Prosecutors charge suspect in Mo. church shooting

Monday, August 13, 2007

NEOSHO, Mo. (AP) -- Prosecutors on Monday filed three charges of first-degree murder against a man accused of opening fire inside of a church during a service for Micronesian islanders, killing three people and wounding five others.

Prosecutors also charged Eiken Elam Saimon, 52, of Newton County with four counts of first-degree assault, one count of felonious restraint for holding the congregation hostage, and one count of armed criminal action. A fifth charge of assault was pending, Newton County Prosecutor Scott Watson said.

"The city of Neosho is in mourning today," city spokeswoman Desiree Bridges said. The last murder in this small county seat was 14 years ago, police said.

Saimon is from Micronesia himself and has lived in the Neosho area since the early 1980s, Sheriff Ken Copeland said at a news conference Monday morning. Saimon was not an active member of the church, police said.

Saimon also is a suspect in a reported sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl on Saturday, Watson said. That girl is a relative of Saimon's, although authorities did not specify how the two were related.

Saimon was being held on $5-million bond and was scheduled to be arraigned on the charges at 1 p.m. Monday in Newton County Circuit Court.

The shooting happened Sunday afternoon in the sanctuary of First Congregational Church.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Tom Thorne, said local Micronesians have been holding afternoon services in his church for several years. Many Micronesians are Congregationalists at home and the afternoon service is in their language, Thorne said.

The motive remained unclear. Watson said the investigation so far does not back early reports that the shooting was triggeredd by an altercation Saturday night between the suspect and a family that belonged to the congregation.

Watson said preliminary reports indicate that Saimon deliberately targeted leaders of the Micronesian congregation.

"I think that you'll find that the victims were what some would term elders or leaders (of the Micronesian congregation)," Watson said. "As information continues to come forward, it appears that the shots that were fired were not random."

Watson said he could not elaborate on a possible motive.

Saimon walked into the church carrying two guns, not three as initially reported, police chief David McCracken said. He had one small-caliber handgun and one 9 mm semiautomatic pistol as well as extra ammunition. He was dressed in ordinary street clothes, McCracken said.

The shooting came during the 1 p.m. service, which was attended by about 50 people, ranging in age from children to the elderly.

"This was a tragedy as far as those killed and injured but it could have been a lot worse," McCracken said. He said police decided to move in quickly to avoid more deaths and sent in a team of police, sheriff's deputies and highway patrolman about 20 minutes after arriving at the scene.

McCracken said officers found the gunman in the church holding about 30 to 40 people hostage, including a woman he held at gunpoint. Police began negotiations and the gunman surrendered after about 10 minutes.

Janice Arnold, 43, of Detroit, who was inside the church during the shooting, said the gunman came in and ordered children and some members of his own family to go out of the church.

"Then he started shooting," Arnold said.

Watson identified the dead as Kernal Rehobson, 43, of Goodman, who was the pastor of the congregation. The others were Intenson Rehobson, 44, and Kuhpes Jesse Ikosia, 53, who were "what we would call deacons" of the church, McCracken said. Police were trying to determine if the Rehobsons were related.

During the 1990s, thousands of Micronesians emigrated to southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, drawn by plentiful jobs in the poultry and manufacturing industries.

Unlike Hispanic immigrants who also settled in the area, Micronesians can live and work in the United States without getting visas because of their home countries' unique relationship with the United States.

Island nations throughout the Pacific fell under U.S. control after the area was wrested from Japanese control after World War II. The nations were run as colonial outposts called trust territories. When countries like The Federated States of Micronesia gained independence in the 1980s, they entered pacts with the United States that gave Micronesians the right to live and work here.

Micronesians were drawn to small towns like Neosho and Springdale, Ark., because of the low cost of living and the ever-growing presence of other Micronesians. The immigrants formed tightly knit communities with their own churches, general stores and community events. About 200 Micronesians live in the Neosho area.

Kernal Rehobson led the congregation of Micronesians for about 15 years and ran a Micronesian store out of his house in Goodman, said Larry Zuniga, 42, who worked with Rehobson at Wal-Mart.

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