A community of Pacific islanders made their dreams come true in this rural Missouri town, far from the sandy atolls and turquoise lagoons they call home.
Authorities say those dreams were threatened by one of the Micronesian community’s own, when a man entered a Micronesian church service and gunned down community elders as worshippers watched.
“This guy ruined the Micronesians’ name in America,” said William Wolbhagen, an immigrant from Pingelap who moved to Neosho in 2004.
Neosho Mayor Howard Birdsong disagreed. He said hundreds of Micronesian immigrants have integrated seamlessly into Neosho in the last 20 years.
“These are citizens of Neosho, and these are our brothers and sisters,” Birdsong said.
Moments of terror
Police have not said what drove the gunman into the First Congregational Church on Sunday. The man shouted, “Liar, liar!” as he opened fire, killing three people and wounding five others, Sheriff Ken Copeland said.
Eiken Elam Saimon, 52, pleaded not guilty Monday to three charges of first-degree murder, 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.
Bond was set at $1 million for Saimon, who was not a member of the church. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Sept. 18.
Saimon also is a suspect in a reported sexual assault on a 14-year-old female relative on Saturday, prosecutor Scott Watson said. No charges have been filed in that case, and investigators are looking into whether the two cases are related.
The shootings shocked the Micronesian community, known for valuing family and friends above all.
Birdsong said large Micronesian barbecues are common in the summertime. A softball league plays regularly, and several church services are held in the islanders’ language of Pingelapese.
During the 1990s, thousands of Micronesians immigrated to southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, drawn by plentiful jobs in the poultry and manufacturing industries.
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 such 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.
Neosha Police Chief David McCracken estimates there are 300 Micronesians in the city. The front doors of their homes are marked by piles of shoes left outside according to island custom.
Wolbhagen arrived years ago and got a factory job. He saved enough money for his two daughters to move in with him and remains in Neosho to put them through public school, giving them an education only the richest could afford back home.
Still, Wolbhagen dreams of returning to his homeland. “I’m really going to go back someday,” he said.
Relatives of the dead gathered Monday night to mourn. Dozens met in Goodman at the home of victim Kernal Rehobson, 43, who headed the church congregation that was attacked.
“He was a very generous, outgoing person,” said Rehobson’s sister, Lou Rehobson-Manuel, 41. “He was kind of a shepherd for all our sheep.”
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.
‘I can’t believe it of him’
Police and prosecutors declined to discuss a possible motive for the shootings. Watson said it appeared that the gunman deliberately targeted leaders of the congregation of about 50 people.
Rehobson-Manuel, who was at the service, 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 Intenso Rehobson started apologizing to the gunman in general, trying to defuse the situation. Then he was shot.
Police said the suspect had two guns, one small-caliber handgun and a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, as well as extra ammunition. Saimon surrendered after about 10 minutes of negotiations.
Nobody answered the door at his house outside Neosho on Monday evening. A neighbor said Saimon, his wife and two children had lived there for less than a year.
“They’re good people. I’d talk to him outside. I can’t believe it of him,” said Lloyd Leonard, 66.