MORE

Lord of the Lies

Bob Owens

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.

Thinnes' letters to the State Bar of Arizona show how much he feared the effect that Owens' actions might have on his own license to practice law. (He needn't have worried: The Bar summarily dismissed the Rizzo complaint and all other Owens-related complaints against Thinnes, the late Mike Vaughn and Larry Debus.)

During the final months of his life, Tom Thinnes was obsessed with his hatred of Owens. Those closest to him are convinced that the stress led to his fatal stroke at age 64.

On September 15, the day after his death, Thinnes' sons returned to the storage facility, wanting to make sure they hadn't missed seeing the safe. But the same key that had opened the lock less than 24 hours earlier didn't work this time.

Perplexed, the brothers asked the facility's manager for help. She told them it was a different lock on the door. The manager sawed off the lock to allow entrance to the unit. The men again sorted through the clutter, but never did find the missing safe.

Later, they scanned a computer printout of the day's activities at the facility. It showed that someone -- not them -- had entered the facility using Tom Thinnes' pass code at 8:55 a.m. and had left 35 minutes later.

A few days later, the brothers asked to see a security videotape made September 15 from cameras mounted in and around the building. One of the cameras is at the end of the corridor that houses Unit 64.

The tape showed two men in ball caps carting boxes out of Thinnes' storage locker between 9 and 9:30 a.m.

Ben Thinnes says he soon informed Mike Edwards, an agent for the Attorney General's Office, about the break-in. For months, Edwards has been investigating Owens' alleged criminal escapades.

The agent collected the videotapes from the storage facility's manager, and made still photos of the alleged thieves. Nayeli Bueno, a former secretary for Thinnes and Owens, says Edwards asked her if she could identify the men.

She says she recognized them instantly.

"It was Bob Owens and his friend Don Stevens," Bueno says. "I'm 100 percent sure. I know who they are. There is no doubt in my mind."

Ben Thinnes says he also reviewed the photographs at the AG's Office, and is sure Owens was one of the burglars (he doesn't know Don Stevens).

Owens did have a legitimate reason to be at the facility, as he rents his own space on the second floor. But he had no reason to have used Tom Thinnes' pass code, and no reason to have been anywhere near Unit 64 -- which is at the end of a hallway that leads nowhere.

Owens and his alleged accomplice, Stevens, have a long, quirky history. The two lived in the same apartment in 1986 when Maricopa County sheriff's deputies arrested Owens on suspicion of theft and other felonies. The deputies found hundreds of stolen items at the residence, though Owens later tried to shift the blame to Stevens (who never was charged).

No matter. The men apparently resumed their friendship upon Owens' release from prison in 1993 after serving just six years of his 20-year sentence.

Just last year, Owens invoked his "best friend's" name after apparently promising the mother of his young, illegitimate daughter that he'd marry her.

He did so because of a little hitch:

Owens was -- and still is -- married to a corrections officer he met while he was incarcerated.

According to an e-mail that Tom Thinnes sent to a friend earlier this year, here's how Owens avoided a bigamist's walk down the aisle:

"Owens told her that Don had died, so he had no best man. Don was here in the office last month so apparently his death was slightly exaggerated. The poor, dumb broad even went to the golf course and spread ashes that Owens said belonged to Don."

Owens' attorney, Steve Dichter, declined to comment about this or other allegations raised in this story. Stevens couldn't be reached for comment.  

No one at the Attorney General's Office would discuss its ongoing criminal investigation of Bob Owens.

But in May, an affidavit for a search warrant of Owens' home, office and a storage unit mentioned potential charges of fraudulent schemes, conducting an illegal enterprise, theft, forgery and "illegal interception of an oral communication."

The latter refers to untold hours of illegal videotaping of litigants -- lawyers and clients -- at the building owned by Owens and Thinnes.

For whatever reasons, Owens seems no closer to prosecution now than he was when the current criminal investigation against him began early this year.

If and when agent Mike Edwards does complete his investigation, the Attorney General's Office won't be handling the prosecution of the case. Several months ago, that agency declared a conflict of interest, ostensibly because an ex-Owens secretary who is a potential witness is now working in its appellate section.

