LAUREL, Neb. (AP) - Police on Friday arrested a man in the killings of four people in a small northeast Nebraska town where it had been more than 100 years since it last saw such violence.
Around 2:30 a.m. Friday, a police team surrounded the Laurel home of 42-year-old Jason Jones and barged inside, with guns drawn and using flash bangs. Jones' home is just off the main downtown street in the town of 1,000 people and directly across the street from one of two houses where occupants were shot before the homes were set ablaze, police said.
Jones was so badly burned that he had to be flown to a hospital in Lincoln instead of being booked into jail, Nebraska State Patrol Col. John Bolduc said. Jones was charged later Friday with 10 felonies, including four counts of first-degree murder.
The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy - which often handles capital murder cases - was appointed to represent Jones and declined to comment on the case.
Police allege that Jones killed 53-year-old Michele Ebeling early Thursday morning before causing some type of explosion and fire in her home that's across the street from him. According to police, Jones then went about three blocks south, broke into another home and killed Gene Twiford, 86; his wife, Janet Twiford, 85; and their daughter, Dana Twiford, 55.
Charging documents allege Jones carried out some of the killings in the course of a burglary, but Bolduc declined to give a possible motive for the slayings or say if Jones knew the victims.
Several people in Laurel said they knew little about Jones, other than he had moved into the home within the last few years. Court records say Jones had lived in the Elm Street house since at least 2019. Receipts and a gun left at the scene of the killings were linked to him.
The killings came as a shock to the community that's about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Omaha. Despite its small size, Laurel is home to five churches and the Knuckleheadz bar that also serves as the town's cafe. The last criminal homicide in Laurel happened in 2005, when a man died following a bar fight - and that case was deemed to be manslaughter, not murder.
To find the town's last known multiple murder, one would have to go back more than 100 years to 1918, when Dr. C.C. Sackett and Harold Crownover were shot and killed by suspected burglars they had been chasing, according to town historian Roger Tryon. Tryon writes a column titled “Pages of History” for the weekly Laurel Advocate.
“People still talk about it. That was the crime of the 20th century for Laurel,” Tryon said. “I suspect what's happened here this week will be the crime of the 21st century.”
Michele Ebeling's daughter, Richele Ebeling, 31, of Oklahoma City, told The Associated Press that her mother moved to Laurel about two years ago with her boyfriend, who travels for his job and was not home when she was attacked.
“Honestly, this is so bizarre and so surreal that I cannot even wrap my head around this,” she said, noting she had last talked with her mom around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday by phone.
She said it is not clear whether her mother knew Jones or whether she knew the Twiford family down the street.
The Twifords were lifelong Laurel residents, and almost everyone there knew them.
Their next-door neighbors, Doug and Lynette Krie, said they didn't hear anything like gunshots before dawn Thursday. They were alerted to trouble around 9:30 a.m., when they spotted the town's lone law enforcement officer in their driveway, who said a passerby had noticed smoke coming from the Twifords' home. The officer and the Kries then went over to the Twiford home together to check the doors.
“They were all secure - and then I saw one of the doors in the back cracked open,” Lynette Krie said.
Firefighters from the town's volunteer department then went in to find the source of the smoke. When they emerged, they fell to their knees. “That's when I knew they were gone," Krie said, fighting back tears.
But the Kries and many others in town didn't find out about the shootings until later.
“We just assumed they had died of smoke inhalation or something,” Doug Krie said. “Nobody expected this.”
Associated Press reporters Scott McFetridge and David Pitt contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.