The Dead Lawyer Made Him Do It

Finally in jail, courthouse scam king Bob Owens plucks his defense from the grave

The lack of immediate financial firepower left Owens unable to make bail as he awaited his initial appearance at 5 p.m. last Wednesday. For a guy who's beaten more bona fide beefs than Tony Soprano, his impending incarceration at Sheriff Joe's hotel was quite the turn of events.

Owens had spent the previous weeks of this ugly Phoenix summer at his lovely, gated summer home outside San Diego. With him were his wife, Terri, and their two young children.

Besides the summer home, Owens and his family maintain the upscale address at Central Avenue and East Missouri. It's been on sale for a while, with an asking price of $730,000.

Tom Thinnes was one of Arizona's most prominent criminal-defense lawyers until his sudden death last September.
Tom Thinnes was one of Arizona's most prominent criminal-defense lawyers until his sudden death last September.
Bob Owens has had a long and sordid history with Maricopa County's criminal-justice system.
Bob Owens has had a long and sordid history with Maricopa County's criminal-justice system.

Owens also has a relationship with a girlfriend and their young daughter, who live in a nearby apartment (she had the child well after Owens married Terri, an ex-corrections officer whom he met and wooed during an earlier stretch in prison).

Before his summer hiatus, Owens often spent his evenings at the Phoenix City Grille, located at 16th Street and Bethany Home Road. The bistro's part-owner is Larry Debus, yet another prominent local attorney with close ties to Owens.

From the restaurant to the 4th Avenue Jail is only about five miles, but it might as well be a million. And here was Bob Owens, paunchy and pasty-faced, the unwanted focus of attention in Commissioner Kathleen Mead's brightly lighted jail courtroom.

Owens sat in the front row with his attorneys, Dichter and Jennifer Healey, and calmly perused the indictment against him for the first time. Those in court on other business would have been hard-pressed to tell which one was the client.

Standing a few feet away, prosecutor Astrowsky and case agent Edwards awaited Dichter's argument for a reduction of bail.

Dichter started by telling the commissioner that the New Times stories "essentially laid out most of the charges that are listed in [the indictment], so this comes as no shock. . . . [But] the fact of the matter is we anticipate putting forward a very vigorous defense of these charges and are decidedly not guilty."

When it was his turn, Astrowsky pointed out that Owens has been on the wrong side of the law since the 1980s, and that the new charges are extensive and serious. The prosecutor said that Owens has talked his way out of trouble umpteen times since his early release from prison in 1993, usually by providing "information" about ongoing cases to authorities.

"This time that opportunity is not going to be provided to Mr. Owens," Astrowsky told the commissioner, as Owens stared straight ahead, expressionless.

The prosecutor, whose reputation around the courthouse is excellent, sounded as if he meant what he'd said.

Commissioner Mead kept the bond at $2 million.

A sheriff's deputy led Owens off to a jail cell. He's staying in a maximum-security cell, at least until a Superior Court judge considers Steve Dichter's "emergency" request for a bond reduction in a few weeks.

The case of the State of Arizona vs. Robert Owens promises to be a classic, with major-league players and criminal allegations.

Dichter made clear in court documents filed last Friday and in an 18-page letter he sent to prosecutors on July 11 how he plans to defend Owens.

To summarize: The dead guy made him do it.

Dichter will argue that Tom Thinnes ripped off his own clients, the IRS, and Bob Owens, then tried to put the blame on Owens, who was an easy target. He'll claim that Owens was duped by both the late Thinnes and Vaughn.

Thinnes predicted this strategy in an interview with New Times in July 2004, saying that Owens would be claiming "that I put him up to this crap. But I didn't. He's a criminal all on his own."

But even the savvy Thinnes probably couldn't have foreseen the lengths that Dichter plans to go to smear his memory in an attempt to walk his client.

"Thinnes hated pretty much everyone, but that was just his general outlook," Dichter wrote to prosecutor Astrowsky in his recent letter. "When he thought he had been screwed, his vengeance knew no bounds and the truth meant absolutely zero to him. . . . Owens was his last victim, though he couldn't have known it at the time. But, now, having been exposed before his death as a perjurer, Tom can only continue to work to exact his vengeance through you. I hope you don't fall for it."

Though Bob Owens has listed various birthdates in court documents, he probably was born in Tucson on March 1, 1963. His father was Dr. Sherwood Owens, a prominent dentist, and Owens was raised in an upper-middle-class household as one of five siblings.

Owens has claimed in writing over the years that he graduated from the University of Arizona, but he never attended the institution. He moved to Phoenix in early 1982, and went to work as a paramedic for two area companies.

But his yen for crime -- family members later recalled he'd been stealing from them for years -- soon took center stage in his life. In March 1986, sheriff's deputies arrested Owens at the Sun City fire station. A search of his duffel bag revealed credit cards belonging to many people, including elderly residents whose cards had vanished while paramedics responded to their homes.

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