Any prosecution of Owens would be done by the Pima County Attorney's Office because the Maricopa County Attorney's Office also has declared a conflict of interest for other, equally arcane reasons.


On the surface, little has changed in Bob Owens' world since publication of the New Times story about him last August.

He's still bouncing around local hot spots in his tasseled loafers and preppy outfits, gripping and grinning as if life couldn't be better.

Owens last appeared in court September 1, at a contempt hearing prompted by Tom Thinnes in a bitterly fought lawsuit over their office building.

Owens appeared unflappable, even as he admitted to Superior Court Judge Cathy Holt that he had violated her orders by illegally entering the office after working hours on the night that the first New Times story about him hit the streets.

To the contrary, Thinnes was a shadow of his former self, pathetically reduced on the witness stand during cross-examination to challenging Owens' attorney, Dichter, to take their dispute outside.

Unfortunately, Thinnes died before he could at least get the small satisfaction of having won the hearing.

Holt finally ruled November 2, holding Owens in contempt of court. The judge wrote in part that "substantial evidence at the hearing demonstrated that [Owens] has engaged in a pattern of removing and/or destroying or tampering with [Thinnes'] office records in an apparent effort to harass [Thinnes] and interfere with his legal practice."

Since publication of that first story, a host of new claims against Owens has emerged.

They include Owens' alleged 2002 theft of a Mercedes and $27,000 from a Valley woman. The thefts came in the form of payments to Owens for unnecessary, uncompleted and unapproved (by his then-employer, Thinnes) investigative services.

Another good one: The mother of a Phoenix man wanted for murder and kidnapping allegedly paid Owens up to $30,000 to help get her son back to his native Russia. Now 21, Mikhail Drachev still is a fugitive, though police last month released a new photo of him taken in Canada. It isn't certain what Owens did to assist Drachev.

Also last month, a Las Vegas man named Jay Evenson sued Owens, Thinnes and several government officials for alleged wrongdoing in an illegal videotaping at Thinnes' law offices.

Until a few years ago, Evenson owned the Bachelor's Beat, a venerable singles magazine sold at Phoenix news racks.

In 1997, a Maricopa County grand jury indicted Evenson on 15 felony counts under a newly enacted law that barred the "sale or distribution of material harmful to minors through vending machines."

The prosecution had seemed shaky and politically driven, and Evenson hired Tom Thinnes to defend him. Thinnes nearly won an acquittal at the first trial, which ended in a hung jury.

As the case proceeded to a retrial in early 2000, prosecutor Ted Campagnola brought the chief complaining witness, an elderly Phoenix man, to Thinnes' office for an interview.

Both sides agreed that audiotaping the session was fine.

The second jury convicted Evenson. The trial judge imposed a huge fine and placed him on probation.

Evenson says that he later went to Thinnes' office to pick up his file for an appeal. He says he found a videotape as he sorted through a box of his paperwork.

It showed the pretrial interview of the main prosecution witness, the elderly man who first had complained to authorities about the Bachelor's Beat.

The videotape's existence surprised Evenson, and he soon learned that it depicted more than just the interview.

At the outset, the secret camera had recorded a pre-interview conversation between prosecutor Campagnola, Thinnes and Owens in which Thinnes denigrated his client, who wasn't present.  

More important, the tape showed Thinnes and Owens leaving the conference room after the interview, leaving the prosecutor and his witness alone.

With the video camera still secretly taping, Campagnola spoke privately with his witness for a few minutes.

The witness then stepped outside after Thinnes and Owens returned to the conference room, where they chatted with the prosecutor.

"If they fire you, you can rent space from us," Owens tells Campagnola. "Maybe you should work here, Ted. You'd have more fun. You get to laugh here."

Moments after Campagnola leaves, Owens can be seen walking over to a console and bending down.

The tape then ends.

If neither Campagnola nor his witness knew they were being taped, Owens and Thinnes committed a felony under Arizona law.

Campagnola says he didn't know about the videotaping at the time. And certainly, the elderly witness didn't have a clue.

Thinnes told New Times shortly before he died that the tapings had been "Owens' deal, his equipment, his operation, his thing." But that wasn't the tack he took last May with Owens' attorney, Steve Dichter.

