To Catch a Thief

On the morning of April 5, a pale and paunchy middle-aged man wearing a black-and-white-striped jail outfit stood before county Judge Brian Ishikawa.

The courtroom was empty but for court personnel, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, the case investigator, a reporter, and Robert Shawn Owens, who was the pasty-faced guy in jail togs.

The 44-year-old Owens was about to plea-bargain to stealing thousands of dollars from so-called clients. Though he never graduated from college, Owens impersonated an attorney for years while working as an investigator for Thomas Thinnes, a storied Phoenix criminal-defense lawyer who died in 2004.

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

Owens is expected to be sentenced early next month to 10 years in prison, of which he will have to serve at least eight-and-a-half years. Since he has been incarcerated at the Maricopa County Jail for 18 months in lieu of $2 million bail, Owens will have to serve about seven more years before becoming eligible for parole.

The Phoenix man's criminal exploits and assorted misdeeds have been the stuff of legend in downtown Phoenix's legal circles ("Catch Him If You Can," August 12, 2004).

That story and others ("Lord of the Lies," November 11, 2004, and "The Dead Lawyer Made Him Do It," July 28, 2005), described how Owens had pulled all manner of scams on criminal defendants and their families, cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.

Along the way, he got rich and won a reputation as untouchable by the criminal-justice system because of whom and what he knew.

When Owens surrendered to police after a grand jury indicted him in July 2006, he was living with his wife and two small children in a fancy home in a gated Phoenix community (a girlfriend with her young child was residing in a nearby condo, courtesy of Owens), was a member of the exclusive University Club of Phoenix, and was a familiar customer at the area's top-dog nightspots.

Owens' arrest was the result of a meticulous investigation by Mike Edwards, a special agent with the Arizona Attorney General's Office who cared nothing about the con man's durable reputation as a courthouse "fixer."

If he heard it once, Edwards said after Owens' arrest, he'd heard it a dozen times during his wide-ranging investigation: This case won't go anywhere because Owens has the legal system in his back pocket.

Owens may have been in control, at one time.

But his luck ran out.

Edwards worked closely with two diligent county prosecutors, first with Brad Astrowsky and, later, after Astrowsky left for private practice, with Annielaurie Van Wie.

They documented how Owens had ripped off hundreds of thousands of dollars (no one knows precisely how much) from his legion of victims, many of them people convinced he was an attorney working for them or their loved ones.

Concurrently, Owens had continued to work as a police informant, tossing tantalizing pieces of information to authorities, seemingly as protection from prosecution whenever he ran afoul of the law.

That this career grifter finally ended up back in court on a slew of major felony charges shouldn't have surprised anyone who knew him.

Two decades earlier, in December 1986, Bob Owens also had stood for sentencing before a county judge after pleading guilty to stealing money and valuables from elderly patients while working as a paramedic in Sun City.

Even then, courthouse veterans recall, Owens bragged that he was untouchable and wouldn't be serving a day in prison.

But Judge Ted Noyes had something else in store for the young hustler, then in his mid-twenties.

Noyes told Owens at his sentencing, "You're picking up elderly people as they're going to and from the hospital, stealing their credit cards and cash, charging thousands of dollars on their credit cards . . . I am just convinced that your lifestyle is such that you are going to continue to defraud people if I give you the chance."

The prescient jurist sentenced Owens to 20 years in prison.

But another judge freed the criminal less than seven years later, after authorities expressed appreciation for Owens' continued work as a prison informant.

Later, one of Owens' attorneys joked privately that his client, while in prison, had accomplished the impossible by uniting the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia — both groups wanted to kill him for being a snitch.

Back in Phoenix in the early 1990s as a free man, Owens quickly reinvented himself as a private investigator with powerful connections.

Big-time defense attorneys and cops alternately welcomed him into their folds as a most valuable player.

The most prominent of the lawyers were Tom Thinnes, Mike Vaughn and Larry Debus, for whom Owens worked many cases as an investigator. (Thinnes and Vaughn each died of heart failure as investigator Edwards continued to home in on Owens. Debus, Owens' former neighbor in the gated community on East Missouri, is still among the living.)

Judge Ishikawa asked the handcuffed and shackled Owens at last week's hearing if he agreed with the "factual basis" of his guilty plea — that Owens had stolen thousands of dollars and a Cadillac Escalade from three of his many victims.

Owens shrugged and paused briefly before answering, "Yes, sir," to each charge.

One of the victims was a Goodyear widow for whom he'd allegedly been working gratis to distribute a life-insurance benefit payable to her after her husband's death. In that case, Owens stole about $28,000.

Judge Ishikawa reminded Owens that a restitution hearing for victims is pending, where the crook will be ordered to repay up to $3 million.

Investigator Edwards has said Owens still controls about $500,000 in assets, a sum that apparently won't cover everything he stole from his most recent victims.

After the hearing ended, a detention officer led the handcuffed and shackled Owens back to jail to await sentencing, scheduled for May 4.

In the hallway after the session, Owens' veteran attorney, Steve Dichter, seemed relieved that the plea bargain finally was official.

"We worked very closely with the County Attorney's Office to resolve this case fairly, and I think we did," Dichter said as prosecutor Van Wie and Edwards listened in. "To my way of thinking, it's a fair disposition."

In truth, it's a very fortunate disposition for Owens, who effectively was looking at a life sentence if he'd risked going to trial and lost.

The prosecutor and investigator silently gave each other high-fives in the courthouse elevator.

Van Wie had worked this case longer and harder than any other in her career as a deputy county attorney and seemed satisfied with the apparent outcome. Edwards, a retired Chandler detective for whom this was a career case, certainly wouldn't have minded a much longer sentence for Owens, but he, too, appeared pleased.

Some of Owens' victims are expected to testify at his sentencing next month.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin