Catch Him If You Can

When a career courthouse scam artist joins forces with a top Arizona criminal defense attorney, it ain't pretty

On March 24, 1993, Robert Shawn Owens stood before Judge Ronald Reinstein in a downtown Phoenix courtroom.

Owens recently had turned 30 at the Arizona State Prison, his residence for the previous six and a half years. In December 1986, another judge had sentenced him to 20 years on theft and embezzlement charges.

Owens had gotten the maximum because of the shameless nature of his crimes: He had stolen and used credit cards of the elderly, colleagues and others while working as a paramedic. Awaiting sentencing, he had stolen the identities of dead people and others while working, remarkably, as a loan officer in Mesa.

Owens' own uncle had recommended a long prison term, calling his nephew "a classic sociopath."

Yet here he was in Reinstein's court in 1993, about to be freed years before his term was up. And it was happening because several people in law enforcement -- prosecutors, police and prison officials -- were urging his early release.

"It is my feeling that Bob has become a very trustworthy person," corrections officer T.A. Daniels wrote the judge. "For his safety, I do hope he will receive a second chance."

Jim Keppel, then chief criminal deputy at the County Attorney's Office (he is now a judge), took over the Owens case himself -- a strong statement about its importance to law enforcement.

Reinstein says it was an easy call to cut Owens loose.

"This guy had the complete support of law enforcement, obviously for the things he'd been doing for them," he says. "He had a good prison record, and there was no one telling me, `Don't do it!'"

Owens promised he wouldn't get into any more trouble. "I don't want to ever go back to prison again," he told the judge.

Reinstein responded, "Mr. Owens, you know, if you come back before me, I think you know what the sentence will be. You're getting a hell of a break here." Since 1993, Bob Owens has been Maricopa County's Teflon man -- able to extricate himself from myriad legal jams by promising to provide amazing information about bigger, nastier criminals.

On the surface, he's a bit like Frank Abagnale Jr., the glib, charming con man played by Leo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can.

The resemblance ends quickly.

Where the Abagnale character was a nice kid forced by life's circumstances into a life of crime through impersonation, Owens plays himself, an amoral man who would steal from his own family if it suited him. (His uncle said in Owens' 1986 presentencing report that family members suspected he had stolen cash and credit cards from the sister of his father's new bride at their wedding.)

The trappings of rehabilitation seemed there at first after Owens' release from prison.

He got married within months, to Terri Daniels, the corrections officer who had written the glowing letter on his behalf. And he found work with a retired cop who had opened a private investigation firm.

Owens was supposed to be on probation for five years after his release. But without objection from prosecutors or probation officers, Judge Reinstein cut short Owens' probationary period after one year, restored his civil rights and expunged his felony convictions.

That ended the system's hold on the smooth-talking ex-convict.

By then, Owens already was embedding himself in the heart of the criminal-justice community. He schmoozed with defense attorneys as he stayed in touch with police sources, tantalizing all with tips and tidbits.

When Owens applied for and won a private investigator's license with the state of Arizona in October 1994, he included an FBI agent and an investigator from the Attorney General's Office as references.

But Bob Owens -- whose attorney said would have no comment for this story -- didn't go straight.

A New Times investigation reveals that Owens hasn't stopped running scams since he got out of prison. Among his marks have been judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, cops and news reporters, all of whom he has convinced that he is a cool, ultra-connected guy -- a real player.

More important, the evidence is compelling that Owens has stolen tens of thousands of dollars from criminal defendants and their families.

Where Owens once discovered that judges frown on paramedics stealing from their elderly patients, his latest prey have been the accused criminals -- represented by high-priced attorneys he worked for -- and their families.

Until recently, one of Owens' scams was to tell clients and their loved ones that he was an associate "attorney" of high-powered Phoenix barristers Tom Thinnes and the late Mike Vaughn. He would ask clients to make payments directly to him, then he would take a big chunk of that money -- $30,000 here, $10,000 there -- and deposit it into his own bank account. Then he would turn over the rest of the dough to the real attorney.

"He told me that he made $1.8 million last year," says Thinnes. "Could be bullshit, but who knows?"

He especially attached himself to Thinnes, who is listed in the publication Best Lawyers in America, and once was portrayed by name in a made-for-TV movie about an early 1980s Phoenix murder case. The pair still are partners in a building on North Second Street in downtown Phoenix, which Thinnes long ago dubbed "Edifice Lex."

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