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 woman who interviewed him for the position later told Judge Ted Noyes that Owens "seemed to be a very clean-cut, very knowledgeable young man who was seeking a financial career. He seemed to have a relatively active life."

Owens hired on at ITT as a loan officer.

Then, about a month into his tenure, he phoned in to say he wouldn't be coming into work that day. He said his sister had been in a car crash and wasn't expected to live, and that he was standing vigil.

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.

Actually, Owens was calling from jail. That day, Judge Noyes had ordered him into custody until sentencing.

While Owens was away, an office manager looked at a loan application processed by Owens for which a $2,000 check had been cut. Most of the required information -- credit reports, a driver's license and the like -- was missing.

That's because the applicant didn't exist.

The manager then ordered a copy of the check that ITT had made out to its customer. Bob Owens' signature was on it.

But prosecutors declined to file new charges, and Owens' sentencing went as scheduled that December 19.

Owens told the judge that day, "Only I know what's going to happen in the future. I'm not asking to get out of anything."

But probation officer Billie Grobe painted a far different picture of the defendant.

"By all appearances," she wrote, "the defendant is the picture of a young and upwardly mobile junior executive, both respectful and successful. Digging deeper, it does not take long to see it is merely a carefully constructed faade of success and respectability -- there is no substance there."

She concluded, "Mr. Owens has demonstrated an ability to manipulate situations and individuals for his benefit and personal gain, with no thought for those he has victimized. He further demonstrated a lack of conscience in perpetrating crimes against the elderly, the sick and, in the case of the fraudulent loans, the deceased."

The judge agreed, telling Owens, "You can't be trusted, and will steal from everybody that you come in contact with, and will lie to anybody that you do come into contact with."

He then sentenced Owens to consecutive 10-year terms at the Department of Corrections.

Owens muttered "Oh Jesus!" twice before sheriff's deputies led him off in handcuffs.

In early June, Tom Thinnes spoke to those gathered at a Phoenix church for Mike Vaughn's memorial service. He recalled how pleased his officemate had been at a verdict in a sticky murder case in Mohave County last fall.

New Times had spoken with the 56-year-old attorney a few days before he died of a heart attack at a Southern California dog show on May 27, informing him that this story was being reported.

"Where do I fit into it?" he asked, before rushing off to a court hearing.

As it turns out, Vaughn would fit in at several junctures, including the Mohave County case of Steven Eugene Bowers. According to case prosecutor Lee Jantzen, the Lake Havasu paint contractor was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter after he struck a young pregnant woman with his pickup truck after she fled from his sister-in-law's apartment. The girl apparently had broken into the home. Bowers was incarcerated for a few weeks as his wife and family sought an attorney. Someone recommended Mike Vaughn. Bowers' wife called down to Phoenix, but was put in touch with Bob Owens, not Vaughn.

"Bob gave [us] a flat number that we were to pay," Bowers says. "It was $50,000 immediately and $25,000 after 30 more days, before anything really got started. We twisted and turned and borrowed to get that money."

Bowers says Owens called himself "an associate of Mike's [who] took care of the legwork, and Mike did the court stuff. We thought that Owens actually was a partner in the Thinnes firm who did some work with Mr. Vaughn."

Owens asked the Bowerses to make out the huge checks to him, and they did, making copies for their own records. Last fall, the case finally went to trial, and Bowers -- a polite man with no prior record -- testified on his own behalf. The verdict: reckless driving, the next thing to an acquittal.

Bowers says he paid another $15,000 into Vaughn's account for trial expenses, for a total of $90,000. He says he is still repaying loans he and his family took out to cover his defense, but owes $18,000. Last March, Bowers says, he got a phone message from Mike Vaughn.

"Mike said there were issues and asked if I'd be willing to talk with the Attorney General," Bowers says. He spoke with an investigator later that day. "The [office of the] Attorney General told me that the agreement between Mike [Vaughn] and Bob was that Bob was supposed to get $5,000 and Mike was going to get $40,000. My brain does do math. There are serious numbers missing here -- $30,000 that Robert took that wasn't his."

Bowers says Vaughn never told him he would be good for the extra money, nor did Bowers ask him to take responsibility for the alleged theft. How Vaughn learned about the rip-off is uncertain. "I don't know how Owens got away with this for so long," Bowers says, "but I'm convinced that Mike didn't know this was going on. Maybe if they prosecute this guy, maybe we'll get some money back. Sure could use it."

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