Blame Game

If attorney Steve Dichter could have gotten away with kicking his client Bob Owens to shut him up at the con man's recent sentencing, he probably would have.

After years of police investigation, news stories (starting with New Times' "Catch Him If You Can," August 12, 2004), a grand jury indictment, arrest, plea bargain negotiations and, finally, a guilty plea to three counts of theft, the infamous Owens stood before Superior Court Judge Brian Ishikawa.

The stipulated terms of the 44-year-old Phoenix scammer's plea seemed clear: Owens was to serve at least 85 percent of what would be a 10-year prison term, with credit for almost two years already spent at the Maricopa County Jail.

Unless Ishikawa rejected the deal and sent the case back to the drawing board, his role at the hearing basically was to hear what the attorneys, a few of Owens' victims, and Owens himself had to say before imposing sentence.

Owens would be the last to speak.

Also attending was Ben Thinnes, a son of the late Tom Thinnes, the famed defense attorney who died of heart troubles in 2004 as law enforcement closed in on Owens. Ben Thinnes wrote a letter to the judge but chose not to speak in court.

The unfortunate connection between Tom Thinnes and Owens was pivotal to the myriad charges that brought Owens down.

Owens worked beside Thinnes (the pair owned a building that housed Thinnes' law office in downtown Phoenix) as a private investigator and quasi-attorney for years.

The men joined forces in the mid-1990s, a few years after prison officials released Owens not even halfway through a 20-year prison sentence on theft and embezzlement charges. (Owens' duties as a government snitch "earned" him premature release.)

That time, Owens had been convicted of stealing money and property from elderly Sun City-area residents and others while working as a paramedic.

Many people told police (and New Times) that they'd believed Owens was a law associate of Thinnes because Owens had told them he was and (in some instances) because Thinnes had done nothing to dissuade them.

Included in the former group was Petra Cano, a west Phoenix woman who attended Owens' sentencing.

Cano quit-claimed her home on West Romley Street to a real estate agent in early 2001 for the ridiculously low price of $12,500 to raise funds to hire an attorney for her son, who had been arrested on murder charges that later were dismissed.

Cano did so after meeting with Bob Owens at Thinnes' law office, during which time Owens demanded a $75,000 "retainer" for providing legal services, including a large sum in cash up-front.

Cano later delivered $13,000 to Owens, including $10,000 from her house proceeds and $3,000 that she'd borrowed from a friend. She never did come up with the rest of the money.

Cano, who never met with Thinnes, confronted Owens after learning that he wasn't a lawyer, but he wouldn't return any of the money, claiming it had been spent on "paperwork."

Though Cano couldn't bring herself to speak in court, a West Valley couple from whom Owens had stolen thousands of dollars and a Cadillac Escalade had no such qualms.

Now on probation, John and Carol Rizzo hooked up with Owens through Tom Thinnes after being arrested on charges of federal income tax evasion.

Carol Rizzo told the judge that "we placed our lives in his hands, and he used our vulnerability."

John Rizzo complained about the length of Owens' prospective prison sentence, pointing out that "Mr. Owens will get less time in this case than he did for his last crimes [in the 1980s]."

Deputy County Attorney Annielaurie Van Wie told Judge Ishikawa that Owens "has shown he is a con artist, and not an average con artist. He has made an entire life out of this . . . He really lived a good life off of other people's tragedies. He seems to have taken advantage of every person he comes into contact with."

Van Wie asked the judge to add a year in jail as part of post-prison probation after Owens completes his time with the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Steve Dichter countered that he'd never heard of an additional jail term being imposed after someone serves his or her time in prison, and urged the judge to deny Van Wie's unusual request.

He said Owens had been accused (by authorities and by New Times) "of many things he did not do, but the things he did do are bad enough and bring us here today."

(In return for Owens' three guilty pleas, prosecutors earlier had agreed to dismiss 12 other felony counts, including charges of theft, forgery, burglary, and cocaine possession.)

Finally, it was Owens' turn.

Standing next to Dichter, the shackled inmate first told Ishikawa he wanted to "go over a couple of things."

"I'm ready to accept what I did was wrong," Owens said, without specifying what he was referring to.

That was it, as far as expressing remorse for the havoc he had wreaked on so many lives.

Owens claimed everything had fallen apart for him after he and Tom Thinnes "got into it over money" around 2003. He said the dispute had led Thinnes to falsely allege all manner of wrongdoing against him to an eager investigator from the Attorney General's Office.

"I put myself in a bad position," Owens told the judge, referring to his practice of collecting fees for Thinnes (some of which, records show, he diverted for himself, with or without Thinnes' okay).

If Mr. Thinnes hadn't died, I don't know what the [State] Bar would have done," Owens said, apparently trying to divert attention from himself onto a dead man.

He pointed out that he also had done work for other prominent Phoenix criminal-defense attorneys, specifically naming Larry Debus, Larry Kazan and the late Mike Vaughn.

As his attorney stood by mutely, Owens suggested he would have been able to beat the charges had he been allowed to fight each of the cases one by one instead of as a whole.

By now, Dichter — who had done a fine job of winning Owens a favorable plea bargain, under the circumstances — surely wanted to silence his unrepentant client.

If Judge Ishikawa had chosen to question Owens about his alleged lack of culpability, it might have led to a last-minute rejection of the plea bargain.

But the judge simply stared down at Owens and spoke briefly of the "devastating financial harm and betrayal of trust" caused by the defendant.

Whatever Owens had hoped to gain by his off-kilter rant against his victims and just about everyone else (including AG investigator Mike Edwards and the prosecutor) for his "plight," it didn't work.

Obviously unmoved, Ishikawa did what the prosecutor had requested, ordering Owens to serve that extra year at the county jail after finishing his prison term.

The jail time, the judge noted, is to be served in its entirety without possibility for early release.

Owens' shoulders slumped, and he answered with a meek "Yes, sir" when Ishikawa asked him if he understood.

Ishikawa set a June 29 hearing, where anyone who wishes to appeal for restitution from Owens may speak to the court. The judge already has ordered Owens to pay certain victims up to $536,162 in money stolen, though how much will actually get to those people is uncertain.

Anyone who has questions about the restitution hearing should call the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and ask for prosecutor Van Wie.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin