LAUREL, Neb. -- Four people were found dead Thursday in two burning homes in a small community in northeastern Nebraska, authorities said.
Nebraska State Patrol Col. John Bolduc said at a news conference that a man was seen driving away from the city of Laurel before the bodies were discovered and that investigators would like to speak to him.
Firefighters responding to a call Thursday morning about an explosion and fire at one of the homes found the body of a person inside, Bolduc said.
A short time later, firefighters were called to a second burning home a few blocks away, where the bodies of three people were found inside.
On Thursday night, the Nebraska State Patrol said investigators had determined that “gunfire played a part in the incident at both homes." An investigation also found that both fires had started just after 3 a.m. Thursday, the patrol said.
Authorities didn't release the names of the dead or say how they died, but they said witnesses reported seeing a man leaving Laurel in a silver car. Bolduc referred to the man as a suspect in the deaths and said he may have picked up a passenger on the way out of town.
Later, the patrol said the silver car may have left Laurel much later after the fires than investigators previously thought. The patrol asked that that anyone who saw something unusual in Laurel between midnight and 4 a.m. to contact authorities.
Investigators believe whoever set the fires may have suffered burns, Bolduc added.
He would not say how or whether the victims were related and declined to speculate on the circumstances leading to the killings.
“We’re not categorizing it as anything right now,” Bolduc said.
Laurel is home to fewer than 1,000 people and is located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Omaha.
“Laurel is a very safe community,” said Cedar County Sheriff Larry Koranda. “It shakes everybody up.”
Most businesses, a senior center and schools in the community voluntarily went on lockdown around the time the bodies were discovered. That came at the recommendation of the city's lone police officer, said Lori Hansen, a clerical assistant at the Laurel City Hall. But even community officials were scrambling for information about what was unfolding in the normally quiet town, she said.
“We’ve been listening to TV to try to find out what’s going on,” Hansen said.