In an e-mail, he demanded that Dichter turn over another secretly recorded videotape made in 2001 of assistant attorney general Don Conrad and others. Thinnes said the tape constituted "work product," and that Owens had no right to have "stolen properties" in his possession.

The tape recording was done during plea negotiations for Michael Papa, a Thinnes client and a co-conspirator of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano in a high-profile drug case.

For Thinnes to have first claimed ignorance to New Times about the taping system was absurd. Why he allowed Owens to install the system is the real question.


On the early evening of March 19, 2002, Billie Rosen met with her kennel club at her Glendale home to discuss plans for an upcoming show.

Afterward, the senior litigation counsel at the Attorney General's Office normally would have sat at her computer terminal and worked. But her brother Richard was staying with her, and he enjoyed Web surfing at night.

So Rosen retreated to her bedroom and pulled out a thick file. Her reading concerned a pending criminal case against Mark David Branon, a onetime Scottsdale man charged in a major marijuana-distribution case.

Branon's trial was just a few weeks away, and the conspiracy case was rather complicated. But Rosen has been prosecuting drug cases for more than two decades, and is known for her attention to detail.

Those who have opposed her in court might say Rosen resembles a metaphorical bulldog more than the beloved border terriers that she raises and shows. Case in point was the Branon trial, in which the defendant was being prosecuted as a "serious drug offender."

That brings a mandatory life sentence upon conviction.

To make matters worse for Branon, he recently had learned that his longtime San Diego lawyer, Sheldon Sherman, planned to testify against him. Sherman had been facing his own felony charges of laundering Branon's allegedly ill-gotten drug funds.

As he sat at the computer, Richard Rosen heard what he later described as glass exploding. He then saw that he was bleeding and felt a surge of pain.

Someone had fired a bullet at Rosen through a window on the side of the home. One bullet lodged in his back below his ribs, just missing his heart. His spleen was badly damaged, and his lungs were filling with blood.

Billie Rosen came running, thinking at first that two of her six dogs might be fighting. She saw her brother was kneeling on the floor, in obvious distress.

Soon after paramedics rushed Richard Rosen to a hospital, his sister gave Glendale detectives the names of those who might have wanted to kill her. Richard Rosen is from out of state, and had no known enemies.

At the top of her list, which wasn't short because of the job she has, was Mark Branon.

Branon was out on bail at the time, and the detectives investigated his whereabouts on the evening in question. He had an ironclad alibi: He had been at a restaurant in Southern California when the shooting happened.

Months before the Rosen shooting, Branon had hired veteran Phoenix attorney Larry Debus to represent him. He paid Debus $50,000 up front, and promised to pay another $50,000 if the case went to trial.

Branon told New Times in a recent jailhouse interview that Debus had advised him early on "that Bob Owens was going to be my investigator, and it would cost me $25,000 up front. That I was to pay Bob. He said Bob was the best in the business and that I could trust him with anything."  

Debus has a vastly different recollection of how Owens got involved:

"Branon told me he'd spoken to Tom Thinnes about Owens, and I said, 'Hire him if you want.' I never paid Bob a nickel in the Branon case, and I didn't know what he was up to. He reported to Tom, who promoted him as the hottest thing since popcorn."

Billie Rosen chuckles when told of Larry Debus' comments.

"Larry told me from the start that Owens would be doing some witness interviews for the case," she says. "And he did. Of course he was working for Larry. I wasn't advised that Tom Thinnes was on the case until much, much later."

Court records indicate Thinnes wasn't officially on the case until June 2002. That was three months after the near-fatal shooting of Richard Rosen, who slowly recovered from his physical injuries.

Branon says he paid Thinnes $50,000 to join the team after "Owens told me that [Tom] was the best in town, better than Larry in court. I was facing life on a weed rap, and I thought me and Bob were tight."

That hardly turned out to be the case.

Police records, interviews and other documentation show that Bob Owens called an officer assigned to a local DEA task force soon after the attempted murder.

According to a Glendale police report, Owens said a friend of Branon's "had stated [to Owens] that he knew Mark Branon was going to have something done to Rosen." It marked the first of increasingly juicy tidbits tossed to police by Owens.

