On the morning of Oct. 3, 1988, Aissa Wayne believed that her unhappy third marriage was behind her. Divorced last July from orthopedic surgeon Thomas A. Gionis, Aissa—the daughter of actor John Wayne and his third wife, Pilar Pallete—still faced a court battle for custody of her daughter Anastasia, now 2, but she had forged a promising new life. After moving into an expensive house in Newport Beach, Calif., she had become close with Roger Luby, an even-tempered financier who bore little resemblance to the explosive Gionis.
Just before noon on a crystalline day in Newport Beach, Aissa, 33, and Luby, 53, were returning to his home after a workout. She had known for months that she was being trailed, but had laughed about it—assuming that the shadow was a gumshoe hired by Gionis in preparation for the upcoming custody trial. When two armed men in baseball caps emerged from the shadows of Luby’s garage, Roger thought they were kidding. “Is this a joke?” he asked incredulously. Shouting, “This is no mother———- joke,” one of the men smashed him on the forehead with a handgun, tied him up and pounded his face against the concrete. After slashing Roger on the buttocks and Achilles tendon, he turned to Aissa, who had been handcuffed by his partner. Slamming her face on the floor, he told her, “You’re f—-ing with the wrong people.” Dazed and bleeding, she shouted for help as the intruders sped away.
Reportedly, though he now denies it, Luby originally told police he suspected that the ambush was engineered by business contacts he had angered. But an investigation by Newport Beach police eventually pointed to Gionis. Arrested on April 4, the 35-year-old surgeon (who, ironically, had won custody of Anastasia in January) was charged with eight felony counts, including conspiracy. Prosecutors have accused him of paying a private detective to hire two thugs to assault Aissa. Held without bail for 17 days on the suspicion that he was about to flee the country with Anastasia and might pose a threat to Aissa, Gionis was released on $250,000 bond only after attorney F. Lee Bailey swept into town to shore up his five-man defense team.
Gionis’s arraignment is scheduled for May 26, and if the preliminary hearing is any indication, his trial will be a spectacle worthy of L.A. Law. Bailey, who has contended that enemies of Roger’s could be behind the attack, is expected to depict Aissa as a schemer who is trying to use the criminal case to win back her daughter. (Aissa was awarded temporary custody after Gionis’s arrest.) Deputy District Attorney Christopher Evans is set to counter with the charge that Gionis, the owner of five lucrative Southern California clinics, is a social-climbing Machiavelli who would stop at nothing to gain custody of his daughter. If found guilty, Gionis could be sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined $10,000.
On the face of it, the match between Aissa Wayne and Thomas Anastasios Gionis was an improbable one. The fifth of her father’s seven children, Aissa was a sheltered creature who played tennis, dabbled in real estate and shared custody of Jennifer, 7, and Nicholas, 5, the children of her failed second marriage, to tennis pro Lorne Kuhle. A plumber’s son from Wisconsin, Gionis had become the youngest M.D. in the country when he graduated from medical school at 21. By July 1985, when he met Aissa on a blind date, he had studied law in Houston and was a surgeon at a hospital near Sacramento.
Although the couple apparently had little in common, their first meeting, at an elegant restaurant in Laguna Beach, set off sparks. Remembers Aissa: “Tom was very charming and intelligent.” Her suitor began flying in from Sacramento several times a week. Says Gionis: “I loved her warmth and sensitivity. She was a kind person.” A month later, “I proposed at the statue of John Wayne at the John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana. It was a touching, close time.”
But the cooing ended about a year after their $80,000 Greek Orthodox wedding. Gionis claims that Aissa started “drinking to no end.” After Anastasia was born in February 1987, he maintains, “she showed complete separation from the child.” Accusing Aissa of being a problem drinker and a laissez-faire parent, he says he arranged for his mother and servants to watch over the baby. In May 1987, he says, he insisted that Aissa enter the Betty Ford Center, but she refused. “She took Anastasia, the John Wayne statues, the gowns I bought her, John Wayne’s guns, and left,” he says.
Aissa tells a different story. She vehemently denies having a drinking problem, and she has offered to take a lie detector test to prove it. The mere accusation outrages her. (Friends back her up, saying that Aissa is a social drinker and nothing more. They feel that Gionis, a teetotaler, may have mistaken social drinking for incipient alcoholism.) After their marriage, Aissa says, Gionis became possessive and persuaded her to plow thousands of dollars into his clinics. “He became short-tempered,” she says. “If he was crossed, he’d go berserk.” When Anastasia was born, claims Aissa, “I had no say over the care of my own baby. Once he threw a mirror across the room while holding her. His standard [threat] was, ‘If anything happens, you’ll never see the baby again.’ ”
Wayne says their separation was initially amicable and that it was the custody issue that brought out the venom. Although she was willing to share Anastasia, she says Gionis was not, and he assembled a cadre of big-ticket lawyers to make his case. By the time a judge pronounced Aissa “emotionally immature” and awarded custody to Gionis, he had spent an estimated $800,000 on the battle. As Aissa tells it, that approach was characteristic: “He gave our daughter a $17,000 fur coat and an Arabian horse. It’s certainly not my style, I can tell you.”
Despite all she had seen, she says, she was shocked when it became apparent this spring that Gionis would be charged with arranging the attack against her and Luby. “If he did it,” says Aissa, “he’s ruined everything he ever lived for. How could an intelligent man do this?”
That, of course, is a question that will come up in court. But Aissa is less concerned about the verdict there than about the scandal’s effect on Anastasia. In the end, she says, she hopes that she and Gionis can “have some counseling together and try to get on with our lives.”
Her mother, Pilar, however, is less generous. The Duke, she believes, would have been “outraged” by the attack on his daughter. “It was so cowardly,” she says. “And he hated cowards.”
—Michelle Green, Eleanor Hoover and Jacqueline Savaiano in Los Angeles