Catch Him If You Can

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

A lanky, good-looking young man with a disarming smile, Owens didn't have much trouble wooing the opposite sex. He also had a decent job for a guy in his early 20s with little education and no real skills.

In June 1985, the ambulance firm ordered Owens to see a psychiatrist after he allegedly stole two radios. He apparently attended one session, then stopped going and lost his job.

But Rural/Metro Sun City Fire Department hired him that fall, and he worked there as a paramedic until his arrest the following March.

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.

In December 1985, a Terence Owens called Tempe police to say that his driver's license had been suspended wrongfully. He claimed that his brother Robert Shawn Owens had stolen his identity.

Terence said his brother even had bought a car falsely using his name, and would use his identity every time a cop stopped him. He said he would testify against Robert if necessary, and a Tempe officer forwarded the case for prosecution. Court records don't indicate the disposition.

Bob Owens later would tell people in Phoenix (New Times spoke with five of them) that Terence had drowned in a Tucson bathtub after suffering an epileptic seizure. But an official at the Pima County coroner's office says no one named Terence Owens has died in that county.

In March 1986, sheriff's deputies arrested Owens at the fire station in Sun City.

A search of Owens' bunk at the station uncovered a duffel bag stuffed with credit cards belonging to various people, including elderly Sun City residents whose cards had vanished while paramedics responded to their homes.

Police would tie Owens into at least 15 cases with 161 pieces of stolen property. A search of Owens' apartment elicited Gucci watches, Waterford crystal, credit cards, TV sets and a license plate to a stolen Chevy Camaro -- which Owens was driving with other plates at the time.

During the search, police also found a credit card belonging to the roommate of a woman whom Owens had dated. Owens had charged about $860 at a store using the roommate's card.

He stayed in jail for 38 days before he was released on his own recognizance. That July, Owens told his attorney that he wanted to talk to county prosecutors about a deal. He had already pleaded guilty to two felonies, theft and fraudulent schemes, in return for prosecutors dropping the slew of other charges.

Now Owens wanted to ensure that he didn't do time in prison. Through his lawyer, he let it be known that he would tell prosecutors about serious crimes that allegedly had been committed by other paramedics and his employers -- drug smuggling and murder -- in return for guaranteed probation.

A so-called "free talk" was arranged, and Owens started singing.

He said his employers were trafficking drugs into the United States from Mexico using medical planes. His fellow paramedics were among the distributors. The supposed murder victim was a Mike Stangles who supposedly had owed Owens' boss money. Another man involved with the supposed drug operation was missing and presumed dead.

Like any good con, Owens' shtick probably had grains of truth. As it was the mid-1980s and mandatory drug testing wasn't yet commonplace, paramedics may have been snorting cocaine on the job.

Proving anything was another matter.

It turned out, for example, that no one named Stangles or anyone close to that name had died in Maricopa County on or about the date that Owens had mentioned.

The deal had been contingent on Owens introducing a major drug dealer to undercover officers, or providing other equivalent information.

That hadn't happened. But Owens still was eligible for probation. What really hurt him before sentencing was that he continued to commit audacious crimes even after his plea bargain.

Incredibly, under the circumstances, Owens had found work after his release as a financial representative with a Mesa firm. He was responsible for enrolling people for loans and collecting unpaid accounts, which gave new meaning to the old saw about the fox in the henhouse.

During his interview, Owens told a manager that he had recently spent a year in Austria as a ski instructor, and before that had been a flight paramedic for Air Evac.

Obviously a quick study, Owens soon submitted two loan applications totaling $5,000. But the manager discovered that he had dummied up the paperwork. More homework revealed that he had also forged a signature on another loan for $2,500 using the name of a dead person, and deposited that sum into his own bank account.

When confronted that September, Owens wrote out a confession for the company, claiming he had stolen the money "in order to pay for funeral expenses. My father-in-law passed away last week."

But there was no father-in-law, and no funeral, only a rip-off.

The company fired Owens.

A week or so later, someone noticed that hundreds of confidential "account cards" were missing. Soon, a delinquent customer who worked at a hospital phoned to say Owens had called her at work, and said he was coming by to pick up her payment in cash.

He never did collect.

With his December 1986 sentencing still a few months off, Owens soon found yet another job around money, with ITT Financial in Mesa.

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