A DEA agent repeated Owens' allegation to Glendale police detective Bruce Lowe, who already was hot on Branon's trail for the Rosen hit.

Then, in early June 2002, police arrested two men in a stolen car near El Cajon, California. Inside the car were ski masks and a 9mm handgun.

Prominent Phoenix attorney Mike Kimerer says Bob Owens contacted him shortly after that: "Branon apparently had admitted to Owens that he'd arranged for the contract hits of [San Diego attorney] Sherman and Billie Rosen, and Branon had provided Bob with the name of the person who was going to do the hit."

The man's name was Daniel Martyn.

"This person had gotten stopped by the police," Kimerer continues, "and was under arrest for something as he and another guy were on their way to kill Sherman. Bob said he was coming forward because he didn't want anyone to get hurt. I'm not aware of any fabrications by him along the way."

Owens mentioned an ongoing criminal investigation against him by county prosecutors, Kimerer says, "and he asked me to put in the good word for him about the information he was coming forward with. I did."

The County Attorney's Office filed no charges against Owens stemming from that unspecified investigation.

Kimerer says he also notified Billie Rosen's boss at the time, then-attorney general (and now Governor) Janet Napolitano, about the developments.

On July 18, 2002, Kimerer and Owens met with Detective Lowe at the lawyer's office in Phoenix.

Lowe wrote in a report that "Mr. Owens said there is still a viable danger to the witnesses and attorneys involved in the case against Mark Branon. Mr. Owens says he has spoken directly to Branon about the [Rosen] incident."

Kimerer says Owens also told him around that time that Branon wanted to have Larry Debus killed for unknown reasons.

In spite of that allegation, unsubstantiated as it was, Debus (who says he learned about it from Thinnes at the time) and Thinnes continued to represent Branon for two more months.

Says Debus, "Until the court tells us we're not representing him, we have no choice. When Tom and I discovered that Owens had knowledge that was going to hurt our client, we took the appropriate ethical action, the nature of which I can't disclose to you because it's part of a sealed record. What we did later resulted in action after the authorities dicked around for weeks."

Neither Debus nor Thinnes had any way of knowing that the Glendale detectives were working a totally different angle on the Rosen case, involving Bob Owens himself as a possible suspect in the murder-for-hire plot.

That June, detectives met with an informant at the Madison Street Jail who said he'd heard that a gang member named Luis Pecina had put out murder contracts on Billie Rosen and a second person.

Much later, at Mark Branon's federal trial, his attorney asked Detective Lowe, "And what's more, [the informant] told you that somebody named Bob Owens was involved with this?"  

"His name was brought up in the conversation, yes," Lowe replied.

"He told you that Bob Owens was involved in helping arrange these contract hits on behalf of the Mexican Mafia?" the attorney asked.

"What he told me," Lowe answered, "was the Mexican Mafia was doing it for someone who they were associated with, and that Bob Owens facilitated the passing of the money."

The informant gave the names of the two alleged hit men, who were not the California suspects. Detectives tracked down the pair at two Arizona prisons for interviews and DNA testing.

But neither sample matched that of DNA found on a broken piece of a silencer that police discovered outside Billie Rosen's home.

What truly interested police were jail records that indicated Bob Owens had visited Luis Pecina several times shortly before the Rosen hit, including a day before the shooting.

Owens had no official legal business with Pecina, then 22. In fact, Pecina seemingly would have wanted to throttle Owens if he had had the chance.

He's the son of Petra Cano, a west Phoenix woman who was featured in the earlier New Times story about Owens. Cano had sold her home on the cheap in early 2001 to raise cash for Bob Owens, whom she believed to be an attorney associate of Tom Thinnes'.

She told New Times that Owens had demanded $100,000 for his legal "representation" of Pecina. She said she paid Owens $13,000 in cash but soon learned he wasn't an attorney and had done nothing for her son.

What Pecina and Owens were discussing in their early 2002 jailhouse meetings may remain yet another mystery. Pecina declined through his attorney, Bruce Blumberg, to answer questions about his relationship with Bob Owens.

(Interestingly, Pecina asked a judge in early 2003 to appoint Owens as his defense investigator. The judge declined to do so.)

On August 2, 2002, authorities arrested Mark Branon in Southern California on a new batch of federal charges, including planning the murders of Billie Rosen and his ex-attorney Sheldon Sherman.

Branon was extradited to a federal holding prison in Florence, where he says Bob Owens continued to visit him.

"He said that if I could make bail, he'd help me leave the country, but it would cost me. I trusted him. I told my wife that she could trust him with her life."

Mike Kimerer says he was unaware of Owens' ongoing visits with the man he had been snitching off.

"That would have been really improper for him to do," says Kimerer, who spoke with New Times after getting permission from Owens' attorney, Dichter. "I didn't know about that, so I can't speak to it."

By then, Glendale police had made contact with Daniel Martyn, whose name Bob Owens had provided as the alleged hit man in the Rosen and Sherman cases.

Martyn was in a San Diego-area jail on the stolen-car rap when Detective Lowe flew over in mid-August 2002 to collect a DNA sample from him. (His DNA wasn't on the silencer, either.)

By the end of August, a San Diego attorney told Glendale police that Martyn was ready to cooperate.

Just as Bob Owens had suggested, Martyn admitted involvement in the two murder conspiracies. But he denied actually firing the gun at Billie Rosen's house.

In short, Martyn said he and another guy had been stuck in a broken-down car at a gas station on Interstate 5 in Southern California when Branon had approached them.

After helping them to a repair shop, Branon allegedly offered Martyn and the other man $2,000 up front to murder his ex-attorney or an Arizona prosecutor who was hounding him.

Just like that.

The killers were to get $8,000 more upon completion of the deeds.

Martyn claimed he'd driven over to Arizona with Branon about a week before the Rosen shooting. He said he and Branon had picked up a silencer at a Phoenix man's house (that man later was arrested and pleaded guilty to a felony in the case) but that it hadn't worked during a test shoot in the desert.

Martyn said Branon also had taken him past Billie Rosen's house. But he swore he'd returned to California shortly before the attempted hit in a car that Branon had bought him in Arizona.

Martyn claimed he didn't know who had done the actual shooting, and that he didn't know Bob Owens.

The next month, Martyn would come to Arizona and lead police both to Billie Rosen's home and to the location where he'd picked up the silencer. He hasn't been charged in the case.

Bob Owens wasn't sitting still as things escalated.  

On August 29, 2002, Glendale police learned from a partner of Mike Kimerer's that "a new hit had been ordered on witness (and attorney) Sheldon Sherman."

This time, according to Owens, the instigator of the murder allegedly wasn't the incarcerated Mark Branon. It was Branon's 27-year-old wife, Shawna.

A few weeks after that, Detective Lowe got more news: Bob Owens was saying through attorney Mike Kimerer that Shawna Branon now claimed to have hired a contract killer from Ireland and had $10,000 in cash on hand to pay for the Sherman hit.

"Bob told me that he needed $10,000 in cash to do more investigation right away," Shawna Branon tells New Times. "He told me there were tapes of me talking to Mark at the prison about money and that I was about to be arrested on conspiracy charges. Totally had me going."


On the morning of September 15, 2002, Detective Bruce Lowe paged Bob Owens. The timing was intentional, but Owens didn't know that at the time.

When Owens returned the call 30 minutes later, he said he'd just hung up the phone with Shawna Branon, according to police transcripts obtained by New Times. He said Shawna had provided him more details of her alleged plot to have attorney Sheldon Sherman killed.

Owens said he'd taped the conversation from his office at Edifice Lex, and played it over the phone for the detective:

"It's Shawna. I need help. I'm so scared. I just got a letter from Mark. . . . Mark talks about some guy Donnell and how he missed Billie and hit her brother, then he got caught in San Diego right before he hit Sherman. . . . Bob, he is totally out of control! He said he's gonna whack Debus now! Am I next? Who am I supposed to tell, what am I supposed to do? I can't say anything to anybody. He will kill me!"

Owens told Detective Lowe that the Irishman was only going to provide passports for the Branons' escape from the country.

The real killer, Owens said, was to be a San Diego man named "Lalo."

Lowe asked Owens if he had told Larry Debus about the alleged death threat against him. Owens said he had.

Owens said he'd been working as an informant with DEA on another case when the Rosen shooting happened. That's why he'd gone to that agency first about Mark Branon's possible involvement in the Rosen case.

