Longform

Catch Him If You Can

Page 6 of 12

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin