Catch Him If You Can

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

That argument doesn't sway Craig Mehrens. "If Tom is going to take the position that he didn't know much about Bob's background and activities, that's very unfortunate because it's not true," Mehrens says. "I handed him the presentence report on Bob, which spelled it all out. Tom and Bob made lots of money together. The operative word here is greed."

Thinnes says he called county prosecutors early this year to report possible criminal wrongdoing by Owens. Citing a conflict, that agency sent the case to Attorney General Terry Goddard's office, whose investigators last May executed still-sealed search warrants on Owens' office at Edifice Lex, on his $400,000 home inside a gated community in central Phoenix, and at a storage facility.

After the search at Lex, someone draped yellow crime-scene tape across the door to Owens' office. It remained there, Thinnes says, until Owens ripped it down.

Carol Rizzo had her own fateful encounter with Owens.
Jackie Mercandetti
Carol Rizzo had her own fateful encounter with Owens.
"Edifice Lex," the downtown Phoenix building owned by 
Thinnes and Owens.
"Edifice Lex," the downtown Phoenix building owned by Thinnes and Owens.

Owens' attorney, Steve Dichter, tells New Times, "We acknowledge that you have tried to reach Bob. But in light of what's going on, now isn't the time for us to make any comments."

Petra Cano has worked for almost two decades as a cashier at a west Phoenix supermarket.

"All I have ever known is work," says the single mother of two grown children. "I worked in the fields, and I've been working for Eddie Basha for 20 years. I'm a good person, but I am very naive."

One of 24 children born to migrant workers, she proudly bought her first home in 1981, a little place on West Romley Street. There, she raised her children, a boy and a girl.

On December 30, 2000, her son, Luis Pecina, was arrested on murder charges and locked up at the Madison Street Jail. Pecina heard through the jail grapevine that a lawyer named Thinnes was the best around. Luis called his mother, and asked her to set up an appointment with Tom Thinnes.

Cano soon went to Edifice Lex, but met instead with Bob Owens, who said he was Thinnes' "associate." That sounded to Cano like he was a fellow attorney. Owens said he would need $25,000 up front -- $15,000, then $10,000 -- to be followed shortly by another $75,000. He said he would appreciate the first payments in cash.

Cano didn't have that kind of money. Her biggest asset was her home, but a real estate agent told her it would take a few months to sell. The agent (this is grist for another story) said she'd give her $12,500 for the house. Cano agreed to the ridiculous deal, collected the money in a cashier's check and signed over her property. (County records show her quit-claim deed to the agent, who apparently also assumed the remaining mortgage of about $45,000, and that the agent sold the house three months later for $83,000.)

Cano says she and two male friends soon took $13,000 to Owens -- $10,000 from her house and $3,000 from a friend of her son's. She says Owens didn't provide a receipt.

Owens soon visited Luis Pecina at the jail. Later, he excitedly told his mother in a phone call that Owens thought he could beat the first-degree-murder rap, and that he might have to serve just a few years in prison. Cano says he also told her that Owens was going to watch his back for him at the jail, whatever that meant. She says Pecina told her to somehow find the other $75,000 for Owens.

Cano held a yard sale, sold most of her jewelry, and persuaded a friend to put up his business as collateral. But she never could come up with the remaining $75,000. Soon, she learned that Owens wasn't even a lawyer, and says she asked him for a receipt and accounting for the $13,000.

"He said I didn't need one because I already had two witnesses to the money going to him," she says. "I asked him for at least some of our money back. He said it had gone for `paperwork,' and there was nothing left. I knew I had gotten taken. I am his mother, and I was desperate. I thought about complaining to someone, but who would they believe, me and my fifth-grade education, or this guy with his fancy mouth and all that education?"

Tom Thinnes says he knew nothing about Petra Cano until a few months ago. Cano confirms she never spoke to Thinnes until recently. Luis Pecina still awaits trial, and is being represented by court-appointed counsel.

"I've lost about everything," Cano says. "I pray to God that someone does something about this man."

Bob Owens' lies outnumber anything else that comes out of his mouth, so compiling an accurate mini-biography isn't easy.

Though he's listed various birth dates, Owens seems to have been born in Tucson on March 1, 1963. His father, Sherwood, was a prominent dentist, and his mother, Mary-Ann, raised five children.

Owens later claimed in writing that he had graduated from Pima Community College and the University of Arizona. That was a lie. He never attended the university, and an official at Pima says he paid for a few classes there in the early 1980s but never graduated.

Owens moved to the Valley in early 1982, and found work as a paramedic with Air Medical Transport and Southwest Ambulance.

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