A few days after that September 15, 2002, conversation, a county judge removed Larry Debus and Tom Thinnes from the Branon case in a hearing whose contents still remain under seal.

"I hadn't spoken to Shawna for days at that point, and I was freaking," Mark Branon says. "Then I get a letter from Tom Thinnes saying he's off the case and can't tell me why. I paid these guys -- Debus, Thinnes and Owens -- almost $200,000, and now I didn't even have a lawyer."

Owens and Lowe spoke next on September 24. Owens said he hadn't heard from Shawna Branon since the 15th.

"If they want me to go to a grand jury, I'll go," Owens told the detective. "Whatever I can do to help you, I'll help you."

Shawna Branon says she did exactly as Owens had instructed, leaving town with a girlfriend without telling anyone where she was going.

On September 27, the day after she returned, Glendale police picked her up at her mother's house and took her to the police station.

There, Bruce Lowe advised her that Owens had been blabbing to him about her husband for months. He also said Owens had taped her in the September 15 phone call saying all kinds of things.

Shawna said little to the detective other than to say she was very confused. She says she left the station that day in a state of shock.

Three days later, Shawna returned to the Glendale police station with an attorney.

"I have a man who says he will go to court and testify against you," Lowe told her that September 30, according to a police transcript of that meeting. "That you were trying to set up a hit man."

Shawna then told the detective a wild story.

"Bob told me, 'It's easy enough to clear up,'" Shawna said. "'But if they indict you, you're gonna sit in jail for a couple of weeks until all this is sorted out.' He said the best thing to do if they try to get [me] for a murder conspiracy is to have a tape saying that [I'm afraid of Mark]."  

How that could have helped Shawna is uncertain.

But she said Owens had promised her that such a tape couldn't be used against Mark because of what he called "the pillow-talk law," presumably the legal privilege against incriminating her husband.

Shawna said Owens had told her to meet him at Edifice Lex the following morning, September 15. When she arrived, she said Owens handed her a sheet of paper with four or five paragraphs that he'd written for her.

The plan was for Shawna to go into another room at the office and to call Owens on a different line. Then she was to read his script over the phone as he taped it.

Shawna told Detective Lowe that she'd done just that, even though she knew it was full of lies.

It became the tape that Bob Owens played for Lowe over the phone on September 15.

Owens had shredded the script immediately after the phony call, Shawna continued, and then walked her out to her car. That was that.

"What would Mark say that Bob's reason for doing all this would be?" Lowe asked Shawna.

"I've asked him, and he can't imagine either," she replied. "He was absolutely flabbergasted at the whole thing."

"Now I got to figure out what's going on here," the detective said, "but [Owens is] talking about sending [you] to prison for probably the rest of [your] life for something. It's beyond me. I can't fathom what he's doing."

What Owens was doing was trying to set up Shawna on a murder-for-hire rap.

"The web of lies is completely unfathomable to anyone you tell," she tells New Times. "He told the police that I was about to pay a hit man, and he wanted me to be arrested with the $10,000 cash that I was getting for him -- which was the exact amount he'd told Bruce Lowe that I was going to pay the hit man. He was building this trap around me. And if he hadn't slipped up, I'll guarantee you I'd be in prison."

Maybe so.

But Owens' misstep was a doozie unbefitting his typical cover-all-the-angles mode of hustling his fellow man. Or woman.

Unknown to Owens, Detective Lowe had ordered 'round-the-clock surveillance of Shawna Branon after first hearing of her alleged murderous plans.

Neither Shawna nor Owens knew that undercover officers had followed her to the Edifice Lex building on the morning of September 15.

Precisely as Shawna had told Lowe, the undercover cops had seen Owens walk her to her car about 40 minutes after she'd gotten there.

The detective had paged Owens immediately after Shawna left the area. When Owens called back, he said glibly that he didn't know where Shawna had been calling from and hadn't seen her for some time.

But Owens had been caught in a big fat lie.

A few days after Shawna Branon's startling September 30 interview, a corrections officer at the federal holding facility in Florence heard a thump on a cell floor.

