Catch Him If You Can

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

One witness against Owens was attorney Gary Rosser, who had graduated from law school that summer. The two had become fast friends, and Rosser had given Owens some much-needed work.

"He lied right to my face about being a process server," Rosser says. "After a while, I couldn't believe anything that came out of his mouth. I had to meet him in a parking lot to get my files back. It was creepy. And he was still contacting my clients after I fired him trying to get money out of them."

Anders Rosenquist again represented Owens in his then-latest jam. In April 1995, Rosenquist told a prosecutor that Owens was continuing to work with law enforcement on various projects such as investigations of a drug-smuggling ring and a murder.

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.

That should have sounded familiar to authorities.

Rosenquist noted in a letter that Tempe's ubiquitous Dale Nannenga was heading a multi-agency drug task force, and that Owens was essential to its success.

The attorney urged the prosecutor to drop the pending case, or he would go to County Attorney Rick Romley for satisfaction.

Playing all angles, Owens also asked Rosenquist to pass along a letter to the prosecutor. It claimed he had been offered a job by top members of the Aryan Brotherhood gang while in prison.

"I would be willing to work in the capacity as an `informant' to assist in the prosecution of illegal activities," Owens wrote.

Prosecutors soon offered a sweet plea bargain. Owens would plead guilty to two tampering charges designated as misdemeanors instead of felonies. He wouldn't have to spend any time in jail, and wouldn't even be on probation if he paid a fine of a few thousand dollars, which he did.

But it didn't take Owens long to get into a new pickle. In January 1996, he was arrested at Luke Air Force Base and charged with stealing more than $1,000 of merchandise from a store there.

Owens enlisted the help of Tom Thinnes, who wasn't known for defending shoplifting cases.

By then, Owens somehow had slithered his way into work as an investigator for top local attorneys, including Thinnes. Years later, in response to a complaint filed in 2002 with the State Bar of Arizona against Thinnes, Thinnes wrote this in defense of his then-ally:

"[The complainant] attempts to attack my character because I use Mr. Owens as an investigator. I decided to use Mr. Owens after speaking with Judge Ronald Reinstein, the judge who explained Bob's conviction and who later entered an order dismissing it. I subscribe to the philosophy that a person can change, as do other respected attorneys who are fully informed about Bob's past."

Thinnes said that other prominent attorneys then using Owens included Larry Debus, Charlie Brewer, Mike Vaughn, and the law firms of Burch and Cracchiolo, and Bryan Cave.

Reinstein tells New Times he doesn't remember speaking to Thinnes about the propriety of hiring Owens, even though he had sanctioned Owens' premature release from prison years earlier.

In any case, why would someone of Thinnes' reputation for thoroughness not even have read the revealing 1986 presentence report -- particularly since then-partner Craig Mehrens practically stuck it in his face in 1999?

And why hadn't he or the "other respected attorneys" he mentioned even heard about the 1994 tampering charges, or had bought Owens' dubious explanations for the 2000 fiasco involving the ex-anchorwoman?

"I'm not the only one who got taken," Thinnes says. "Judge Reinstein got taken, everybody got taken. This son of a bitch snookered me, and there's no question about it. For 38 years, I enjoyed a pretty damn good reputation in this community. I don't have anything to hide in this except maybe the fact of my stupidity."

In April 2003, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced the arrests of a Scottsdale couple, John and Carol Rizzo, on charges of concealing a few million dollars in income from the IRS in offshore and other accounts.

Both were incarcerated at the federal facility in Florence. On April 4, one of the couple's daughters, Leslie, went to Tom Thinnes' office. But the woman never saw Thinnes. Instead, she was introduced to Thinnes' associate Bob Owens. She paid Owens $750 for that initial meeting, and says she got a receipt on the law firm's stationery. Owens visited Carol Rizzo in Florence a few days later, but never did meet with John Rizzo.

"He said he was an attorney who could do great work for us if we had the money," recalls Carol Rizzo, who is living in the Valley under house arrest as she awaits sentencing after her guilty pleas. (John Rizzo remains in custody, also awaiting sentencing.)

Carol Rizzo says Owens "also insisted that I should give Leslie my power of attorney so she could take control of our cars before the government took them. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about."

She learned later that her daughter had given Owens a garage-door opener to the couple's rented home. "He said he wanted to take stuff out for safekeeping before the agents confiscated it," she says.

Tom Thinnes says he spoke to Owens when he returned that day from Florence: "He told me that if I got them out of [jail], then they had offshore money. I said, `I'm not screwing around with that,' and that was the end of it. I don't know what he did with the Rizzos after that."

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