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Murder suspect makes court appearance

HARTINGTON — The case against a Laurel couple charged with murder progressed in Cedar County District Court here Monday.

Carrie Jones, 43, appeared with her court-appointed attorney, Doug Stratton, Norfolk, while her husband, Jason A. Jones, did not appear but his lawyer, Todd Lancaster, Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, filed documents on his behalf.

Both of the Joneses are being charged with murder and other charges related to the Aug. 4, 2022, deaths of Gene Twiford, Janet Twiford, Dana Twiford and Michele Shankles-Ebeling in Laurel.

Prosecutors - the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office assisted by the Cedar County Attorney’s Office - are seeking the death penalty against Jason Jones.

Corey O’Brien of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office noted that aggravating evidence would be put forth indicating Jones killed the Twifords in the act or attempted act of burglary at their home at 509 Elm St., Laurel; that he committed multiple murders within a short period of time; and that fires were set to conceal his identity, among others.

However, Lancaster filed a motion to quash sections of the Nebraska death penalty statutes as unconstitutional.

The motion to quash the death penalty is set to be heard Feb. 27 before Judge Bryan Meismer.

If Jason Jones is convicted, a three-judge panel would determine in a separate hearing if the case warrants the death penalty by considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The aggravators would have to be proven in order for a death penalty sentence to be imposed.

Carrie Jones appeared before Judge Meismer for a 15-minute hearing Monday. At that time, a preliminary hearing was set for Feb. 15, and Meismer also granted the appointment of Nathan Stratton as co-counsel in the case.

The affidavit supporting Mrs. Jones’ arrest was ordered to be unsealed so Doug Stratton could get a copy of it but then ordered to be re-sealed.

O’Brien argued that having that information public could jeopardize the case and possibly impact seating a jury.

“The state is always cognizant of the fact that the media and the public want to know what happened, but as an officer of the court we have to balance that against the defendant’s constitutional rights,” he said. “The state recognizes this was an impactful event on such a small community that it may be very difficult to pick a jury in this community … We’ll be the first ones to tell you, a criminal case like this, is always under continuing investigation all the way up until the time of trial. And the fact that if we were to release this now and make it publicly available, could possibly jeopardize the integrity of this investigation.”

According to court documents previously made available:

First responders were called to Shankles-Ebeling’s home at 209 Elm St., Laurel, around 3 a.m. Aug. 4 to the report of an explosion and house fire. She was found deceased.

About five hours later, local law enforcement on scene noticed smoke coming from the Twiford home just a few blocks away and all three Twifords were found deceased at that time.

Law enforcement were able to get a search warrant of the Shankles-Ebeling home and found a red fuel container inside the front door and noticed a trail indicating the use of accelerants to help ignite the fire. A backpack was also found, containing receipts that led back to Jason Jones.

Investigators said it appeared access to the Twiford home was gained by a pry bar. A firearm was found on the living room floor, along with an incendiary device, according to court documents.

All of the victims were found to have gunshot wounds.

Jones was apprehended at his home the morning after the murders with severe burns over his body and was treated at a Lincoln hospital for several weeks before being released to the Department of Corrections Oct. 27.

Carrie Jones was arrested Dec. 16 in connection with the crimes.

According to court documents, a neighbor told investigators he had gone outside his home in the early morning hours of Aug. 4 to smoke a cigarette when he witnessed an explosion occur at the Shankles-Ebeling home. He ran to the nearby home in an attempt to render aid when he made contact with Carrie Jones at the property. She allegedly admitted to Laurel Police Chief Ron Lundahl of being at the Shankles-Ebeling residence that morning.

Her cellphone was searched in August but no charges were filed against her until last month.