Tucson meth ring: the rise and fall of one of city's largest

It netted $475,000 in cash and $200,000 in stolen goods while selling Mexican product
2011-07-31T00:00:00Z Tucson meth ring: the rise and fall of one of city's largestClayton R. Norman For The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tim Owens needed to get to Tucson.

In July 2004, he'd fled to Nogales, Sonora, after police found more than a pound of high-grade methamphetamine and a cache of guns in his Tucson home.

But four months later, he was getting antsy. He had payments to collect. His suppliers in Mexico wanted their money.

A few days earlier some of those suppliers had taken him to a field outside of Nogales where nooses hung from trees. Their message: Pay up, or die here.

Owens talked fast. He convinced them he could get the cash. They let him go, and he called a friend for help.

William Robert Reese had been to see Owens in Nogales before. Each time he drove home wearing a diaper of duct tape that concealed plastic bags full of Mexican-made crystal meth - meth Owens had given him, testimony and jail call transcripts show.

The drugs Reese carried would be cut and sold by dealers in Tucson. For carrying it here, he received a cut of the meth.

That day, they met at a grocery store in Nogales and headed toward the Mariposa Port of Entry. Before they reached the border they pulled over so Reese could stuff meth into his boots and tape more drugs to his crotch. He held four bags containing almost 10 ounces of white crystals - an amount that, according to a price list police had discovered in Owens' house, was worth about $7,000.

A Mexican federal police officer approached and "pretty much scared the crap out of us," Reese said in testimony given as part of a plea agreement more than a year later. "After that I never really even got it strapped on. We just left. The cop let us go, and we just left and crossed the border."

But Owens didn't make it.

When he couldn't produce ID, he told U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents his wallet had been stolen in Mexico. Agents questioned and fingerprinted him and his prints turned up a warrant for drug and weapons charges. He was taken to the Pima County jail.

Owens' arrest led to an investigation that eventually unraveled a large-scale, meth-fueled crime ring in central Tucson. By the end there would be stacks of court documents - affidavits, search and arrest warrants, police reports, transcripts of court testimony and jailhouse phone calls. Thirty-nine defendants would face 102 criminal charges.

Police say the takedown scuttled one of the last local meth rings, one that boosted midtown property crime and netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for those involved. As the state passed laws limiting most of the ingredients necessary to make meth, production moved south of the border and cartels now run the operations Owens and others once headed.

Criminal Enterprise

In 2003, Owens was an unemployed auto mechanic from Douglas. He needed money, and he found a way to get lots of it through his connection with a man he later described as an officer in the Mexican military.

The man offered him a steady supply of high-octane meth on credit. That supply allowed him to corner the market for meth in midtown Tucson in 2003 and 2004.

Owens maintained the supply. Donna Greenwell, a one-time nurses aide, handled distribution and accounting.

A small army of low-level dealers - including Greenwell's two grown sons - moved the product on the street. Users committed a wide variety of crimes to support their habit of buying from Owens and Greenwell.

"Tim Owens had a great source of methamphetamine in Mexico," said Arizona Assistant Attorney General Richard Wintory, who in 2005 as deputy county attorney in Pima County prosecuted Owens and Greenwell. "He had a group of people loyal to him or beholden to him that he exercised control over. And with Donna Greenwell he had a terrific office manager for the front business."

Greenwell's bookkeeping was meticulous - so meticulous that when investigators eventually discovered her ledger of drug transactions they found themselves with a blueprint of the entire operation.

In 16 months, investigators said, the pair sold 38 pounds of meth to 130 different buyers in more than 1,500 separate transactions. They brought in $475,000. Police estimate the pair received $200,000 more in stolen property in exchange for meth and other drugs.

Their customers stole cars, property and identities that they could leverage into cash. They used that cash to buy more meth.

And the cycle repeated.

Sketch of an organization

On Dec. 31, 2003, a man entered a midtown Eegee's asking to use the phone, and employees saw a pistol tucked into his waistband.

Police responded and found the man had not only a concealed weapon but also half an ounce of methamphetamine. He told cops he'd bought the meth from Donna Greenwell.

It was the first time authorities heard of Greenwell. They began watching her house near North Swan Road and East Pima Street, and saw people coming and going. Those they approached had drugs, stolen IDs and stolen property.

In a June 2004 raid on Greenwell's house, police found 16 guns as well as meth packaged for sale, scales, syringes, baggies, and an assortment of other drugs including marijuana and narcotic pills. They also found ledgers and price sheets for drugs and property from numerous burglaries across Pima County.

They arrested Greenwell and charged her with, among other things, fortifying a building for drug trafficking. She posted bail and got out of jail the next day.

Six days later, the County Attorney's Office dropped the charges pending further investigation.

That same day, detectives in an unrelated investigation raided Owens' house on East Kleindale Street. A tip from an informant was about stolen cars, not meth.

Owens wasn't home. Cops found cars they suspected were stolen and a safe in the bedroom that held almost a pound of meth.

Police photographs of his house that day show stacks of DVD players, computer hard drives, televisions and tools. A collection of enormous teddy bears tops a wobbly pile of loot. In Owens' bedroom, a computer monitor is connected to a surveillance camera mounted over the front door.

Cops raised Owens on the telephone during the raid. He told them all but two of the cars parked outside belonged to him. And then he fled to Mexico.

Unraveling

Owens' departure upset the equilibrium of the operation. Within a month, Greenwell was arrested a second time during a traffic stop. A search of her car turned up 110 grams of meth, cocaine, $3,000 in cash and a drug ledger detailing transactions back through 2003.

She bonded out, was arrested again a few days later, bonded out again, and was arrested again in September.

In October, Owens was arrested in Mexico carrying a pistol. Greenwell traveled down to bail him out. Then the Mexican suppliers closed in, threatening him in that field of nooses.

Owens wanted desperately to get back to Tucson. But his motivation had changed. Before, selling meth was about turning a profit. Now, it was about staying alive.

On Nov. 7, he tried unsuccessfully to cross the border with Reese and his meth-filled diaper.

From the Pima County jail, he made calls to arrange the processing and sale of the meth Reese had smuggled up from Nogales. He ordered his crew not only to sell his meth, but also to collect money other people owed him.

Released again in January after another arrest, Owens was hungry for cash, and he had a list of people who owed him. He had led a team of five men and his girlfriend on a mission to collect on his debts and to steal equipment and chemicals to start making meth.

They drove to the home of a man who owed Owens money for meth - and who Owens suspected had a mobile meth lab.

The mobile lab, essentially a backpack-style cooler filled with glassware and explosive chemicals, represented, for Owens, a way to get out from under the thumb of the Mexican military officer. If he could make his own product he could make good on what he'd lost in the raid in June. He would not swing from the trees.

Owens forced the man at gunpoint to drive to a trailer on the northwest side and he started taking stuff.

Then the cops showed up.

Pictures taken at the scene show Owens handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser, his hair a shock of wild brown and his hazel eyes burning with feral intensity.

He was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and burglary. This time he would not be released.

The Ledger

In early 2005, a DEA agent named Richard Kivi took an interest in Greenwell and Owens. As a DEA liaison to the Tucson Police Department, Kivi had spent some time with the beat cops and night detectives who worked midtown Tucson. He knew Greenwell's name and he wanted to connect the dots that hid the shape of her enterprise.

Kivi went to the police evidence locker and combed through the items that had been seized during Greenwell's arrests.

He found her ledger.

"You're not going to believe this," he told former prosecutor Wintory. "I think she wrote down every time she sold methamphetamine."

Working backward, Kivi connected aliases and phone numbers listed in the ledger. Then he subpoenaed phone companies for subscriber information and came up with names - the same names of people arrested coming or going from Greenwell's house in the previous year. He cross-referenced amounts of meth listed in Greenwell's sales records with amounts seized from people leaving her house.

They matched.

Kivi also listened to jailhouse phone calls of Owens running his operation from behind bars and ordering his thugs to inflict pain on those who owed him money.

"He really has a thing about breaking fingers," one of them later told detectives.

Kivi used those phone calls, the ledger, police reports, interviews and other evidence to create a "diary" of the operation. That led to an August 2005 indictment that detailed 102 criminal charges against 39 people.

The End

None of the 39 defendants walked away clean.

Many took plea agreements, securing lesser sentences in exchange for testifying against Owens and Greenwell. Some got probation, others got years of prison time plus restitution.

Greenwell's sons each were sentenced to less than five years in prison.

Greenwell herself took a plea deal that got her five years in prison followed by supervised probation.

"I agree that I was involved in a criminal enterprise," she told investigators. "But I did not view it as an enterprise. The people that I worked with were not as organized as the state's indictment would lead you to believe. It was a very loose association."

Today, she is out of prison and her probation is complete. Repeated attempts to contact her for this story were unsuccessful.

Owens faced charges including money laundering, fraud, possession of a dangerous drug for sale, kidnapping, burglary, racketeering and solicitation to commit murder.

In 2007, at age 50, he was sentenced as a dangerous drug offender, netting him an automatic 25-year sentence. He remains incarcerated at the Arizona State Prison Complex at Yuma, and is appealing.

"Tim Owens had a great source of methamphetamine in Mexico. He had a group of people loyal to him or beholden to him that he exercised control over. And with Donna Greenwell he had a terrific office manager for the front business."

Richard Wintory, Arizona Assistant Attorney General ,who in 2005 as deputy county attorney in Pima County prosecuted Owens and Greenwell

Editor's note

The new model for distributing meth includes high-end Mexican drug labs and a sophisticated supply chain. The "traditional" model included a rental house where low-level criminals divided up small quantities of cheap meth and traded it for cash, stolen goods or stolen IDs from addicts desperate for their next hit. The system was messy and inefficient, but still not easy for authorities to crack.

Tim Owens and Donna Greenwell ran one of Tucson's largest old-school meth operations, which brought in $475,000 in cash plus $200,000 in stolen goods during its run. This tale of the ring's rise and fall is taken from court documents and interviews with Arizona Assistant Attorney General Richard Wintory.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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