Police have arrested and charged a Nebraska man in connection to the deaths of four people in two house fires that authorities initially called suspicious.
Jason A. Jones, a Laurel, Nebraska resident who lived “right across the street” from one of the fire scenes, was arrested Friday and charged with first-degree murder and arson, Nebraska State Patrol public relations director Cody Thomas told USA TODAY.
Jones, 42, had burns over a large part of his body at the time of his arrest and was flown to a hospital, Nebraska State Patrol Col. John Bolduc said at a Friday press conference. He was arrested inside his home, according to the Nebraska State Patrol.
The first blaze happened around 3 a.m. Thursday. A 911 caller reported an explosion at a home and when crews got there, they discovered 53-year-old Michele Ebeling dead inside.
As crews worked to douse that blaze, a second fire was reported at a house three blocks away, according to police. Investigators found Gene Twiford, 86; Janet Twiford, 85; and Dana Twiford, 55, dead inside the house.
Authorities said investigators found physical evidence at both crime scenes linked to the suspect. All four victims had “suspected gunshot wounds,” according to the state patrol.
Jones has also been charged with four counts of using a firearm to commit a felony, according to court documents filed in Cedar County, Nebraska obtained by KTIV News.
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The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy — which often handles capital murder cases — was appointed to represent Jones and declined to comment on the case.
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.
He said Friday the investigation is still in its “early” stages and it is unknown if there will be additional arrests in the case.
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.
Authorities initially suspected foul play, and Bolduc on Thursday said an accelerant was believed to have been used in the fires.
Police recommended lockdowns for schools and businesses in the area on Thursday. After Jones’ arrest, Bolduc said “there is no more danger to the Laurel community.”
Small-town murders are ‘bizarre and so surreal’
Michele Ebeling’s daughter, Richele Ebeling, 31, of Oklahoma City, said 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 in the town 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.
Contributing: Christal Hayes and Christine Fernando, USA TODAY; The Associated Press.