Aurora couple accused of robbing post office, attempting to zip tie employees

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AURORA | Federal authorities say a husband and wife from Aurora collaborated yesterday to hold up workers from a local post office at gunpoint and steal more than $5,000.

Officials took Joseph and Phelisha Wheeler into custody last night about five hours after investigators say they robbed the Buckingham Plaza post office, located at 1074 Ironton St., according to a criminal complaint filed against the couple in U.S. District Court this morning. 

Police first received reports from postal clerks of an armed robbery at the post office across the street from the Gardens on Havana shopping center around 4 p.m. yesterday, according to the complaint. The clerks told police a black man dressed in all black clothing, including gloves and a balaclava, entered the post office, then brandished a handgun and told the postal clerks to get on the ground. The man threw zip ties at the two clerks working at the time, but one of them did not put the zip ties on because she didn’t know how to, according to the complaint.

Another clerk put zip ties on himself, but quickly removed one of his hands from the bindings because the robber told him to stand up, and he couldn’t do so while bound.

An unidentified postal customer who was in the post office at the time of the holdup said she hid under the counter in the front lobby and heard a man holding a gun tell the clerks, “mother***er, get on the ground,” the complaint said.

The man proceeded to empty the cash register drawers into a gray, drawstring bag, and either dropped or threw the drawers on the ground, according to varying accounts in the complaint.

He then walked with the clerks to the back safe and ordered them to lie on the floor in a prone position, the complaint said. One of the clerks told the man the safe was open, but contained no money. The man then peered into the safe and left the post office, at which point the clerks called 911 and postal investigators. The incident lasted about two minutes, investigators determined after reviewing video surveillance footage from the post office.

More surveillance footage from the nearby Hamburger Stand on South Havana Street showed a bald man matching the description of the robber run across the parking lot, remove something from his face, and enter a dark-colored Ford Escape driven by a woman described as “a heavyset, white female with blond hair in a ponytail,” according to the complaint. The car then drove south on South Iola Street.

Upon canvassing the area, Aurora police found a black stocking cap, a black balaclava mask and zip ties.

Investigators then identified Philesha, 46, and Joseph, 48, as possible suspects of the robbery by linking them to a truck, registered under their names, with the license plate number on the back of the Ford Escape. Police found the couple’s current address by pulling up a traffic ticket Philesha was issued by Aurora police earlier this year.

Officers went to the couple’s current home near the corner of East 16th Avenue and Ceylon Street shortly after 8:30 p.m. last night and found a Ford Escape that matched the car seen in the surveillance footage from the Hamburger Stand. At about 9:15 p.m., investigators followed the couple as they drove their car to a liquor store, then a Sinclair gas station on East Colfax Avenue. Officers apprehended the couple at the gas station and took them into custody for questioning.

Phelisha told authorities she and Joseph were near the Hamburger Stand at the time of the crime to buy cocaine from Joseph’s uncle, “Willie,” who was bald, wearing dark clothes and carrying a drawstring bag. She said she and Joseph drove to Willie’s apartment near the intersection of Interstate 25 and Hampden Avenue to get cocaine. Phelisha then drove to a nearby King Soopers store with Willie’s girlfriend, Connie, before driving to the couple’s home on East 16th Avenue.

Joseph denied committing the robbery, but said he met his “partner, ‘Derek,’” at a nearby hamburger stand before running errands with Phelisha at the time of the crime. He said he had been with Phelisha during her shift at Denny’s earlier in the day, and the couple went to several stores in the afternoon before going home. Joseph told investigators he could not remember his own address.

Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the local U.S. District Court, did not comment on whether authorities are still searching for additional suspects.

“I can only say the matter continues to be under investigation,” Dorschner said.

Both Joseph and Phelisha appeared in District Court in Denver this morning to be advised of their formal charges. Joseph faces one charge of assault/robbery involving mail while using a dangerous weapon, according to the criminal complaint. Phelisha faces one charge for aiding and abetting the same crime.

After the robbery, postal inspectors estimated $5,200 was missing from the post office.

Both Wheelers are being held without bond in the custody of the U.S. Marshall service at an undisclosed location, according to Dorschner.

Joseph, a convicted felon, has a lengthy criminal rap sheet dating back to 1989, according to the complaint. He has been charged with forgery, burglary, car theft, possession of a weapon, assault, obstruction and kidnapping.

The complaint did not detail any criminal history related to Phelisha.  

 Phelisha and Joseph each face up to 25 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, according to the complaint.

The couple is due in court again next week.