Catch Him If You Can

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

The couple did as they were told, and sent the first $10,000 to "Robert Owens, Esquire" on March 10. A month later, they sent a $5,000 check to Owens. (They provided New Times a copy of both checks.)

Owens got the second check a few days after prosecutors said they wouldn't be filing charges in the man's case.

"Bob lifted up the check right in front of me and kissed it," Robertson says. "Then he said, `This baby's in the bank!' He knew the case was done. I felt like I'd walked into the Twilight Zone."

Robert Shawn Owens, in all his glory.
Robert Shawn Owens, in all his glory.
Petra Cano sold her home on the cheap to raise money 
for Owens.
Jackie Mercandetti
Petra Cano sold her home on the cheap to raise money for Owens.

No dummies, the New Jersey couple wondered about the $15,000 when their son told them the good news. After several attempts, they say, they got through on the phone to Tom Thinnes.

"He never really answered our questions about why the checks had been made out to Owens," Carol says. "He didn't seem to know that we'd paid anything. My husband asked him if Owens was his partner. He said no, he's an investigator. It was all very weird."

John recalls the same conversation. "I told Thinnes that his guy [Owens] had been ready to take our money and boogie. I think I made my point, especially when I mentioned filing something against him with the [State Bar]. He said we'd be getting our money back."

Later that month, "Owens and Associates" sent a $12,500 check to the couple.

"We paid Bob Owens $2,500 for nothing," Carol says. "It would have been $15,000 for nothing if we hadn't made a stink. How could a big-shot lawyer have a guy like that around him?"

Thinnes says he recalls nothing about this case.

Later in 2000 came the case of Aaron Markley, a Tempe man charged with selling meth to an undercover cop in a Mesa trailer park.

"Owens came into my office and said he'd just been retained by [attorney] Larry Debus," Rich Robertson says. "I read the police report, did some skip-tracing on my computer, and hit the jackpot. It was very exciting."

In this case, the jackpot was a mistaken identity, or, more precisely, a misspelled name. The bad guy's name was Markey, not Markley.

Aaron Markley never had been in the Mesa trailer park. The police had made a very bad mistake.

"Owens was at the beach in San Diego with his wife, and I called him, all pumped up," Robertson continues. "`Great!' he tells me. Next thing I know, there's a story in the paper about how Bob Owens had figured out this situation in 10 minutes. I ask him, `What's up?' He says, `It all happened so fast, I just told the reporter it was me. Sorry.'"

What an Arizona Republic columnist wrote was this: "Bob Owens wants it known that he, not the news media, discovered that Markley was innocent."

The story went national on NBC's Today show, with Owens getting more props. Then, Robertson says, "I'm seeing Owens on Channel 12 walking into the trailer park with Aaron Markley, the big hero."

Robertson decided to get out of Edifice Lex, even though he was a few months short of qualifying for his own P.I. license. He packed up on a weekend that August, thinking, he says, "that Bob might sabotage my files if he knew I was leaving."

When Robertson returned to drop off his key, he says Owens asked him what was up. "I told him, `Too many lies, Bob, too many lies.' That was it."

Tom Thinnes says he finally realized last December that "Bob Owens is a liar and a thief and a very bad guy."

He says John Rizzo, the incarcerated tax-fraud defendant, alerted him in a letter that he was about to file a State Bar complaint against him.

Rizzo's handwritten complaint said, "Mr. Thinnes seems to deny any responsibility for Mr. Owens by saying he did not know that Owens' [investigator's] license had lapsed. At no time did Owens ever reveal anything other than he was an attorney for Thinnes' office. Whether Thinnes knew or did not know if Owens was properly licensed is immaterial."

Actually, Thinnes need not have worried about the outcome of the Bar complaint. None of the Owens-related complaints against Thinnes or Mike Vaughn has passed muster with the Bar's discipline section, nor has the Bar brought unauthorized-practice-of-law charges against Owens.

The failure of the Bar to act led one frustrated complainant to write in May 2003, "If the State Bar can't see that something is egregiously wrong here, then there is something seriously wrong with the State Bar's system of self-regulation."

Last December 8, Thinnes called Owens into his office at Edifice Lex. With his tape recorder running, secretly, Thinnes went on the attack.

"Contrary to what you say about your love for me," Thinnes says, "you absolutely have no love for people. You use people and love things. That's exactly what your uncle said. You are a pathological liar."

Owens says on the tape that he "never once walked up to a client" and claimed to be an attorney.

"You're a fucking liar," Thinnes counters. "Your whole life just revolves around money -- that's the whole thing you're interested in."

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