Appomattox, a small town in the south of the state, is best known as the venue for the surrender of Confederate general Robert E Lee that ended the US Civil War.

More than 100 sheriff department deputies, police officers and state troopers worked throughout the night to find Speight, cordoning off a section of the woods where he was hiding.

The suspect on Tuesday fired at a helicopter called in to aid with the search. At least four shots hit the craft, forcing it to make an emergency landing, officials said.

A nearby residence was evacuated as the manhunt grew tense.

No motives given

The incident unfolded around noon on Tuesday when a deputy from the Appomattox sheriff's office responded to an emergency call about an injured man lying on a country road.

The victims were male and female, according to police, who did not give a motive for the attack, although local media reported the wife and the son of the suspect were among the dead.

Police issued a call for information about two cars owned by the suspect, a tan 1997 Ford Escort and a green 1996 Ford F-150 pickup vehicle.

The office of Robert McDonnell, the recently elected Virginia governor, described the shootings as a "horrific tragedy", according to a statement carried by the Washington Post.

The shooting came less than two years after Virginia was rocked by the fatal shooting of 32 people at Virginia Tech by an armed student, Seung-Hui Cho.