Five years ago today, three church leaders were killed inside the First Congregational Church, Neosho, while worshiping during the Micronesian service.
Slain were senior pastor Kernel Rehobson, 43; church deacon Intenson Rehobson, 44; and church deacon Kuhpes “Jesse” Ikosia, 53. Wounded were Jim Handy, Melihna Tarra, Dahnny Jack and Andy Kendey. Eiken Elam Saimon was the shooter.
Handy told the Neosho Daily News there will be a regular service today. No special anniversary service planned, but the public is invited to attend.
“We are just going to have our regular service this afternoon, around 1 o’clock, with fellowship,” Handy said.
Since that tragic time five years ago, the Micronesian community and Neosho has moved on, Handy said.
“I think people are moving forward. Seems like they really learned from that tragedy and everybody is like really get to know each other, really doing well,” he said.
Neosho Police Chief Dave McCracken agreed.
“That was a bad event (the church shooting), a tragic situation, but it was not without a positive,” McCracken said. “And the positive was that the police and the Micronesian community are now understanding of each other. And have a better relationship.”
The group met on Sunday afternoons at First Congregational, a practice that continues today. Tom Thorne, the church pastor, remembers where he was that fateful Sunday when he first got word of the tragedy at his church.
“I had just gotten home from lunch, gotten a glass of tea and sat down to watch a golf match on television,” he said. “I received a call from one of my trustees who was in Springfield, who asked if I had heard what was going on down at the church. She had heard that the minister of the Congregational Church was killed and was glad to hear my voice!”
Upon hearing the news, Thorne made his way down to the church, but was diverted to the east end of the block by a state trooper. Once at the church, Thorne was asked to help law enforcement agents draw up a map of the building.
After Saimon was apprehended, Thorne had the grim task of identifying the bodies of the slain ministers, men he had welcomed to morning services many times before. Once that heart-breaking task was completed, he had another to perform: notifying the relatives and friends that their loved ones had been slain.
Today, he said, many of the Micronesians present that day continue to worship at First Congregational, although some have not returned to the church since that tragic afternoon. The islander group continues to meet at the building on Sunday afternoons, and occasionally joins the morning services for special events, such as baptisms.
“Of the ones that were shot, three are still very active in the church,” he said.
Page 2 of 3 - Years later, local law officers still remember.
“It is something that I will not forget — I have been in law enforcement a long time,” McCracken said. “That day, I will probably not forget it, because a lot of things happened that day.”
Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007
• The Micronesian congregation meets at the church in the afternoon to worship. Shortly after the service begins, a lone gunman, Eiken Elam Saimon, enters the church building with two guns and began firing. The guns were later identified as a Tec 9 equipped with a large magazine and a handgun.
• Five members of the Neosho Police Department and Newton County Sheriff’s Department assembled for a special response team (SRT). They entered the building at 2:20 p.m.
• About 50 people were inside the church, according to initial accounts.
• Saimon allowed some church members and children to exit the building before taking the remainder of the congregation hostage. One police officer who arrived at the scene initially described seeing several people fleeing the building, with one man carrying a baby “like a football.”
• McCracken said in an interview with the Neosho Daily News shortly after that tragic day. “The suspect surrendered to officers with no resistance. There was threat to the police, as well as the hostages, but no one was injured during the arrest.” In a press conference the morning after the shooting, Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland said Saimon’s guns were loaded when he was apprehended.
• After the suspect surrendered himself to authorities at 2:29 p.m., medical personnel entered the building to begin treating the wounded. The owner of a nearby tavern who had been in her office doing bookwork opened her door to church members as well.
March 20, 2009
• Saimon pleads guilty to killing the ministers, as well as to the rape of a 14-year-old Micronesian girl. In both written and oral statements to the court, he said the shooting incident was as a result of embarrassment he suffered at a barbecue days before. He said he didn’t bring any food to the event, and his relatives gave him a hard time about it, saying he was stealing food for his children.
“That made me really mad,” Saimon said in a written statement known as a defendant’s factual basis for a plea of guilty. “I went home and thought about how they were all talking bad about me and how much I helped all of them when they first came to the U.S. I knew they would all be at church on Sunday afternoon.”
Saimon said that Sunday, he took two guns and went to the church. He said he first began talking to the congregation, “but no one paid attention to me.” He said he then shot a gun into the ceiling, and the congregation gathered around him.
Page 3 of 3 - “Kernel Rehobson came up to me and tried to talk to me,” he said in the document. “I shot him. People started screaming and trying to leave, but I wouldn’t let them leave. I shot more people.”
Saimon said he shot Kernel and Intenson Rehobson first, then shot “anyone who moved,” wounding four people. After a half hour, he told the court, he shot Jesse Ikosia while the man was moving away from him.
In his statements, Saimon also admitted having sexual intercourse with the girl while she was cleaning his room as a punishment for using his car without permission.
• During the same proceeding, Kernel Rehobson’s son, Kevin, and widow, Lovihna, gave victim’s impact statements.
“How dare you underestimate the strength and the will of my father and my uncle?” Kevin Rehobson shouted as he glared at Saimon. “Every day they are not with us, every task, every decision. You have done nothing! Yes, they are gone, but they have given us so much strength. You have done yourself more harm. We are still here, staying strong as a community and a family. “To conjure up such a sinister act, I have nothing but pity,” he said. “But to do so in a house of God, you must have made a pact with the devil himself.”
“You are a greedy man and a jealous man!” exclaimed Lovihna Rehobson. “My husband helped you, you and your family, your kids! I hope you rot in hell and I’m glad you’re put away for life.”
• Saimon was sentenced to three life terms without possibility of parole, one for each person killed in the shooting spree. Had the case gone to trial, Saimon could have been given the death penalty. The life sentences came at the request of family members of the victims.
• Saimon also received four 30-year prison terms for wounding four people during the incident, and two seven year prison terms for charges of second-degree statutory rape and second-degree statutory sodomy. In exchange for the guilty pleas, charges of armed criminal action and felonious restraint were dropped.