Catch Him If You Can

On March 24, 1993, Robert Shawn Owens stood before Judge Ronald Reinstein in a downtown Phoenix courtroom.

Owens recently had turned 30 at the Arizona State Prison, his residence for the previous six and a half years. In December 1986, another judge had sentenced him to 20 years on theft and embezzlement charges.

Owens had gotten the maximum because of the shameless nature of his crimes: He had stolen and used credit cards of the elderly, colleagues and others while working as a paramedic. Awaiting sentencing, he had stolen the identities of dead people and others while working, remarkably, as a loan officer in Mesa.

Owens' own uncle had recommended a long prison term, calling his nephew "a classic sociopath."

Yet here he was in Reinstein's court in 1993, about to be freed years before his term was up. And it was happening because several people in law enforcement -- prosecutors, police and prison officials -- were urging his early release.

"It is my feeling that Bob has become a very trustworthy person," corrections officer T.A. Daniels wrote the judge. "For his safety, I do hope he will receive a second chance."

Jim Keppel, then chief criminal deputy at the County Attorney's Office (he is now a judge), took over the Owens case himself -- a strong statement about its importance to law enforcement.

Reinstein says it was an easy call to cut Owens loose.

"This guy had the complete support of law enforcement, obviously for the things he'd been doing for them," he says. "He had a good prison record, and there was no one telling me, `Don't do it!'"

Owens promised he wouldn't get into any more trouble. "I don't want to ever go back to prison again," he told the judge.

Reinstein responded, "Mr. Owens, you know, if you come back before me, I think you know what the sentence will be. You're getting a hell of a break here."

Since 1993, Bob Owens has been Maricopa County's Teflon man -- able to extricate himself from myriad legal jams by promising to provide amazing information about bigger, nastier criminals.

On the surface, he's a bit like Frank Abagnale Jr., the glib, charming con man played by Leo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can.

The resemblance ends quickly.

Where the Abagnale character was a nice kid forced by life's circumstances into a life of crime through impersonation, Owens plays himself, an amoral man who would steal from his own family if it suited him. (His uncle said in Owens' 1986 presentencing report that family members suspected he had stolen cash and credit cards from the sister of his father's new bride at their wedding.)

The trappings of rehabilitation seemed there at first after Owens' release from prison.

He got married within months, to Terri Daniels, the corrections officer who had written the glowing letter on his behalf. And he found work with a retired cop who had opened a private investigation firm.

Owens was supposed to be on probation for five years after his release. But without objection from prosecutors or probation officers, Judge Reinstein cut short Owens' probationary period after one year, restored his civil rights and expunged his felony convictions.

That ended the system's hold on the smooth-talking ex-convict.

By then, Owens already was embedding himself in the heart of the criminal-justice community. He schmoozed with defense attorneys as he stayed in touch with police sources, tantalizing all with tips and tidbits.

When Owens applied for and won a private investigator's license with the state of Arizona in October 1994, he included an FBI agent and an investigator from the Attorney General's Office as references.

But Bob Owens -- whose attorney said would have no comment for this story -- didn't go straight.

A New Times investigation reveals that Owens hasn't stopped running scams since he got out of prison. Among his marks have been judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, cops and news reporters, all of whom he has convinced that he is a cool, ultra-connected guy -- a real player.

More important, the evidence is compelling that Owens has stolen tens of thousands of dollars from criminal defendants and their families.

Where Owens once discovered that judges frown on paramedics stealing from their elderly patients, his latest prey have been the accused criminals -- represented by high-priced attorneys he worked for -- and their families.

Until recently, one of Owens' scams was to tell clients and their loved ones that he was an associate "attorney" of high-powered Phoenix barristers Tom Thinnes and the late Mike Vaughn. He would ask clients to make payments directly to him, then he would take a big chunk of that money -- $30,000 here, $10,000 there -- and deposit it into his own bank account. Then he would turn over the rest of the dough to the real attorney.

"He told me that he made $1.8 million last year," says Thinnes. "Could be bullshit, but who knows?"

He especially attached himself to Thinnes, who is listed in the publication Best Lawyers in America, and once was portrayed by name in a made-for-TV movie about an early 1980s Phoenix murder case. The pair still are partners in a building on North Second Street in downtown Phoenix, which Thinnes long ago dubbed "Edifice Lex."

Thinnes is desperately trying to distance himself from his former confidant: "He was my gofer and a chauffeur. This guy had a private life he was leading. I go home at night. He'd go to titty bars and these other places, and shake down people."

But everyone who saw them interact, who saw how Thinnes would invite Owens to sit with him in court at the lawyers' table, who knew Thinnes was godfather to Owens' young son, was aware of their exceptionally close relationship.

Court transcripts reveal that Owens spoke in court for Thinnes at least three times, speaking to the judge as if he was an attorney. For example, in January 2002, Owens told Superior Court Judge Barbara Jarrett, "Robert Owens standing in for Mr. Thinnes who is downstairs in another courtroom. I explained to our client, Your Honor, what's taking place and that we're just going to get a new date, and she'll waive time."