He walked over and saw Mark Branon lying in a large pool of blood. Branon had gouged his wrists vertically with a razor and was just conscious enough to tell the officer that he wanted to die.

According to police reports, he almost did.

Authorities found two letters that Branon had taped to a wall in his cell before he tried to kill himself.

One was to Shawna.

The other was titled: "Attention Police, Homicide Investigator Lowe," and it read like both a confession and an accusation.

"Robert Owens orchestrated the entire [attempted-murder] event," Branon's letter started. "He drove me to where Billie Rosen lived, and he even paid half of the ten grand to do it."

The letter ended with an apology to "Ms. Rosen's family," if not to the intended victim herself.

In May 2003, Mark Branon finally went on trial in federal court for drug smuggling, the two murder-for-hire plots and other charges.

The specter of Bob Owens hovered in the courtroom, with Branon's latest attorney Peter Claussen raising the defense investigator turned snitch's name whenever possible.

In his closing argument, Claussen told the jury: "The man who was behind the whole conspiracy involving Billie Rosen is free right now, continues to work as a so-called investigator for lawyers in Maricopa County.

And there's no interest, apparently, in doing anything about Bob Owens and his role in this, despite the evidence that was presented to this court from various government investigators that Bob Owens was tied to a number of criminal organizations. And there [were] a number of statements indicating that he could get things fixed. He could get people killed."  

But Bob Owens wasn't on trial; Mark Branon was.

The jury convicted Branon of being the brains behind the Rosen plot, of a marijuana-smuggling operation, and of running a continuing criminal enterprise.

Branon was acquitted of orchestrating the aborted murder-for-hire plot involving his ex-attorney Sheldon Sherman.

Branon ranted for more than an hour before he was sentenced. He spoke at length about Bob Owens, and what he said sounded similar to what many folks are saying about him now:

"How the hell can the state of Arizona let this guy go in and out of prisons under the guise that he's a private investigator? He's not. He's a felon.

"Bob Owens creates crimes to solve them and to get the perks for it. That's what Bob Owens does. Bob Owens has a smooth pitch. He's believable. I trusted him. Big mistake. He appear[ed] in court in August [2002] with me and was working for the police. To me, there's just something wrong right there. He's like a plant for the government."

Judge Susan Bolton sentenced Branon to 60 years in prison.

Branon then plea-bargained to a concurrent sentence in the state's drug-conspiracy case against him -- the one Billie Rosen had been prosecuting until the assassination attempt.

Maricopa County prosecutors are poised to take the next crack at Mark Branon, which is why he currently is housed at the Madison Street Jail.

Branon is scheduled early next year to face a new set of charges in the Rosen shooting. The charges are conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated assault.

"If the authorities want to talk to me about Bob Owens," he tells New Times, "and are willing to do something that may help me look forward to living, I can do a lot for them. I'm a drug smuggler, a pot smuggler, I admit that. But I'm not a murderer, or a guy who sets up murders. Owens told me the murder of Billie needed to be done. Didn't I say in my suicide note that Owens drove me to Billie's house? That's the truth. And that's just one thing."

On the Saturday morning after Tom Thinnes died, hundreds of people gathered at central Phoenix's St. Francis Catholic Church for his funeral Mass.

The mourners included a who's who of the Valley's legal community, ex-clients and his grief-stricken family.

Father Bill Ameche said of Thinnes, "He was tremendously honest. Tom had an honest heart, a clean heart. He saw other people as friends."

Ben Thinnes -- one of the sons who had discovered the break-in at the storage facility -- spoke movingly of his father, saying "he established a standard by which we could judge our own actions. My father lives today."

That Bob Owens didn't show up to pay his respects surprised no one. If he had, many attendees, including members of Tom Thinnes' immediate family, may have physically attacked him on the spot, church or no church.

Much of the talk after the ceremony centered on the strangely symbiotic relationship of the two men, and how the pressures surrounding that union's end had led to Thinnes' demise.

Someone mentioned Thinnes' novel about the criminal-justice system, which was published in the late 1980s. It was titled The System, and the words written by barrister F. Lee Bailey on the book jacket seem sadly prescient:

"Tom Thinnes exposes The System for what it may have to be . . . a system to protect a chosen few."

E-mail paul.rubin@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8433.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >