on something else."

Wayne's lowest moment was not, however, dropping out of school. It came when she lost custody of her daughter, Anastasia, to Gionis shortly after the grisly attack in her boyfriend's garage.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Owen based his decision on mental-health reports that "the mother, although loving, lacks familiarity with the child, is emotionally immature and lacks direction herself."

Wayne said she was shocked.

"But I was naive," she said. "When you grow up with John Wayne, everybody's nice to you. There are no bad people in the world. I had no practice in real life, without Daddy being there. Suddenly I had to stand up for myself and my kids. I learned something about myself. I'll never give up. I'll never, ever give up."

To make matters more difficult at the time, she was suffering the psychological trauma of the attack.

"In the courtroom, it came out that I guess he (Gionis) wanted to intimidate me into not fighting for custody of my child," she said. Her eyes flashed. "I guess he'd never dealt with an Irish Peruvian before. I was not intimidated. There was nothing that could rattle me on that witness stand. I knew all I had to do was tell the truth."

She doesn't call him her ex, or the father of her child, not Tom, not even Thomas. She calls him Tom Gionis. And she is unwilling to say much about him; they have to get along, she said. They're parents.

Wrong focus

She was not surprised, but she was angry that the trial focused on her father's reputation, when she believes it should have focused on the evidence of the attack.

"During Tom Gionis' criminal trial, Bruce Cutler kept saying, `This is John Wayne country, and this is the case of John Wayne's daughter, and the DAs and the cops know this is John Wayne country,' " she said. "But I was just one witness. One witness. I was angry. They can call me emotionally immature, but don't attack my dad."

Running on sheer fury, she regained her custody rights, and she believes the experience will help her understand her clients who are battling such cases. If she passes the bar, she is considering a career in - no surprises here - family law. Divorces, child-custody issues and the like.

"I hate to think of myself getting into family law, because it's so emotional," she said. "There's a question in my mind as to whether I could do it for that reason. But I really understand how people get steamrolled in the legal system - because their attorneys don't give them all their options, or because they don't have enough money, or because of technicalities in the law. I've been through it myself."

A law professor, Associate Dean Richard Jenkins, said she will be a better lawyer for her experience.

"Litigation is extremely difficult on a client," he said. "When you have a lawyer who's been through what she has, she will totally understand what her clients go through."

Sympathizes with mothers

She's clerking for a Fullerton attorney, helping him with his work for the poor, and she said her greatest satisfaction has come from helping women without money. She talks of a client who had to move from house to house to hide from an abusive husband, who she was afraid would take their child.

"We couldn't find him to serve him his papers, but finally, I was able to locate him and get restraining orders," Wayne said. "She put her arms around me and had tears in her eyes. It's really satisfying to be able to help these ladies."

Wayne in particular sympathizes with a client when her abilities as a mother are questioned in court - which happened to her. She said she spends most of her free time with her kids. She didn't have the usual financial pressures that working students share; she was able to live off her dad's royalties and augmented that with an academic scholarship. But doing law school and kids required discipline.

"I catnapped my way through the last three years," Wayne said. "It's a lot of work, but I just knew I had to keep going. One semester went by, and I went, `Wow, I did it.' And then another semester."

Wayne typically got up in the middle of the night to study, when her children - Anastasia, 7, Nick, 10, and Jennifer, 12 - were asleep. Sometime around sunrise, she would squeeze in exercise.

Wayne sometimes studied by reading cases to her children, like bedtime stories.

"There's no husband or father in the house, so I talk to them about everything," she says. "There's not only a mother relationship; there's a friendship relationship."

She cut back on her social life, shy of dating for a time and simply unable to devote the time.

"Since the attack, I've become more protective over my kids and who comes around them," she said. "You have to be pretty special to get close, if you're a man." For the past four months, though, she's been dating a man whom she will only identify as a "nice developer."

Wayne's next step: a 10-week law-review course.

"It's summertime," she groaned. "I'm out of school. I'd rather be on the golf course. I just keep telling myself: `This is your last lap."'

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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