Church shooting stuns southwest Mo. community

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Investigation personnel and employees from Clark Funeral Home transported one of the bodies out of Congregational Church on Sunday in Neosho, Mo. Prosecutors on Monday filed three murder charges against Eiken Elam Saimon, 52, who is accused of opening fire inside of a church, killing three people and wounding five other members of a mostly Micronesian congregation. (Steve J.P. Liang ~ Springfield News-Leader)

GOODMAN, Mo. -- Kernal Rehobson was a leader among the community of about 600 Pacific Islanders who have settled in and around this peaceful town tucked in rural southwest Missouri.

He headed a church congregation in nearby Neosho and ran a small market of Pacific Island specialties next to his home in Goodman.

"He was a very generous, outgoing person ... He was kind of a shepherd for all our sheep," said Rehobson's sister, Lou Rehobson-Manuel, 41.

On Monday, many in this community were struggling to understand why a gunman would interrupt a church service led by Rehobson with a barrage of gunfire, leaving Rehobson, 43, and two other Micronesians dead and five other people wounded.

The last murder in the small county seat of Neosho was 14 years ago, police said.

This photo provided by the Newton County Sheriff's Department shows Eiken Elam Saimon, 52, of Neosho, Mo. Saimon was arrested in connection with a shooting at the First Congregational Church in Neosho, Mo., Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007. Prosecutors filed three murder charges Monday against Saimon, a Micronesian man, accused of opening fire inside of a church, killing three people and wounding five others during a worship service of a mostly Micronesian congregation. (AP Photo/Newton County Sheriff's Department via The Joplin Globe)

"Right now, we're just praying a lot, to be here for each other. We are also praying for him, the suspect," Rehobson-Manuel said.

Charges filed

Prosecutors earlier Monday filed three charges of first-degree murder against that suspect, Eiken Elam Saimon, 52, of Newton County, also an immigrant from Micronesia. Saimon is also charged with four counts of 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.

Saimon entered a not guilty plea during a brief arraignment Monday afternoon. His bond was set at $1 million. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Sept. 18.

Authorities said Saimon has lived in the Neosho area since the early 1980s. He was not an active member of the church, police said.

The other victims were Kernal Rehobson's uncle, Intenson Rehobson, 44, and a family friend, Kuhpes Jesse Ikosia, 53. Intenson Rehobson and Kuhpes Jesse Ikosia were also from Goodman. All three were pastors or associate pastors in the church, family members said.

Rehobson-Manuel said Kernal Rehobson moved to southwest Missouri in 1990, following her and another brother. They were looking for a better life and better education for their children.

"It's cheap. The school system is good. The people are nice. It's a good community," she said.

Rehobson-Manuel said the loss of three islanders affected the whole community. On Monday afternoon, about four dozen adults and children from islander families were gathered in Kernal's house and in the backyard. Kernal leaves a wife, four children and three grandchildren.

Newton County Prosecutor Scott Watson said the Pacific Islanders in Neosho are an extremely close-knit group that has been a part of the community for 20 years or more.

"When you hear talk about the good old days when people took care of their own, that's what we're talking about here," Watson 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, Copeland said. No charges have been filed in that case, and investigators are looking into whether the two cases are related.

Inside the church

The shooting happened Sunday afternoon in the sanctuary of First Congregational Church, where the Micronesian group of Congregationalists has met for several years to hold a separate service in their own language, Pingelapese.

Police and prosecutors declined to discuss a possible motive for the shootings. Watson said it appeared that Saimon deliberately targeted leaders of the Micronesian congregation.

The gunman shouted, "Liar, liar!" as he opened fire, Copeland said Monday.

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. "He shot the man next to me in the head. I thought it could be next."

Arnold said the gunman shot the pastor in the head and neck.

Rehobson-Manuel was also at the service. She said the gunman shot her brother first.

"I was right next to my brother and I told the shooter, shoot me next," she said. She said her uncle Intenso Rehobson started apologizing to the gunmen in general, trying to diffuse the situation. Instead he was shot next.

She said she does not remember much about the rest of the shooting or what the gunman might have been saying because she was in shock.

"I'm going to wake up thinking [Kernal] is going to be here and all this will be over," she said.

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