(The following is my column for this week's Newton County News.)
I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite like it on local television.
After watching the NCAA basketball games Friday night, I left the TV on KOAM as the late news began. The big news story was the guilty plea entered by Eiken Elam Saimon, the man who brought two loaded handguns into the First Congregational Church of Neosho Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007, and opened fire, killing church leaders and wounding others in the congregation.
Saimon pleaded guilty so prosecutors would take the death penalty off the table. He will spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of parole.
All of that had been reported in the area newspapers and on television for most of the week. What newspapers could not convey, no matter who skilled the reporters, was the raw emotion coursing through the victim statements, primarily from the wife and son of one of Saimon’s victims, the church’s pastor, Kernal Rehobson.
With Rehobson’s son, it was a quieter rage, but the fierce, impassioned testimony or the widow, Lohvina Rehobson, was like nothing I can remember seeing on the local news before.
Though it does not pack the same punch as the televised testimony, this is what the Joplin Globe wrote about what Mrs. Rehobson said:
“Lovihna Rehobson had even stronger words for Saimon, who received three life sentences without parole, plus additional prison time, at the hearing. She reminded him how her husband had helped him, with food and money and in other ways since coming to the U.S.. Yet, Saimon had shot her husband in the face when he tried to approach and calm the armed intruder at the church service, she said.
“ ‘You are going to be rotting in hell,’ she told Saimon. ‘You are going to rot in jail.’ ”
Even in print, her words are powerful, but the sheer rage and passion of her statements could only be caught on television.
Even with the top of the newscast testimony on KOAM and the other local stations, the coverage in March 2009 was a far cry from what we saw nearly two years ago.
The news that a man had murdered three people and held a congregration hostage at a church, a place that we think of as a refuge from the evils that beset the outside world, stunned Neosho and the rest of southwest Missouri Aug. 12, 2007.
This was the kind of thing that happens somewhere else. This is what happens in the inner cities, or in Littleton, Colorado, or Jonesboro, Ark. This does not happen in Neosho. This does not happen in Newton County, Missouri.
For a brief time, the nation’s eyes were focused on Neosho. The hearing Friday received nowhere near the same attention. The local media covered it, but there was no CNN or New York Times or even Kansas City Star or St. Louis Post-Dispatch. If people across the nation wanted to follow up on the Neosho church shootings, they had to do it through stories sent out over the Associated Press wire.
Thankfully, we still live in a country where such a horrible occurrence is considered newsworthy, and not somewhere like Iraq where death and destruction is a daily fact of life and almost not worth mentioning in news reports.