Catch Him If You Can

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

Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles records reveal a convoluted series of transactions from April to June 2003, in which ownership of the Rizzos' Escalade went from them to her daughter to Owens to a Phoenix woman back to Owens and finally to a car dealership. The dense paperwork includes a document supposedly signed by Carol Rizzo that authorizes the DMV to release a duplicate replacement title to her daughter. The document was notarized by Bob Owens.

But Rizzo says she never signed it, and shows copies of her real signature as proof. Carol Rizzo says her daughter gave Owens keys to the Escalade within a day or two of his first visit to the Florence holding facility. Leslie later told her mother that Owens had advised her not to go near their home or IRS agents might arrest her.

Three weeks passed before Owens allegedly told Leslie it was "safe" to visit the home. Though there was no sign of forced entry, the place had been ransacked and burglarized. Among the missing items were televisions, a VCR, a rare painting of Muhammad Ali, a valuable kachina doll and, oddly, complete sets of Arizona and Nevada laws.

But Leslie didn't call Scottsdale police for almost two weeks after the robbery. Later, an officer wrote in a report, "She stated that her attorney [Owens] told her not to call because there was nothing the police could do."

By the end of April, the Rizzos had had enough of Owens. They contacted Tucson lawyer Ivan Abrams through a friend, and he soon told Carol Rizzo to rescind her power of attorney, which she did on May 10. But Owens already had the car and a notarized transfer of ownership in his possession.

On May 15, he applied for and got a certificate of title for the Cadillac in his name. That same day, he transferred ownership to a Phoenix woman named Ronda Christensen, who also got a certificate of title. (She didn't return calls from New Times seeking an explanation. But someone who knows her and Owens says that the two are friends, and that Christensen never took possession of the car.) A month later, Christensen returned official ownership to Owens, who soon transferred the title to a local used-car dealer.

That was around the time that Ivan Abrams says he spoke to Owens about the Caddy. "I told him that we wanted it back, thinking we'd sell it to raise cash for their defense," Abrams says. "I want to call the car the Escapade, not the Escalade. Then I found out that Owens had sold it, or allegedly sold it. I never saw a bill of sale. It was all very confusing and it all stunk."

Abrams says he soon learned that "Owens told me that he'd taken some stuff from their house for safekeeping, but he didn't say what. Then I found out he was a suspended private investigator, and I treated him like a thief, nothing more, nothing less."

Abrams says he wrote Tom Thinnes two letters in June 2003 demanding an accounting of the money. Thinnes says he never got the letters, that Owens must have intercepted them at the office.

Abrams says Owens sent him a check for $18,000 made out to him personally on the "Robert S. Owens Disbursement Account," shortly after he sent the demand letters to Thinnes. Owens explained in a note sent with the check that he had already sold the Escalade for $22,500 -- much less than the Blue Book price of $30,000 -- and had subtracted $4,500 to repay himself what he had lent Leslie in mid-April to pay her parents' rent, which he had done.

Owens also wrote that he disagreed with much of what Abrams had written. But Abrams says he never wrote to Owens, just Thinnes.

"The guy must have intercepted Tom's letter," Abrams says. "That was one smooth operator right there. That $18,000 check was Owens' attempt to cool down an escalating situation. He raked in thousands and thousands on that couple, and he seems to have gotten away with it." Rich Robertson was a dedicated investigative journalist who moved from print to television for a stretch in the 1990s.

While working at Channel 12, Robertson met Bob Owens -- who, until recently, freelanced as a private investigator for the station.

In early 2000, Robertson says, Owens persuaded him to leave journalism for the potentially more lucrative field of private investigation. That April, he went to work with Owens in an office at Edifice Lex.

Soon, however, Robertson says he got a firsthand taste of his new mentor's modus operandi.

"This is embarrassing as hell to talk about," says Robertson, who now runs a successful P.I. firm based in Mesa.

It started with the arrest that month of a Phoenix man on serious felony charges. His parents, John and Carol, who live in New Jersey, asked that their surnames not be used because their son Glenn awaits trial on unrelated charges.

"We were supposed to see Tom Thinnes," Carol says, "but Owens called us and said he was sitting in for Tom, like he was in the firm. He told us he would require a $15,000 retainer, and to make checks payable to him."

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