Catch Him If You Can

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

Thinnes is desperately trying to distance himself from his former confidant: "He was my gofer and a chauffeur. This guy had a private life he was leading. I go home at night. He'd go to titty bars and these other places, and shake down people."

But everyone who saw them interact, who saw how Thinnes would invite Owens to sit with him in court at the lawyers' table, who knew Thinnes was godfather to Owens' young son, was aware of their exceptionally close relationship.

Court transcripts reveal that Owens spoke in court for Thinnes at least three times, speaking to the judge as if he was an attorney. For example, in January 2002, Owens told Superior Court Judge Barbara Jarrett, "Robert Owens standing in for Mr. Thinnes who is downstairs in another courtroom. I explained to our client, Your Honor, what's taking place and that we're just going to get a new date, and she'll waive time."

The Arizona Republic ran this story on Bob 
Owens in December 1986.
The Arizona Republic ran this story on Bob Owens in December 1986.
Parolee Chris Frank has zero respect for Owens.
Jackie Mercandetti
Parolee Chris Frank has zero respect for Owens.

Phoenix attorney Joe Chornenky says Thinnes told him earlier this year that he was finished with Owens. "I responded that that man had brought him more money than he ever took from him," Chornenky says. "Tom just walked away. He's full of it if he says he knew nothing."

Many sources interviewed for this story say Owens long has been a masterful jailhouse rainmaker, able to persuade inmates with financial resources to fire their attorneys in favor of those with whom he has allied.

He gained access to these prisoners by displaying a doctored security pass that said he was an attorney. Security officers at the county courthouse say they confiscated that pass a few years ago after a judge and an attorney alerted them to the deception.

"Owens has trolled at the jail for years looking for clients," says Phoenix criminal defense attorney Larry Hammond. "Everyone knows that. He has been well-known for convincing people that he's an attorney, and no one ever seemed to stop him."

Thinnes vehemently denies that Owens stole any clients for him. But earlier this year, he had this to say about Owens on his Web site:

"Robert Owens is a private investigator who has specialized in criminal defense investigations for the past several years. Mr. Owens is the only investigator acknowledged in the Arizona State Bar directory."

But Owens hasn't been licensed as a private investigator since October 2000. He let his license lapse after a quirky, highly publicized case involving a mentally ill man suspected of stalking the family of ex-television news reader Deborah Pyburn-Brewer, on whom he had long been fixated.

In that case, Owens said he had lifted photographic negatives from the man's car that allegedly showed Pyburn-Brewer's children in a pool. Owens denied breaking into the man's home.

The case against the mentally ill man went nowhere, in part because investigators caught Owens in lies about his own background.

Thinnes says he didn't know Owens lacked a license until the summer of 2003. By then, he and Owens long had been joined at the hip, inseparable at the courthouse and their downtown Phoenix office.

Owens has owned half of Edifice Lex with Thinnes since 1999. That year, Thinnes and his longtime legal partner, Craig Mehrens, split, largely because of Owens' presence.

"I started to hear things about Owens, so I had an investigator check him out," Mehrens says. "She gave me a copy of his [1986] presentence report, and other things. I gave it to Tom and told him, `You and I are not going to fight over this. This guy has been and will be a crook, and I don't want him around this office. One of us has to go.' He came back and said, `Bob's fine with me.'"

Responds Thinnes, "I looked at the presentence report, but I didn't bother to read it because it was so goddamned extensive. If I had, I wouldn't be in this position today."

Thinnes says he first learned the extent of Owens' truly checkered past last December.

All he knew before that, he insists, is that Owens had served some time in prison as a young man on a cocaine conviction.

But Owens always has been willing to dance with whoever will step out on the floor with him.

And that dance is always dirty.

"The story of Bob Owens is a lovely story of a reformed con man, but really with nothing reformed about him," says criminal defense attorney Laurie Herman, who had a memorable professional experience with Owens in the mid-1990s. "I've lost all respect for those big-shot attorneys who used him. They had to know there's slime on his trail. If you get in bed with the devil, you just might get burned."

Like the archetypal Satan preying on people during life's immoral junctures -- be they about a crime committed, debt incurred, or, in the case of many attorneys who repeatedly used him, outright greed -- Owens knew exactly when to spring and sink in his teeth.

"If you're asleep when the devil gets into bed with you," responds Thinnes, "and you kick him out when you finally wake up, does that make you guilty?"

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