Small Nebraska community on edge after mysterious house fires kill 4

The first fire in Laurel, Neb., was reported just after 3 a.m. Thursday at a home on a quiet residential block. The blaze, authorities said, followed an explosion, and when firefighters responded, they found one person dead inside.

Then, as investigators inspected the first scene, a second fire was reported three blocks away. At that residence, first responders found three more people dead.

Authorities are now searching for a perpetrator, as “foul play is suspected,” Col. John Bolduc, with the Nebraska State Patrol, told reporters Thursday afternoon. He declined to identify the four people and said investigators could not say how they died until autopsies are completed.

The agency said in a news release later Thursday that “gunfire is suspected to have played a part in the incidents at both homes.”

About 40 miles west of Sioux City, Iowa, Laurel is a farming community of about 1,000 residents. Cedar County Sheriff Larry Koranda described it as safe and tightknit. 

He said he didn’t know for sure whether the people found dead in the two houses knew one another, but “everybody knows everybody in this small community,” he told reporters.

Shortly after the second blaze was reported, a man driving a silver sedan was seen traveling westbound on Highway 20 out of Laurel, Bolduc said, adding that the man might have picked up a passenger before leaving town.

Bolduc said that fire investigators believe accelerants may have been used to start the two fires and that the perpetrator or perpetrators may have burn injuries.

“Please understand that this investigation is in the very early stages,” Bolduc said, addressing reporters from Elm Street, the location of both burned houses. He asked that anyone with information come forward.

Some businesses and public buildings went under lockdown following news of the incidents, KNEN reported, although Koranda said Thursday afternoon that it was voluntary.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in our community,” Scott Taylor, a Laurel resident and business owner, told WOWT.