Phoenix attorney Joe Chornenky says Thinnes told him earlier this year that he was finished with Owens. "I responded that that man had brought him more money than he ever took from him," Chornenky says. "Tom just walked away. He's full of it if he says he knew nothing."

Many sources interviewed for this story say Owens long has been a masterful jailhouse rainmaker, able to persuade inmates with financial resources to fire their attorneys in favor of those with whom he has allied.

He gained access to these prisoners by displaying a doctored security pass that said he was an attorney. Security officers at the county courthouse say they confiscated that pass a few years ago after a judge and an attorney alerted them to the deception.

"Owens has trolled at the jail for years looking for clients," says Phoenix criminal defense attorney Larry Hammond. "Everyone knows that. He has been well-known for convincing people that he's an attorney, and no one ever seemed to stop him."

Thinnes vehemently denies that Owens stole any clients for him. But earlier this year, he had this to say about Owens on his Web site:

"Robert Owens is a private investigator who has specialized in criminal defense investigations for the past several years. Mr. Owens is the only investigator acknowledged in the Arizona State Bar directory."

But Owens hasn't been licensed as a private investigator since October 2000. He let his license lapse after a quirky, highly publicized case involving a mentally ill man suspected of stalking the family of ex-television news reader Deborah Pyburn-Brewer, on whom he had long been fixated.

In that case, Owens said he had lifted photographic negatives from the man's car that allegedly showed Pyburn-Brewer's children in a pool. Owens denied breaking into the man's home.

The case against the mentally ill man went nowhere, in part because investigators caught Owens in lies about his own background.

Thinnes says he didn't know Owens lacked a license until the summer of 2003. By then, he and Owens long had been joined at the hip, inseparable at the courthouse and their downtown Phoenix office.

Owens has owned half of Edifice Lex with Thinnes since 1999. That year, Thinnes and his longtime legal partner, Craig Mehrens, split, largely because of Owens' presence.

"I started to hear things about Owens, so I had an investigator check him out," Mehrens says. "She gave me a copy of his [1986] presentence report, and other things. I gave it to Tom and told him, `You and I are not going to fight over this. This guy has been and will be a crook, and I don't want him around this office. One of us has to go.' He came back and said, `Bob's fine with me.'"

Responds Thinnes, "I looked at the presentence report, but I didn't bother to read it because it was so goddamned extensive. If I had, I wouldn't be in this position today."

Thinnes says he first learned the extent of Owens' truly checkered past last December.

All he knew before that, he insists, is that Owens had served some time in prison as a young man on a cocaine conviction.

But Owens always has been willing to dance with whoever will step out on the floor with him.

And that dance is always dirty.

"The story of Bob Owens is a lovely story of a reformed con man, but really with nothing reformed about him," says criminal defense attorney Laurie Herman, who had a memorable professional experience with Owens in the mid-1990s. "I've lost all respect for those big-shot attorneys who used him. They had to know there's slime on his trail. If you get in bed with the devil, you just might get burned."

Like the archetypal Satan preying on people during life's immoral junctures -- be they about a crime committed, debt incurred, or, in the case of many attorneys who repeatedly used him, outright greed -- Owens knew exactly when to spring and sink in his teeth.

"If you're asleep when the devil gets into bed with you," responds Thinnes, "and you kick him out when you finally wake up, does that make you guilty?"

That argument doesn't sway Craig Mehrens. "If Tom is going to take the position that he didn't know much about Bob's background and activities, that's very unfortunate because it's not true," Mehrens says. "I handed him the presentence report on Bob, which spelled it all out. Tom and Bob made lots of money together. The operative word here is greed."

Thinnes says he called county prosecutors early this year to report possible criminal wrongdoing by Owens. Citing a conflict, that agency sent the case to Attorney General Terry Goddard's office, whose investigators last May executed still-sealed search warrants on Owens' office at Edifice Lex, on his $400,000 home inside a gated community in central Phoenix, and at a storage facility.

After the search at Lex, someone draped yellow crime-scene tape across the door to Owens' office. It remained there, Thinnes says, until Owens ripped it down.

Owens' attorney, Steve Dichter, tells New Times, "We acknowledge that you have tried to reach Bob. But in light of what's going on, now isn't the time for us to make any comments."

Petra Cano has worked for almost two decades as a cashier at a west Phoenix supermarket.

"All I have ever known is work," says the single mother of two grown children. "I worked in the fields, and I've been working for Eddie Basha for 20 years. I'm a good person, but I am very naive."

One of 24 children born to migrant workers, she proudly bought her first home in 1981, a little place on West Romley Street. There, she raised her children, a boy and a girl.

On December 30, 2000, her son, Luis Pecina, was arrested on murder charges and locked up at the Madison Street Jail. Pecina heard through the jail grapevine that a lawyer named Thinnes was the best around. Luis called his mother, and asked her to set up an appointment with Tom Thinnes.

Cano soon went to Edifice Lex, but met instead with Bob Owens, who said he was Thinnes' "associate." That sounded to Cano like he was a fellow attorney. Owens said he would need $25,000 up front -- $15,000, then $10,000 -- to be followed shortly by another $75,000. He said he would appreciate the first payments in cash.

Cano didn't have that kind of money. Her biggest asset was her home, but a real estate agent told her it would take a few months to sell. The agent (this is grist for another story) said she'd give her $12,500 for the house. Cano agreed to the ridiculous deal, collected the money in a cashier's check and signed over her property. (County records show her quit-claim deed to the agent, who apparently also assumed the remaining mortgage of about $45,000, and that the agent sold the house three months later for $83,000.)

Cano says she and two male friends soon took $13,000 to Owens -- $10,000 from her house and $3,000 from a friend of her son's. She says Owens didn't provide a receipt.

Owens soon visited Luis Pecina at the jail. Later, he excitedly told his mother in a phone call that Owens thought he could beat the first-degree-murder rap, and that he might have to serve just a few years in prison. Cano says he also told her that Owens was going to watch his back for him at the jail, whatever that meant. She says Pecina told her to somehow find the other $75,000 for Owens.

Cano held a yard sale, sold most of her jewelry, and persuaded a friend to put up his business as collateral. But she never could come up with the remaining $75,000. Soon, she learned that Owens wasn't even a lawyer, and says she asked him for a receipt and accounting for the $13,000.

"He said I didn't need one because I already had two witnesses to the money going to him," she says. "I asked him for at least some of our money back. He said it had gone for `paperwork,' and there was nothing left. I knew I had gotten taken. I am his mother, and I was desperate. I thought about complaining to someone, but who would they believe, me and my fifth-grade education, or this guy with his fancy mouth and all that education?"

Tom Thinnes says he knew nothing about Petra Cano until a few months ago. Cano confirms she never spoke to Thinnes until recently. Luis Pecina still awaits trial, and is being represented by court-appointed counsel.

"I've lost about everything," Cano says. "I pray to God that someone does something about this man."

Bob Owens' lies outnumber anything else that comes out of his mouth, so compiling an accurate mini-biography isn't easy.

Though he's listed various birth dates, Owens seems to have been born in Tucson on March 1, 1963. His father, Sherwood, was a prominent dentist, and his mother, Mary-Ann, raised five children.

Owens later claimed in writing that he had graduated from Pima Community College and the University of Arizona. That was a lie. He never attended the university, and an official at Pima says he paid for a few classes there in the early 1980s but never graduated.

Owens moved to the Valley in early 1982, and found work as a paramedic with Air Medical Transport and Southwest Ambulance.

A lanky, good-looking young man with a disarming smile, Owens didn't have much trouble wooing the opposite sex. He also had a decent job for a guy in his early 20s with little education and no real skills.

In June 1985, the ambulance firm ordered Owens to see a psychiatrist after he allegedly stole two radios. He apparently attended one session, then stopped going and lost his job.

But Rural/Metro Sun City Fire Department hired him that fall, and he worked there as a paramedic until his arrest the following March.

In December 1985, a Terence Owens called Tempe police to say that his driver's license had been suspended wrongfully. He claimed that his brother Robert Shawn Owens had stolen his identity.

Terence said his brother even had bought a car falsely using his name, and would use his identity every time a cop stopped him. He said he would testify against Robert if necessary, and a Tempe officer forwarded the case for prosecution. Court records don't indicate the disposition.

Bob Owens later would tell people in Phoenix (New Times spoke with five of them) that Terence had drowned in a Tucson bathtub after suffering an epileptic seizure. But an official at the Pima County coroner's office says no one named Terence Owens has died in that county.

In March 1986, sheriff's deputies arrested Owens at the fire station in Sun City.

A search of Owens' bunk at the station uncovered a duffel bag stuffed with credit cards belonging to various people, including elderly Sun City residents whose cards had vanished while paramedics responded to their homes.

Police would tie Owens into at least 15 cases with 161 pieces of stolen property. A search of Owens' apartment elicited Gucci watches, Waterford crystal, credit cards, TV sets and a license plate to a stolen Chevy Camaro -- which Owens was driving with other plates at the time.

During the search, police also found a credit card belonging to the roommate of a woman whom Owens had dated. Owens had charged about $860 at a store using the roommate's card.

He stayed in jail for 38 days before he was released on his own recognizance. That July, Owens told his attorney that he wanted to talk to county prosecutors about a deal. He had already pleaded guilty to two felonies, theft and fraudulent schemes, in return for prosecutors dropping the slew of other charges.

Now Owens wanted to ensure that he didn't do time in prison. Through his lawyer, he let it be known that he would tell prosecutors about serious crimes that allegedly had been committed by other paramedics and his employers -- drug smuggling and murder -- in return for guaranteed probation.

A so-called "free talk" was arranged, and Owens started singing.

He said his employers were trafficking drugs into the United States from Mexico using medical planes. His fellow paramedics were among the distributors. The supposed murder victim was a Mike Stangles who supposedly had owed Owens' boss money. Another man involved with the supposed drug operation was missing and presumed dead.

Like any good con, Owens' shtick probably had grains of truth. As it was the mid-1980s and mandatory drug testing wasn't yet commonplace, paramedics may have been snorting cocaine on the job.

Proving anything was another matter.

It turned out, for example, that no one named Stangles or anyone close to that name had died in Maricopa County on or about the date that Owens had mentioned.

The deal had been contingent on Owens introducing a major drug dealer to undercover officers, or providing other equivalent information.

That hadn't happened. But Owens still was eligible for probation. What really hurt him before sentencing was that he continued to commit audacious crimes even after his plea bargain.

Incredibly, under the circumstances, Owens had found work after his release as a financial representative with a Mesa firm. He was responsible for enrolling people for loans and collecting unpaid accounts, which gave new meaning to the old saw about the fox in the henhouse.

During his interview, Owens told a manager that he had recently spent a year in Austria as a ski instructor, and before that had been a flight paramedic for Air Evac.

Obviously a quick study, Owens soon submitted two loan applications totaling $5,000. But the manager discovered that he had dummied up the paperwork. More homework revealed that he had also forged a signature on another loan for $2,500 using the name of a dead person, and deposited that sum into his own bank account.

When confronted that September, Owens wrote out a confession for the company, claiming he had stolen the money "in order to pay for funeral expenses. My father-in-law passed away last week."

But there was no father-in-law, and no funeral, only a rip-off.

The company fired Owens.

A week or so later, someone noticed that hundreds of confidential "account cards" were missing. Soon, a delinquent customer who worked at a hospital phoned to say Owens had called her at work, and said he was coming by to pick up her payment in cash.

He never did collect.

With his December 1986 sentencing still a few months off, Owens soon found yet another job around money, with ITT Financial in Mesa.

The woman who interviewed him for the position later told Judge Ted Noyes that Owens "seemed to be a very clean-cut, very knowledgeable young man who was seeking a financial career. He seemed to have a relatively active life."

Owens hired on at ITT as a loan officer.

Then, about a month into his tenure, he phoned in to say he wouldn't be coming into work that day. He said his sister had been in a car crash and wasn't expected to live, and that he was standing vigil.

Actually, Owens was calling from jail. That day, Judge Noyes had ordered him into custody until sentencing.

While Owens was away, an office manager looked at a loan application processed by Owens for which a $2,000 check had been cut. Most of the required information -- credit reports, a driver's license and the like -- was missing.

That's because the applicant didn't exist.

The manager then ordered a copy of the check that ITT had made out to its customer. Bob Owens' signature was on it.

But prosecutors declined to file new charges, and Owens' sentencing went as scheduled that December 19.

Owens told the judge that day, "Only I know what's going to happen in the future. I'm not asking to get out of anything."

But probation officer Billie Grobe painted a far different picture of the defendant.

"By all appearances," she wrote, "the defendant is the picture of a young and upwardly mobile junior executive, both respectful and successful. Digging deeper, it does not take long to see it is merely a carefully constructed faade of success and respectability -- there is no substance there."

She concluded, "Mr. Owens has demonstrated an ability to manipulate situations and individuals for his benefit and personal gain, with no thought for those he has victimized. He further demonstrated a lack of conscience in perpetrating crimes against the elderly, the sick and, in the case of the fraudulent loans, the deceased."

The judge agreed, telling Owens, "You can't be trusted, and will steal from everybody that you come in contact with, and will lie to anybody that you do come into contact with."

He then sentenced Owens to consecutive 10-year terms at the Department of Corrections.

Owens muttered "Oh Jesus!" twice before sheriff's deputies led him off in handcuffs.

In early June, Tom Thinnes spoke to those gathered at a Phoenix church for Mike Vaughn's memorial service. He recalled how pleased his officemate had been at a verdict in a sticky murder case in Mohave County last fall.

New Times had spoken with the 56-year-old attorney a few days before he died of a heart attack at a Southern California dog show on May 27, informing him that this story was being reported.

"Where do I fit into it?" he asked, before rushing off to a court hearing.

As it turns out, Vaughn would fit in at several junctures, including the Mohave County case of Steven Eugene Bowers. According to case prosecutor Lee Jantzen, the Lake Havasu paint contractor was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter after he struck a young pregnant woman with his pickup truck after she fled from his sister-in-law's apartment. The girl apparently had broken into the home. Bowers was incarcerated for a few weeks as his wife and family sought an attorney. Someone recommended Mike Vaughn. Bowers' wife called down to Phoenix, but was put in touch with Bob Owens, not Vaughn.

"Bob gave [us] a flat number that we were to pay," Bowers says. "It was $50,000 immediately and $25,000 after 30 more days, before anything really got started. We twisted and turned and borrowed to get that money."

Bowers says Owens called himself "an associate of Mike's [who] took care of the legwork, and Mike did the court stuff. We thought that Owens actually was a partner in the Thinnes firm who did some work with Mr. Vaughn."

Owens asked the Bowerses to make out the huge checks to him, and they did, making copies for their own records. Last fall, the case finally went to trial, and Bowers -- a polite man with no prior record -- testified on his own behalf. The verdict: reckless driving, the next thing to an acquittal.

Bowers says he paid another $15,000 into Vaughn's account for trial expenses, for a total of $90,000. He says he is still repaying loans he and his family took out to cover his defense, but owes $18,000. Last March, Bowers says, he got a phone message from Mike Vaughn.

"Mike said there were issues and asked if I'd be willing to talk with the Attorney General," Bowers says. He spoke with an investigator later that day. "The [office of the] Attorney General told me that the agreement between Mike [Vaughn] and Bob was that Bob was supposed to get $5,000 and Mike was going to get $40,000. My brain does do math. There are serious numbers missing here -- $30,000 that Robert took that wasn't his."

Bowers says Vaughn never told him he would be good for the extra money, nor did Bowers ask him to take responsibility for the alleged theft. How Vaughn learned about the rip-off is uncertain. "I don't know how Owens got away with this for so long," Bowers says, "but I'm convinced that Mike didn't know this was going on. Maybe if they prosecute this guy, maybe we'll get some money back. Sure could use it."

It didn't take Bob Owens long to get a feel for prison life. He ingratiated himself with just about everyone, from the prison chaplain to members of the Aryan Brotherhood with whom he apparently forged a relationship.

Trying to pin down Owens' time in prison, like just about everything else involving him, is an exercise in murkiness. His prison file is suspiciously thin, and lacks, for example, details about his known infractions.

Though Owens had lost his appeal, he didn't quit trying to find a way out of prison. According to letters written by Owens and others about his supposed activities in prison, Owens allegedly helped to prevent the suicide of another inmate, fought a fire at great risk to himself and was an eyewitness to a murder that prison officials supposedly wanted to keep hushed up.

Within a few years behind bars, Owens asked corrections officials to write letters on his behalf. Many obliged.

In July 1988, prison chaplain Paul Belhumeur wrote, "I see a genuine effort on Robert Owens' part to grow as a Christian. I believe the man intelligent and sincere enough to learn his lesson through the time he has served."

Several corrections officers, including Owens' future wife, Terri, and another officer who later worked for Owens as an investigator, also wrote positive letters.

Owens also was working on other fronts. Somehow, he connected with Dale Nannenga, a narcotics officer with the Tempe Police Department then working as part of a larger drug interdiction task force.

Sergeant Dan Masters, a spokesman with the Tempe department, says, "Regarding Mr. Owens, we do not have any files or correspondence involving him," adding that, after a five-year hiatus, all such records are destroyed.

But attorney Anders Rosenquist and others -- two Superior Court judges and one prosecutor -- say Nannenga heavily promoted Owens' early release.

"It was real smooth and slick," Rosenquist says. "I know that Nannenga spoke with Jim Keppel, and they cut a deal behind my back. Keppel didn't object to anything, and when I heard about it, neither did I. Bob was going to finger some guy bringing in dope from Tucson and other things."

Keppel recalls that the Tempe cop and others told him that Owens had been providing valuable information to law enforcement. That sounded good enough for him.

Judge Ron Reinstein recalls an "informal" meeting that March at which members of law enforcement spoke on Owens' behalf.

"Everyone said nice things about Bob," Reinstein says. "I learned that they'd been checking him in and out of prison for a while, and he'd done good things for them."

The judge ordered Owens' immediate release from custody. It had been almost six and a half years since Judge Noyes had ordered the 20-year sentence.

His attorney at the time, Anders Rosenquist, says he believed that Owens had been rehabilitated: "Bob has that baby face and a really innocent smile. He looks so innocent. We were all so excited for him. He's just so clever and street-smart. But in hindsight, those years in jail just rounded him out."

Chris Frank has spent almost half of his 37 years behind bars, mostly on drug-related crimes.

Just released from prison a few weeks ago after serving a 10-year sentence as a repeat marijuana dealer, Frank is hoping not to bump into Bob Owens on the street anytime soon.

"I'll beat the shit out of him," says Frank, whose prison nickname was Thumper. "This Owens thing has sat hard on my soul for 10 years. I may have an organized-crime history, a gang history. But I'm a man. He's a snitch and a scumbag."

The size of the bust -- 109 pounds of pot -- was relatively small. But because of his past record, Frank was staring at a life sentence when Tempe police arrested him in 1995. The arresting officer was Dale Nannenga, who had vouched for Bob Owens before the 1993 release.

Frank knew nothing about that when he first met with Owens at the county jail, where investigator-cum-attorney Owens apparently had been meeting with another inmate.

"He told me he'd heard all about my bust," Frank says, "and that he could get me off if I gave him $50,000 to give to Nannenga. I told him he was crazy. Then, after I hired Mike Vaughn, he told me that Owens could really help me."

Frank says his wife at the time, Natalie, eventually paid Owens and Vaughn about $15,000 each. Frank says he saw Owens in jail far more than Vaughn during the eight months that the pair were on the case.

"Owens started to ask me about where I kept my guns and hidden assets," Frank says. "That's when I started to get a little suspicious. He was taping everything."

A crucial component of the case against Frank was an affidavit for a wiretap of his phones. The police had relied on a source identified only as #6. Frank says he knew that the information attributed to #6 in the affidavit that led to the wiretap was provably false. If so, a judge may have suppressed the alleged evidence and the case against Frank may have foundered. Frank suspected that #6 was a guy named Cota, who lived in Tucson. Owens was instructed to look there for Cota. But he reported a few weeks later that Cota had been murdered.

Around that time, Frank says, Natalie began to seem more and more distant from him. She stopped paying Mike Vaughn and, Frank says, later admitted to him that she had gone to Las Vegas with Owens when he was supposed to be looking for Cota. (Natalie told New Times in a phone message last week that she would have no comment about Robert Owens.)

"Owens was sabotaging my defense," Frank says, "to make sure I got sent away for a long time. I confronted him, and I also told Mike Vaughn, and he told me that Bob was a happily married man."

Frank fired the pair in March 1996. His wife soon filed for divorce.

More than a year passed. A member of Frank's new legal team interviewed Dale Nannenga's partner at Tempe, and Frank says he was stunned to learn that "the guy knew some things that I had only told Bob Owens and Mike Vaughn, period. He had to have gotten it from Owens."

Frank learned later that Iran Tony Cota was very much alive and incarcerated at the Arizona State Prison. He says his law clerk at the time interviewed Cota at the prison, and that Cota admitted being #6 but denied knowing Chris Frank personally.

But the possibility of a life sentence if convicted at trial was too much for Frank to bear, especially when yet another of his attorneys made a tepid effort to get the critical wiretap affidavit dismissed.

He pleaded guilty and went off to prison.

In 1999, Frank sent letters to Natalie's last known mailing address after learning of his ex-mother-in-law's death. One letter was written to his ex-father-in-law, and the other a nasty one to Bob Owens. He received a return letter postmarked December 7, 1999, which he showed to New Times.

"As for Natalie, Chris, the best thing in her life was you going to prison," a man who identified himself as the ex-father-in-law wrote. "[We] were so happy for the state to take you away. Natalie got married and moved to Texas. No one gives a damn about you. Do we understand each other?"

The letter is in Owens' handwriting.

Natalie, by the way, hadn't married and moved to Texas. She was living in an apartment on North Seventh Street, where, on July 4, 1998, a "Bob and Natalie Owens" had filed a police report about a man toting a gun at the complex. The report says Owens called himself "a prosecutor with the County Attorney's Office."

Owens' hand had extended even to Natalie's divorce proceedings against Frank. Papers filed by Natalie in the case are clearly also in Owens' handwriting.

Then, in May 2001, Natalie filed for child support for her first child, born in 1992, before she knew Chris Frank. But she noted two children in her petition, the 9-year-old and another daughter with the last name of Owens. Natalie listed her employer as "Edifice Lex," the building owned by Tom Thinnes and Owens, and said she had been making $10 an hour since 1999.

Thinnes says she never worked there.

In November 2002, Natalie ordered 50 wedding invitations from a store in California. The wedding was scheduled for May 24, 2003. The invitations were to read, "A fresh new day, and it is ours. A day of happy beginnings when we, Natalie and Robert Shawn Owens pledge our love as one."

Trouble was, Owens was, and is, still married to Terri, with whom he had a child in January 2002.

Bob Owens had married Terri Daniels in November 1993 in a ceremony at the home of his attorney, Anders Rosenquist.

Owens was working part-time with Bill Gumm, an ex-sheriff's detective turned private investigator. Gumm befriended him while he was in prison.

Owens soon applied to the state for a process server's license, but failed the exam. Instead of taking the test again, he doctored a letter to make it appear that he had passed.

Thinking he was legit, attorneys Gary Rosser and Laurie Herman gave Owens work, which included serving orders of protection. Such orders only may be handed out by police officers, constables and licensed process servers.

In May 1994, according to a Phoenix police report, an unmarked car pulled up to a man named Elliott in a residential neighborhood. Elliott later told police that the driver shone a flashlight in his face, and said he worked fraud for the Phoenix PD.

He then served an order of protection on Elliott from an ex-girlfriend. Elliott secretly audio-taped most of the interaction, and later turned the cassette over to Phoenix police. The cops soon learned that the "officer" had been Bob Owens.

From a Phoenix police report: "Owens stated he worked for the Phoenix Police Department [and] also stated he worked fraud."

But an investigation into Owens was slow to develop.

Meanwhile, in late October 1994, Owens applied for and got a private investigator's license with the state police.

