DENVER (AP) — Three men were arrested for investigation of murder after a Denver bar was set on fire to cover up five killings committed during a robbery, authorities said Thursday.
"I don't want to say that it was a robbery gone bad, but it wound up being a robbery," police Cmdr. Ronald Saunier said of the early Wednesday deaths and blaze at Fero's Bar & Grill. "The arson was set to try to cover up the crime scene."
Saunier declined to provide details, and the medical examiner has not released any causes of death.
Dexter Lewis, 22, one of the suspects, stood silently and stared at the judge in his first court appearance just hours after his arrest.
He was advised of the potential charges against him, then led from the courtroom in chains, mouthing "I love you" to his mother, Tammesa Jones, in the gallery.
Jones said her son is an artist who is expecting a baby with his fiance.
"This is not something he would ever do," she said. Moments later, she fell sobbing into her sister's arms.
Joseph Hill, 27, and his brother, Lynell Hill, 24, also were arrested for investigation of murder, robbery and arson. Formal charges had not been filed.
The fire occurred about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday on a poker night at the bar. Firefighters found the bodies of one man and four women, including the bar's owner, 63-year-old Young Fero.
The medical examiner identified the other victims as Daria M. Pohl, 21, Kellene Fallon, 44, and Tereasa Beesley, 45, of Denver; and Ross Richter, 29, who was from Overland Park, Kan., and recently worked in Colorado.
Investigators were led to the three suspects by tips received after a news conference. Saunier believes the men had been to the bar before.
Court records indicate that Lewis pleaded guilty to robbery charges in Jefferson County in 2008. There was no indication in the records of a sentence being handed down.
Lawyer Sara Garrido, who represented Lewis in his robbery case, remembered him as "very articulate and very nice" and said he didn't seem like the kind of person who would commit the crimes in the bar fire.
"He was very sweet, very intelligent," said Garrido, who was a public defender at the time. She didn't remember the outcome of the case.
Authorities had issued a warrant for Lynell Hill on Oct. 9 because he violated probation in a 2008 assault case in Arapahoe County. Hill failed to pay restitution, missed a probation appointment and didn't show up at a hearing to address that, said Casimir Spencer, a spokeswoman for the 18th Judicial District.
Hill had been given a deferred judgment in the assault case and put on probation.
Hill's court appearance was delayed until Friday. No hearing had been scheduled for his brother.
A memorial with flowers, stuffed animals and pictures of Young Fero was created outside the bar where she was known for whipping up beef bowls and usually closed up most nights. Her name was spelled out in tea lights.
The bar, in a strip mall south of downtown, drew a mixed crowd of regulars and visitors from nearby hotels, but residents said it was never crowded. Some said it was struggling.
Regular lunch customer Adrian Mora said Fero had asked him to pass out fliers to help boost business. The robbery motive surprised him.
"I'm not sure what's happening, what kind of robbery it was. She had no business. She was getting afraid of getting shut down," he said.
Fero's estranged husband, Danny Fero, declined to comment on why the bar might have been targeted.
More details emerged about the other people killed.
Richter had worked in Colorado for the Bureau of Land Management, patrolling and taking care of campgrounds and assisting rafters, according to his father, James Richter.
Beesley grew up in the eastern Montana town of Sidney and recently bought a bar near Fero's. She had just booked a plane ticket so her 15-year-old daughter, Sierra, could join her in Denver for Christmas, said her ex-husband, Cliff Beesley. Cliff and Sierra Beesley live in Yuma, Ariz.
Pohl was a sophomore at Metropolitan State University of Denver and planned to transfer to the University of Colorado Denver to pursue a business degree. She lived at her family's home not far from the bar.
Neighbors Bert and Suzanne Kasben said Pohl had several waitressing jobs and seemed to be always working. She was one of three sisters in a tight-knit family often seen walking their dog in a quiet cul-de-sac.
Fallon obtained a Colorado cosmetologist license in April 2006, which allowed her to style and color hair and perform manicures, pedicures, facials and similar services. Her license expired two years later, and it wasn't clear whether she ever worked in the field.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press researchers Julie Reed and Judith Ausuebel in New York; and AP writers Dan Elliott, Nicholas Riccardi and Catherine Tsai in Denver, Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., Terry Tang in Phoenix, and Maria Sudekum in Kansas City.