The Dead Lawyer Made Him Do It

Robert Shawn Owens stepped into the 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix about noon last Wednesday, July 20, crisply attired in khakis and a pink pinstriped shirt.

Owens didn't forget his glasses so he could read the legal papers about his case at his initial appearance in court later that afternoon. He knows the drill well.

In 1986, a Maricopa County judge sentenced Owens to 20 years in prison for stealing from elderly patients while working as a paramedic. He served less than seven years, then got out of prison in exchange for his work as a government snitch.

Owens soon reinvented himself as a private investigator with deep ties to the street. He courted local criminal-defense attorneys, and worked his way up the ladder until reaching the top rung in the mid-1990s.

That's when storied Phoenix attorney Tom Thinnes took him under his wing.

At the same time, Owens continued to work as an informant. He'd throw tidbits of information to cops and prosecutors in return for his continued insulation from prosecution whenever he ran afoul of the law, which seemed to happen on a regular basis, according to police reports and other documents.

Apparently, no amount of tattling could save him last Wednesday, as he bided his time in a little holding cell.

By prior agreement with prosecutors, Owens had surrendered after a Maricopa County grand jury indicted him on 15 felony counts, including theft, fraud, forgery, burglary and possession of cocaine.

Owens' attorney, Steve Dichter, had conceded in a July 11 letter to prosecutors that many of those alleged crimes -- Owens says he's innocent -- were first documented in two New Times stories ("Catch Him If You Can," August 12, 2004, and "Lord of the Lies," November 11, 2004):

"The New Times became the primary place from which we learned the allegations that, with almost no important exceptions, are the allegations contained in the indictment."

Owens, 42, long had evaded prosecution, and most observers familiar with his history as a criminal-justice system "embed" doubted he'd ever be busted again.

But if Mike Edwards, a special agent for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, and county prosecutor Brad Astrowsky win the day in court, Owens will be spending many more years in prison.

Edwards got on the case in early 2004, after the dramatic collapse of the extremely tight personal and business relationship between Owens and Tom Thinnes. Thinnes provided boxes of evidence to the agent that allegedly implicated Owens in all manner of criminal wrongdoing.

The current charges against Owens include the alleged theft of about $200,000 from 15 victims, many of them clients of Thinnes or attorney Mike Vaughn.

In several instances, Owens is accused of stealing money or property that was supposed to be payment as a retainer for legal services. Turns out that many of the clients and their families believed Owens was an attorney associate of Thinnes.

Thinnes denied until the end that he'd known anything about any wrongdoing by Owens until way late in the game. Many who knew the pair say that Thinnes had to have known, and had continued to look the other way for his own, selfish reasons.

However, others insist Thinnes simply got conned by a master.

Among other charges, the new indictment accuses Owens of stealing $28,000 from a Goodyear widow for whom he'd allegedly been working for free. The woman had allowed Owens to control the distribution of a substantial life-insurance benefit payable to her after her husband's death.

Authorities confirm that the investigation into Owens is continuing, with more charges a distinct possibility. Court records indicate that Agent Edwards is just getting into the details of the alleged theft by Owens last year of about $500,000 from Owens' wife's grandfather's estate.

If one includes that sum and another $400,000 that Edwards also suspects Owens stole from Thinnes, the amount increases to more than $1 million.

Thinnes, who died of a stroke last September, is a central figure in this saga. His intense allegiance to Owens over the growing objections of Thinnes' family and longtime associates ultimately cost him much of his hard-won reputation.

Many people, including his family, are convinced that the stress over the Owens "situation" killed him. (Attorney Vaughn also died suddenly last year, a few months before Thinnes. Vaughn was 56. Thinnes was 64.)

Prosecutors so far haven't asked grand jurors to indict Owens for stealing from Thinnes, and with good reason.

Suppose that Owens did steal truckloads of money from Thinnes. It still would be a tall order for jurors to find sympathy for a sophisticated lawyer who befriended a known con artist for years.

It may prove easier for prosecutors to deal with Thinnes in trial as both an uncharged accomplice of Owens and a patsy than as a classic victim.