He listed an FBI agent, an investigator for the Attorney General's Office, an attorney, a businessman and a retired sheriff's detective as references.

Three weeks after Owens became a P.I., Phoenix police arrested him at his home on nine felony counts of tampering with public records.

One witness against Owens was attorney Gary Rosser, who had graduated from law school that summer. The two had become fast friends, and Rosser had given Owens some much-needed work.

"He lied right to my face about being a process server," Rosser says. "After a while, I couldn't believe anything that came out of his mouth. I had to meet him in a parking lot to get my files back. It was creepy. And he was still contacting my clients after I fired him trying to get money out of them."

Anders Rosenquist again represented Owens in his then-latest jam. In April 1995, Rosenquist told a prosecutor that Owens was continuing to work with law enforcement on various projects such as investigations of a drug-smuggling ring and a murder.

That should have sounded familiar to authorities.

Rosenquist noted in a letter that Tempe's ubiquitous Dale Nannenga was heading a multi-agency drug task force, and that Owens was essential to its success.

The attorney urged the prosecutor to drop the pending case, or he would go to County Attorney Rick Romley for satisfaction.

Playing all angles, Owens also asked Rosenquist to pass along a letter to the prosecutor. It claimed he had been offered a job by top members of the Aryan Brotherhood gang while in prison.

"I would be willing to work in the capacity as an `informant' to assist in the prosecution of illegal activities," Owens wrote.

Prosecutors soon offered a sweet plea bargain. Owens would plead guilty to two tampering charges designated as misdemeanors instead of felonies. He wouldn't have to spend any time in jail, and wouldn't even be on probation if he paid a fine of a few thousand dollars, which he did.

But it didn't take Owens long to get into a new pickle. In January 1996, he was arrested at Luke Air Force Base and charged with stealing more than $1,000 of merchandise from a store there.

Owens enlisted the help of Tom Thinnes, who wasn't known for defending shoplifting cases.

By then, Owens somehow had slithered his way into work as an investigator for top local attorneys, including Thinnes. Years later, in response to a complaint filed in 2002 with the State Bar of Arizona against Thinnes, Thinnes wrote this in defense of his then-ally:

"[The complainant] attempts to attack my character because I use Mr. Owens as an investigator. I decided to use Mr. Owens after speaking with Judge Ronald Reinstein, the judge who explained Bob's conviction and who later entered an order dismissing it. I subscribe to the philosophy that a person can change, as do other respected attorneys who are fully informed about Bob's past."

Thinnes said that other prominent attorneys then using Owens included Larry Debus, Charlie Brewer, Mike Vaughn, and the law firms of Burch and Cracchiolo, and Bryan Cave.

Reinstein tells New Times he doesn't remember speaking to Thinnes about the propriety of hiring Owens, even though he had sanctioned Owens' premature release from prison years earlier.

In any case, why would someone of Thinnes' reputation for thoroughness not even have read the revealing 1986 presentence report -- particularly since then-partner Craig Mehrens practically stuck it in his face in 1999?

And why hadn't he or the "other respected attorneys" he mentioned even heard about the 1994 tampering charges, or had bought Owens' dubious explanations for the 2000 fiasco involving the ex-anchorwoman?

"I'm not the only one who got taken," Thinnes says. "Judge Reinstein got taken, everybody got taken. This son of a bitch snookered me, and there's no question about it. For 38 years, I enjoyed a pretty damn good reputation in this community. I don't have anything to hide in this except maybe the fact of my stupidity."

In April 2003, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced the arrests of a Scottsdale couple, John and Carol Rizzo, on charges of concealing a few million dollars in income from the IRS in offshore and other accounts.

Both were incarcerated at the federal facility in Florence. On April 4, one of the couple's daughters, Leslie, went to Tom Thinnes' office. But the woman never saw Thinnes. Instead, she was introduced to Thinnes' associate Bob Owens. She paid Owens $750 for that initial meeting, and says she got a receipt on the law firm's stationery. Owens visited Carol Rizzo in Florence a few days later, but never did meet with John Rizzo.

"He said he was an attorney who could do great work for us if we had the money," recalls Carol Rizzo, who is living in the Valley under house arrest as she awaits sentencing after her guilty pleas. (John Rizzo remains in custody, also awaiting sentencing.)

Carol Rizzo says Owens "also insisted that I should give Leslie my power of attorney so she could take control of our cars before the government took them. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about."

She learned later that her daughter had given Owens a garage-door opener to the couple's rented home. "He said he wanted to take stuff out for safekeeping before the agents confiscated it," she says.

Tom Thinnes says he spoke to Owens when he returned that day from Florence: "He told me that if I got them out of [jail], then they had offshore money. I said, `I'm not screwing around with that,' and that was the end of it. I don't know what he did with the Rizzos after that."

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."

The couple did as they were told, and sent the first $10,000 to "Robert Owens, Esquire" on March 10. A month later, they sent a $5,000 check to Owens. (They provided New Times a copy of both checks.)

Owens got the second check a few days after prosecutors said they wouldn't be filing charges in the man's case.

"Bob lifted up the check right in front of me and kissed it," Robertson says. "Then he said, `This baby's in the bank!' He knew the case was done. I felt like I'd walked into the Twilight Zone."

No dummies, the New Jersey couple wondered about the $15,000 when their son told them the good news. After several attempts, they say, they got through on the phone to Tom Thinnes.

"He never really answered our questions about why the checks had been made out to Owens," Carol says. "He didn't seem to know that we'd paid anything. My husband asked him if Owens was his partner. He said no, he's an investigator. It was all very weird."

John recalls the same conversation. "I told Thinnes that his guy [Owens] had been ready to take our money and boogie. I think I made my point, especially when I mentioned filing something against him with the [State Bar]. He said we'd be getting our money back."

Later that month, "Owens and Associates" sent a $12,500 check to the couple.

"We paid Bob Owens $2,500 for nothing," Carol says. "It would have been $15,000 for nothing if we hadn't made a stink. How could a big-shot lawyer have a guy like that around him?"

Thinnes says he recalls nothing about this case.

Later in 2000 came the case of Aaron Markley, a Tempe man charged with selling meth to an undercover cop in a Mesa trailer park.

"Owens came into my office and said he'd just been retained by [attorney] Larry Debus," Rich Robertson says. "I read the police report, did some skip-tracing on my computer, and hit the jackpot. It was very exciting."

In this case, the jackpot was a mistaken identity, or, more precisely, a misspelled name. The bad guy's name was Markey, not Markley.

Aaron Markley never had been in the Mesa trailer park. The police had made a very bad mistake.

"Owens was at the beach in San Diego with his wife, and I called him, all pumped up," Robertson continues. "`Great!' he tells me. Next thing I know, there's a story in the paper about how Bob Owens had figured out this situation in 10 minutes. I ask him, `What's up?' He says, `It all happened so fast, I just told the reporter it was me. Sorry.'"

What an Arizona Republic columnist wrote was this: "Bob Owens wants it known that he, not the news media, discovered that Markley was innocent."

The story went national on NBC's Today show, with Owens getting more props. Then, Robertson says, "I'm seeing Owens on Channel 12 walking into the trailer park with Aaron Markley, the big hero."

Robertson decided to get out of Edifice Lex, even though he was a few months short of qualifying for his own P.I. license. He packed up on a weekend that August, thinking, he says, "that Bob might sabotage my files if he knew I was leaving."

When Robertson returned to drop off his key, he says Owens asked him what was up. "I told him, `Too many lies, Bob, too many lies.' That was it."

Tom Thinnes says he finally realized last December that "Bob Owens is a liar and a thief and a very bad guy."

He says John Rizzo, the incarcerated tax-fraud defendant, alerted him in a letter that he was about to file a State Bar complaint against him.

Rizzo's handwritten complaint said, "Mr. Thinnes seems to deny any responsibility for Mr. Owens by saying he did not know that Owens' [investigator's] license had lapsed. At no time did Owens ever reveal anything other than he was an attorney for Thinnes' office. Whether Thinnes knew or did not know if Owens was properly licensed is immaterial."

Actually, Thinnes need not have worried about the outcome of the Bar complaint. None of the Owens-related complaints against Thinnes or Mike Vaughn has passed muster with the Bar's discipline section, nor has the Bar brought unauthorized-practice-of-law charges against Owens.

The failure of the Bar to act led one frustrated complainant to write in May 2003, "If the State Bar can't see that something is egregiously wrong here, then there is something seriously wrong with the State Bar's system of self-regulation."

Last December 8, Thinnes called Owens into his office at Edifice Lex. With his tape recorder running, secretly, Thinnes went on the attack.

"Contrary to what you say about your love for me," Thinnes says, "you absolutely have no love for people. You use people and love things. That's exactly what your uncle said. You are a pathological liar."

Owens says on the tape that he "never once walked up to a client" and claimed to be an attorney.

"You're a fucking liar," Thinnes counters. "Your whole life just revolves around money -- that's the whole thing you're interested in."

He brings up ex-partner Craig Mehrens, reminding Owens that Mehrens had told him to "get that son of a bitch out of here."

Thinnes tells Owens that his children asked him, "`Why don't you just kill him?' I'm not going to do that. I want [you] to live out [your] miserable life. I have absolutely no use for you anymore. Your whole life is a lie. You'll never, ever go the straight way -- you can't."

For once, Owens hardly gets a word in.

Within weeks, Thinnes and Owens became enmeshed in a civil lawsuit over how to partition their building. The ongoing litigation has been vicious.

Prominent members of the Valley's legal community are nervously wondering what's going to happen after the AG's Office assesses its case against Bob Owens.

Tom Thinnes says he expects Owens will tell investigators, if he does talk, "that I put him up to this crap. But I didn't. He's a criminal all on his own."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8433.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin