Catch Him If You Can

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

It didn't take Bob Owens long to get a feel for prison life. He ingratiated himself with just about everyone, from the prison chaplain to members of the Aryan Brotherhood with whom he apparently forged a relationship.

Trying to pin down Owens' time in prison, like just about everything else involving him, is an exercise in murkiness. His prison file is suspiciously thin, and lacks, for example, details about his known infractions.

Though Owens had lost his appeal, he didn't quit trying to find a way out of prison. According to letters written by Owens and others about his supposed activities in prison, Owens allegedly helped to prevent the suicide of another inmate, fought a fire at great risk to himself and was an eyewitness to a murder that prison officials supposedly wanted to keep hushed up.

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.

Within a few years behind bars, Owens asked corrections officials to write letters on his behalf. Many obliged.

In July 1988, prison chaplain Paul Belhumeur wrote, "I see a genuine effort on Robert Owens' part to grow as a Christian. I believe the man intelligent and sincere enough to learn his lesson through the time he has served."

Several corrections officers, including Owens' future wife, Terri, and another officer who later worked for Owens as an investigator, also wrote positive letters.

Owens also was working on other fronts. Somehow, he connected with Dale Nannenga, a narcotics officer with the Tempe Police Department then working as part of a larger drug interdiction task force.

Sergeant Dan Masters, a spokesman with the Tempe department, says, "Regarding Mr. Owens, we do not have any files or correspondence involving him," adding that, after a five-year hiatus, all such records are destroyed.

But attorney Anders Rosenquist and others -- two Superior Court judges and one prosecutor -- say Nannenga heavily promoted Owens' early release.

"It was real smooth and slick," Rosenquist says. "I know that Nannenga spoke with Jim Keppel, and they cut a deal behind my back. Keppel didn't object to anything, and when I heard about it, neither did I. Bob was going to finger some guy bringing in dope from Tucson and other things."

Keppel recalls that the Tempe cop and others told him that Owens had been providing valuable information to law enforcement. That sounded good enough for him.

Judge Ron Reinstein recalls an "informal" meeting that March at which members of law enforcement spoke on Owens' behalf.

"Everyone said nice things about Bob," Reinstein says. "I learned that they'd been checking him in and out of prison for a while, and he'd done good things for them."

The judge ordered Owens' immediate release from custody. It had been almost six and a half years since Judge Noyes had ordered the 20-year sentence.

His attorney at the time, Anders Rosenquist, says he believed that Owens had been rehabilitated: "Bob has that baby face and a really innocent smile. He looks so innocent. We were all so excited for him. He's just so clever and street-smart. But in hindsight, those years in jail just rounded him out."

Chris Frank has spent almost half of his 37 years behind bars, mostly on drug-related crimes.

Just released from prison a few weeks ago after serving a 10-year sentence as a repeat marijuana dealer, Frank is hoping not to bump into Bob Owens on the street anytime soon.

"I'll beat the shit out of him," says Frank, whose prison nickname was Thumper. "This Owens thing has sat hard on my soul for 10 years. I may have an organized-crime history, a gang history. But I'm a man. He's a snitch and a scumbag."

The size of the bust -- 109 pounds of pot -- was relatively small. But because of his past record, Frank was staring at a life sentence when Tempe police arrested him in 1995. The arresting officer was Dale Nannenga, who had vouched for Bob Owens before the 1993 release.

Frank knew nothing about that when he first met with Owens at the county jail, where investigator-cum-attorney Owens apparently had been meeting with another inmate.

"He told me he'd heard all about my bust," Frank says, "and that he could get me off if I gave him $50,000 to give to Nannenga. I told him he was crazy. Then, after I hired Mike Vaughn, he told me that Owens could really help me."

Frank says his wife at the time, Natalie, eventually paid Owens and Vaughn about $15,000 each. Frank says he saw Owens in jail far more than Vaughn during the eight months that the pair were on the case.

"Owens started to ask me about where I kept my guns and hidden assets," Frank says. "That's when I started to get a little suspicious. He was taping everything."

A crucial component of the case against Frank was an affidavit for a wiretap of his phones. The police had relied on a source identified only as #6. Frank says he knew that the information attributed to #6 in the affidavit that led to the wiretap was provably false. If so, a judge may have suppressed the alleged evidence and the case against Frank may have foundered. Frank suspected that #6 was a guy named Cota, who lived in Tucson. Owens was instructed to look there for Cota. But he reported a few weeks later that Cota had been murdered.

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