The former city manager of Aurora, Texas, stole $656,909 from the Wise County town of 2,500 and posed as the town’s auditor as investigators closed in after a suspicious fire this summer destroyed financial records at City Hall, prosecutors say.
For more than a century, the town of Aurora has been known for a legend that an alien died after crashing a spacecraft near a windmill back in 1897.
A grave where the alien, named Ned, is supposedly buried has become a tourist attraction.
Businesses like "Martian Margaritas" on Highway 114 — they call it "Area 114" — promote the story.
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When the fire on June 1 destroyed City Hall, some locals joked an alien probably set it. But now, prosecutors say, they're unraveling the mystery.
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"You never know what you're going to get when you start an investigation,” said Wise County District Attorney James Stainton.
Just two weeks before the fire, Texas Rangers were contacted by City Councilmember Deb Terrell.
"They looked at me like, 'Who's this woman? Why is she coming forward?'" Terrell said.
Terrell, a beekeeper who was first elected two years ago, became suspicious of longtime City Manager Toni Wheeler and suspected she was embezzling money.
"I'm a big budget person. That's my background,” Terrell said.
Terrell said even as a council member, she couldn't get straight answers about city spending.
She said oversight was clearly lacking. The City Council only held one meeting in her first two-year term, she said.
Texas Rangers wanted evidence.
"He told me to follow the money, so I started following the money,” Terrell said.
At the same time, separate from Terrell, businessman Gary Garcia was pushing for answers.
He and his husband filed a lawsuit against Wheeler, and others, just a month earlier over a restaurant they owned called Atomic Taco Cafe, which had to close because of plumbing problems.
"We got written up in Texas Monthly. We were very successful,” Garcia said. “The issue was the septic. It was smelling. It was sewage all over."
It was in the same complex off Highway 114 as Martian Margaritas.
Garcia said in his court filing that Wheeler helped negotiate the lease, but after he complained about the sewage, gave him the runaround about things like city inspections and who actually owned the property.
Garcia’s lawyer started demanding documents, filing open record requests that the city was legally required to answer.
"It didn't add up,” Garcia said. "So we're unpeeling this onion."
Garcia went to the sheriff and even the FBI but said nobody would listen.
"And all of the sudden, June 1, the fire happens," Garcia said.
The district attorney said Terrell's complaint about missing money just two weeks earlier became key to the arson investigation.
"She was suspicious of some things, and so she asked for some records, and all of the sudden we have a fire,” Stainton said.
Separate from Terrell, Garcia said he also reported his suspicions days before the fire.
"So I reached out to Texas Rangers, just everyone to kind of say, there's something going on here,” Garcia said.
Wheeler said all the city's records were destroyed in the fire, so the Rangers started digging, subpoenaing detailed records from Aurora's bank.
"And it was very apparent at that point that this was an arson investigation but also a misuse of public funds investigation as well,” the prosecutor said.
According to court documents, Wheeler gave the Rangers the name of a Houston CPA who, she claimed, fully audited the city's books.
But investigators quickly grew suspicious.
"You know he started calling their 'auditor' and couldn't get a phone call back,” Stainton said. “Well I will tell you, to a good Ranger, they call that a clue."
Prosecutors said Wheeler "posed" as the auditor, setting up a phony website and even emailing the Ranger that a "complete review" of city finances found "no unusual purchases."
The Rangers then started poring over the bank records.
"When you start seeing $100,000 to Amazon, you start to think, 'hmm, it doesn't make a lot of sense,'” Stainton said.
According to Wheeler’s arrest affidavit, the bank records show:
- $96,728 to Amazon
- $195,770 in "payments to individuals" via apps like PayPal and Venmo
- $130,828 to a construction company linked to Wheeler
- $85,744 to Wheeler's personal credit cards
- $630 to Airbnb
Wheeler could not be reached for comment. Wheeler’s attorney in the restaurant lawsuit, J. Michael Carrillo of Decatur, did not respond to emailed messages.
Wheeler was arrested Thursday, booked into the Wise County Jail and released on a $100,000 bond.
She was fired by the city in October.
"When you've been given that kind of trust and you abuse that trust and you steal from the people that trusted you including the taxpayers in your community, it's a big deal man,” Stainton said.
The district attorney said he'll do everything he can to get the money back.
As for the suspicious fire at City Hall, nobody has been charged with setting it. Stainton said he's waiting for a final report from the state fire marshal before deciding whether to charge Wheeler or anyone else with arson.
"I would say, yeah, she's a suspect,” Stainton said.
Back at Area 114, Martian Margaritas is closed now.
Turns out, the Rangers’ investigation determined Wheeler was an owner of the business and used city money to pay workers there.
Next door, the owners of Smoking Windmill BBQ said they've known Wheeler for years and have a hard time believing the charges.
"It's a big shock, disappointing, but at the end of the day, I still forgive and hope she finds a better way,” Sean Merchant said.
Texas Rangers told them they may soon seize the entire property to repay the city, Merchant said.
Others think Wheeler should pay.
"I just hope we get restitution,” Terrell said. "That's what I was investigating. What happened to our taxpayer money?"
"I think there's more to uncover,” Garcia added.
A city that is known for a bizarre alien landing, now on the map for another reason.
"I'd rather be known for Ned crashing a spaceship in Aurora, Texas, in 1897 than anything else going on right now,” Merchant said.