LAUREL, Neb. — As residents of Laurel trudge forward after losing four of their own in a quadruple homicide last week, friends and loved ones of the victims are remembering them for the positive impact they had on the town of 1,000 people in southeastern Cedar County.
Gene Twiford, 86; Janet Twiford, 85; Dana Twiford, 55; and Michele Ebeling, 53, were fatally shot at their respective homes within blocks of each other in the early morning hours Thursday, according to police. The suspect, 42-year-old Jason Jones, who lived across the street from Ebeling, allegedly attempted to burn down both Ebeling’s home and the Twiford household after the victims were shot.
Laurel and surrounding communities have offered waves of support to the victims’ families, holding a prayer vigil Saturday, contributing to funds for funeral expenses and embracing the families through phone calls, texts and social media.
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Ebeling and each of the Twifords were well-liked — if not loved — by scores of Laurel residents.
Ebeling, who enjoyed collecting and amassed about 500 salt and pepper shakers, lived at 209 Elm St. for about two years with her boyfriend, Brian Welch, who works as a trucker.
One of Ebeling’s brothers, Mike Shankles, said Ebeling often would tag along with Welch when he traveled out of state for work. Welch wasn’t home on the morning of Aug. 4 when Ebeling was killed, Shankles said, and Ebeling stayed in Laurel because she had an appointment scheduled with a cardiologist. She had been planning to have surgery on her knee later this month.
Shankles said his sister was a loving person who “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“If she met you, she’d be your friend for life,” he said. “She had a heart of gold.”
As affectionate as Ebeling was, she was just as bold. Both Mike Shankles and one of Ebeling’s two other brothers, John Shankles, said their sister was “sassy” and would say whatever came to mind at that moment — she was filterless.
Ebeling was a family person — someone who cared deeply about the successes of her loved ones, John Shankles said.
Richele Ebeling, Michele’s daughter, said her mother loved Richele, her brother, William, and their two half-siblings dearly.
Ebeling, whose kids all live out of state, would tell people how proud she was of her children. Any accomplishments the kids had that they shared with their mother were passed along to Ebeling’s friends in Laurel, Richele Ebeling said. It wasn’t simply because she wanted to brag about her kids, but rather, it was a genuine display of how much she cared about others’ triumphs.
Richele Ebeling said her mother always would call to check in. The last such phone call with her mother, she said, was the evening of Aug. 3, about seven hours before Michele was killed.
“I’m so grateful that the universe gave us one last time to hear her voice,” Richele Ebeling said.
Despite having a job and home in Oklahoma, Richele Ebeling said she would make every effort to be at each of the suspect’s potential court proceedings in Hartington, where the Cedar County Courthouse is located, saying, “I want justice.”
The younger Ebeling started a GoFundMe to help the family pay for funeral expenses. Travel expenses to possible legal proceedings for the family, who live in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Hawaii, won’t be cheap, either.
“My mom meant so much to me,” Richele Ebeling said. “I’m going to miss the calls, pictures and everything she did for me.”
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The Twifords were staples in the Laurel community. Gene Twiford, who lived near or in Laurel his entire life, was a military veteran and deeply involved himself with the American Legion Post 54 in Laurel.
Jim Thompson, another veteran and a friend of the Twifords, said he knew the family for about 40 years. Gene Twiford was “always around,” Thompson said, and desired to lend a hand with anything someone needed.
The Twifords, like Thompson, attended United Lutheran Church in Laurel. Thompson said he enjoyed seeing Janet, Gene’s wife, and Dana, the couple’s daughter, because they always had a smile on their faces.
Wayne Freeman, another veteran and Post 54 member, said he had known the Twifords for nearly 50 years. Gene Twiford was crafty and enjoyed welding, Freeman said, and the American Legion was “really lucky for all that he contributed.”
He crafted flag stands, metal posts and shelves for military trophies and medallions.
“And nothing was ever done shoddy,” Freeman said. “He would build something with the goal for it to last 1,000, 2,000 years.”
Twiford also attended nearly every local funeral that included military rites, and he was present at countless events entailing flag presentations.
Moreover, Twiford, who served as post commander in 2000, played a major role in the eventual signing by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts of paperwork renaming the state’s 432-mile stretch of Highway 20 as the “Nebraska Medal of Honor Highway.”
Freeman said he would need more fingers to count off the number of contributions Twiford made to Laurel and local veterans.
Twiford, Freeman said, orchestrated the creation of the “Missing Wall,” which consists of a list of dozens of veterans who served in the Vietnam War but don’t have their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Specifically, Twiford wanted to make sure the late Gary, Gregory and Kelly Sage of Niobrara had their names inscribed on the missing wall.
You never heard the word “no” come out of Twiford’s mouth if you asked him to help with something, Freeman said.
“He liked helping people wherever he could,” Freeman said. “It didn’t matter what it was.”
Regg Ward, a childhood neighbor of Gene Twiford’s, said he often would see Janet and Dana around town. The two women were “the friendliest of people,” he said.
Janet Twiford was active in United Lutheran’s Women of the Church, a charter member of Sarah Circle and served on the church council, according to her obituary. She was an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary, in which she held several positions over 37 years and served as District 3 president of the auxiliary.
But the titles Janet Twiford was most proud of were grandma and great-grandma, and some of her most cherished times were grandma’s day with her granddaughters.
Dana Twiford worked at Hillcrest Care Center in the kitchen — a place where she greatly loved talking and laughing with the residents for the 20 years she was employed there. She was a lifelong member of United Lutheran Church and was an avid Husker volleyball fan, never missing a match on TV. She loved being an aunt and spoiled all of her nieces and nephews every chance she had.
Memorial services for the Twifords will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at United Lutheran Church, 305 W. Third St. in Laurel. Visitation will be at the church from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday.
Services for Ebeling are pending.
Posts remembering the Twifords and Ebeling have flooded social media since their deaths. One expressed that the manner in which the Twifords died would not be their legacy. Instead, their legacy will be the impact they had on Laurel and surrounding communities.
Freeman said Laurel, a town with a population of about 1,000 people, has had its share of “bad” happen but “nothing like this.”
“We’ve got a dark cloud over town, but we’re working to get our spirit back,” he said. “We will get that spirit back.”