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By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Hours after storied Phoenix attorney Tom Thinnes died September 14, two of his adult sons drove to a rental storage facility on West Indian School Road.
Despite overwhelming grief, they needed to see if their father's safe was there, and in it vital papers about his burial wishes, life-insurance policies and other items.
Ben and Nathan Thinnes entered the building using their dad's security code and walked to the end of a corridor on the ground floor. They opened the padlock of Unit 64 with a key, and stepped into the crowded room. The brothers rummaged for a few minutes, but they couldn't find the safe among the dusty files and memorabilia. Then they left to return to their mother's side.
Months earlier, Thinnes had told his sons that he had moved the safe out of his downtown Phoenix law office for, well, safekeeping. He did so after ending his personal and business relationship with a grifter named Robert Shawn Owens.
He and Owens had shared ownership of a building at 1005 North Second Street since 2000. Despite the breakup, they still maintained offices at the building -- dubbed "Edifice Lex" by Thinnes -- until the end, though Owens rarely showed up during working hours.
The men had met in the mid-1990s, after Owens' 1993 release from an Arizona prison on well-publicized charges of stealing from the dying elderly while he was working as a paramedic.
By then, Owens had become a licensed private investigator, and reinvented himself as a player rather than as a defendant in the criminal-justice system.
He did so both by ingratiating himself with local attorneys and by working as an occasional snitch for law enforcement anti-drug task forces.
But as documented a few months ago in New Times ("Catch Him If You Can," August 12), it wasn't as if Owens had gone straight. After his parole, the slick-talking Phoenix man had become an equal-opportunity con artist, seducing defendants and their families, cops, prosecutors, lawyers and judges.
The financial rewards seem to have been sweet: Owens owns a home in a gated Phoenix community that he bought in 2001 for $400,000 (Owens put the house on sale last week for an asking price of $650,000). He drives a new Lincoln Navigator priced at about $55,000. He's a member of the prestigious University Club of Phoenix. And so on.
What's perhaps most stunning about the Owens saga is how he's seemingly rendered himself untouchable from prosecution for his well-documented and financially lucrative crimes.
He has done so, in part, by compromising factions inside the criminal-justice system, including the cops and the defense bar.
"I believe the government fears that prosecuting Robert Owens is the same as putting themselves on trial," says Scottsdale author and ex-government security analyst Derek Van Arman, an old friend of Tom Thinnes'.
"Every case where Owens was involved instantly becomes suspect," Van Arman continues. "While they look for a scapegoat to cover their own corruption, they've given a serial predator season tickets to life."
For example, police reports show that defense investigator Owens worked as a confidential informant to law enforcement for years. How he pulled that off as he continued to work for Thinnes and others among the Valley's best and assumedly brightest attorneys is a mystery.
In one highly publicized case -- the March 2002 attempted assassination of renowned state drug prosecutor Billie Rosen -- Owens provided key information to authorities about the plot's alleged mastermind, Mark Branon.
He did so as he was working as a highly paid investigator with defense attorneys Thinnes and Larry Debus in a big drug case that Rosen was prosecuting.
Branon, who is now serving a 60-year federal prison sentence, claimed in a note left for authorities shortly before his October 2002 jailhouse suicide attempt that Owens had conspired with him to have Rosen killed.
The actual hit man, who still remains unidentified, shot and critically wounded Rosen's brother, Richard, through a window as he sat inside his prosecutor sister's Glendale home.
Law enforcement officials who are familiar with the case tell New Times that Owens' possible involvement in the murder plot remains intriguing to them, if not yet prosecutable.
But the evidence is overwhelming that Owens tried to frame Mark Branon's wife, Shawna, in another alleged murder plot involving a San Diego attorney.
His machinations failed, however, after an astute Glendale police detective caught him in a monumental lie.
Bob Owens pulled perhaps his greatest scam by successfully grooming Thinnes, a complicated, street-smart man of near-mythic proportions in Arizona legal circles.
What had started as an attorney-client relationship (Owens hired Thinnes to defend him on a theft rap in 1996) evolved into a professional relationship (Thinnes began to use Owens as an investigator), a personal relationship (they socialized together until a later falling out) and a business partnership (Owens became half owner of Edifice Lex in 2000).
Their bond deepened despite constant warnings to Thinnes about Owens from family, friends and colleagues.
Thinnes abruptly ended their relationship last December after learning of yet another Owens scam, the alleged theft of a Cadillac Escalade and other property from Scottsdale couple John and Carol Rizzo.
The trouble for Thinnes was that it had happened on his watch, as the couple -- then under indictment for major income-tax evasion -- originally had gone to him for legal help.