NEOSHO, Mo. – A 52-year-old gunman who opened fire inside a Micronesian church Sunday, killing three people and wounding at least five others, was charged with three counts of first degree murder and four counts of first degree assault, Newton County Prosecutor Scott Watson said Monday.
The alleged shooter, Eiken Elam Saimon, is also a suspect in the reported sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl in Newton County on Saturday night, officials confirmed. That investigation is still ongoing and Saimon has not been charged in that case, officials said. Authorities would not say whether the alleged sexual assault was related to the shooting. The girl is a relative of Saimon's, but not his daughter, authorities said.
Saimon, a Pacific Islander, was also charged with one count each of armed criminal action and felonious restraint. A fifth assault charge is pending, Watson said.
A not guilty plea was entered for Saimon during a brief arraignment Monday afternoon in Newton County Circuit Court. The judge set Saimon's bail at $1 million, reduced from the original $5 million, and set a preliminary hearing for Sept. 18.
Saimon said nothing during the hearing, sitting for most of the time with his head bowed.
Officials would not comment on possible motives for the shooting, but earlier Monday said they believe Saimon had deliberately targeted elders of the congregation from a local community of Pacific Islanders.
"We are confident we'll establish a motive," Neosho Police Chief Dave McCracken said. McCracken also confirmed reports that Saimon allowed the children inside the church to leave.
Watson said the investigation so far does not back early reports that the shooting was triggered by an altercation Saturday night between the suspect and a family that belonged to the congregation.
Saimon was not an active member of the church, police said.
Watson said he had not seen any information from the investigation to suggest any of the shooting victims were relatives or friends of the gunman.
"I think that you'll find that the victims were what some would term elders or leaders (of the Micronesian congregation)," Watson told The Associated Press. "As information continues to come forward, it appears that the shots that were fired were not random."
Investigators are still searching for more victims. Authorities have not spoken to or accounted for some members of the congregation inside the church at the time of the shooting, and McCracken said some victims may have escaped either at the time of the shooting or during the rescue.
"There's a possibility of victims not reported in yet," McCracken said. "There are people we are not able to get in touch with," he said.
Watson said additional charges could be filed as more victims are identified.
The gunman opened fire Sunday afternoon after ordering children out of the sanctuary of First Congregational Church in southwest Missouri, which the Micronesian congregation rents for its services.
The gunman had two small-caliber handguns and one 9 mm semi-automatic machine pistol with a large magazine, 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.
The gunman surrendered after about 10 minutes of negotiation. He had briefly held 25 to 50 people hostage before surrendering
Police originally said the shooting followed an altercation Saturday night between the suspect and a family that belonged to the congregation.
Watson described the crime as a "testament to our civilization's decay of civility" and, in response to suggestions that the police may have been slow to respond, praised police efforts, saying that McCracken was being "modest" in describing the rescue.
"These men went in knowing full well that when they went in, a nine millimeter would be taken off a victims' head and put on their heads, and they went in anyway, and that means something to me," Watson said.
Janice Arnold, 43, of Detroit, who was inside the First Congregational Church during the shooting, said the gunman came in and ordered children and some members of his own family to leave.
"Then he started shooting," Arnold said.
Police and prosecutors said there are perhaps a couple hundred Micronesian residents in Neosho who came here over the past decades to work in the local poultry industry.
"The Pacific Islander community is small and close-knit. Most know each other," McCracken said.
There are similar Pacific Islander communities in neighboring Northwest Arkansas.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.