Man, 21, charged with murder in Atlanta-area spa shootings
A man accused of shooting to death eight people — including six women of Asian descent — at three Atlanta-area spas was charged Wednesday with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault amid uncertainty over the motive.
The killings on Tuesday stirred a wave of fear across Asian American communities — already on edge after a dramatic rise in harassment and attacks against Asians in the last year.
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said that the investigation was still in its early stages but that the suspect — 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, who is white — “did not appear to be” motivated by racial bias.
Long, he said, confessed to the killings, telling investigators that he had a “sexual addiction” and wanted to get rid of the temptation that the establishments represented.
“We’re still early on, still have a lot of things to process,” Reynolds said.
For many Asian Americans, the killings further fueled fears about anti-Asian hatred that has mounted over the last year as police and advocacy groups have reported record numbers of hate crimes and harassment.
Both he and Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant cautioned that no motive had been ruled out, while Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the city was reaching out to Asian community leaders.
“Whatever the motivation was for this guy, we know that many of the victims, the majority of the victims were Asian,” Bottoms told reporters. “We also know that this is an issue that’s happening across the country. It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop.”
Whether the killer’s motive was racism or xenophobia, misogyny or religious guilt about his sexuality, Asian advocacy groups stressed that no one should ignore the broader context of a recent surge of hate crimes and harassment targeting Asian Americans.
“That the Asian women murdered yesterday were working highly vulnerable and low-wage jobs during an ongoing pandemic speaks directly to the compounding impacts of misogyny, structural violence and white supremacy,” Phi Nguyen, litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said in a statement.
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said at a news conference that the spas appeared to be “a temptation” for Long that “he wanted to eliminate.”
“These locations, he sees them as an outlet for him — something that he shouldn’t be doing, an issue with porn — and that he was attempting to take out that temptation,” Baker said.
Authorities told reporters that Long, who is from Woodstock, Ga., had been heading south with plans to carry out similar attacks in Florida.
“He was pretty much fed up and at the end of his rope,” Baker said in comments that struck many as oddly sympathetic to a suspected killer. “Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”
Many Asian Americans are bristling with pain and fury, seeing the Atlanta killings as a culmination of a steady drumbeat of racist attacks.
After the news conference, Baker drew ire as critics noted that he appeared to endorse anti-China statements last year as he shared an image of T-shirts that echoed then-President Trump’s rhetoric, referring to COVID-19 as an “imported virus from Chy-na.”
“Love my shirt,” Baker wrote in a Facebook post. “Get yours while they last.’”
On Wednesday, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office released the names of three women and one man killed in the first shooting: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Tan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44.
The Atlanta Police Department said the victims in the two incidents that occurred within the city had yet to be positively identified, and next of kin notification had not been confirmed by the Fulton County medical examiner.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that its diplomats in Atlanta have confirmed with police that four of the dead were women of Korean descent. The Korea Times Atlanta reported that among them were Gold Spa employees Julie Park, in her 70s, and Hyun-jeong Park Grant, a woman in her 50s who lived and worked at the spa. The newspaper did not cite a source for the information.
Authorities in Georgia did not specify the ethnicities of the publicly identified victims. Tan’s and Feng’s names appeared to be Chinese names.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that President Biden had been briefed on the “horrific shootings” and that administration officials had been in contact with the Atlanta mayor’s office and the FBI.
First Lady Jill Biden mentioned the shootings while visiting a school in Concord, N.H.: “I want to start by saying something directly to the families of the shooting victims in Atlanta last night. My heart is with you. And I hope that all Americans will join me in praying for everyone touched by this senseless tragedy.”
The Atlanta man who admitted fatally shooting eight people, including six Asian women, claims race had nothing to do with it — so he’s a liar as well as a killer.
On Wednesday morning, Long was transported to the Cherokee County Adult Detention Center.
A 2017 graduate of Sequoyah High School in Canton, Ga., Long was described by one of his fellow students, Nicolas Straughan, as quiet, solitary and religious.
“He didn’t say too much,” Straughan recalled.
Raised as a devout Southern Baptist, Long attended services at Crabapple First Baptist Church. According to minutes taken during a Jan. 21, 2018, meeting, he was among 11 people who served on the church’s Student Ministry Team.
The mission of that group, the document said, was to “see students receive Jesus Christ as Lord, and walk in Him, being rooted in the faith.”
On Wednesday morning, the church’s website and Facebook page were no longer publicly accessible. Its pastor did not respond to requests for comment.
On Instagram, Long described his interests as “pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God,” the Daily Beast reported.
The attacks began about 5 p.m. Tuesday, when five people were shot at Young’s Asian Massage in a strip mall in Acworth, about 25 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, authorities said. Four people died and one person was injured.
No one was apprehended at the scene, but surveillance videos captured a suspect and a 2007 black Hyundai Tucson.
Less than 50 minutes later, Atlanta police officers responded to a report of a robbery about 25 miles south at Gold Spa in northeast Atlanta, where they found three women who had been fatally shot. As the officers responded to the scene, they received a report of shots fired at Aromatherapy Spa across the street. Inside that business, they found the body of another woman who had been shot.
At 8 p.m., Reynolds alerted the highway patrol and the Crisp County Sheriff’s Office, about 150 miles south, that the suspect was headed south on Interstate 75.
About 68% of the anti-Asian attacks documented during the pandemic were verbal harassment, 21% were shunning and 11% were physical assaults.
The Hyundai was spotted about 8:30, and a state trooper performed a maneuver that caused the vehicle to spin out of control, Crisp County Sheriff Billy Hancock said. Long was taken into custody and transported to the Crisp County jail.
With fear spreading across spas in the city, Atlanta police upped patrols Tuesday night in the area where the killings took place and dispatched officers to check on similar businesses nearby.
On Wednesday, a throng of media gathered outside Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa on a busy stretch of Piedmont Road near the Buckhead district of Atlanta widely known for its array of massage businesses and adult entertainment clubs.
Many neighboring spas and massage businesses remained shuttered with their lights off.
“It’s so hard,” said Gina Ma, 50, the Chinese manager of Heavenly Feet Spa Massage, a small spa about a mile from the sites of the Atlanta killings. “With Asian people, it’s not easy in this country. Americans hate us.”
Police came to Heavenly Feet on Tuesday evening to ask workers to close. On Wednesday, a sign outside the store said “walk-ins welcome,” but a slow trickle of men who walked up to the doors found them shut. The spa’s four employees — two men and two women — were afraid to come to work.
“We just got scared,” Ma said in a telephone interview.
After the shootings, a few customers called to cancel deep-tissue foot massages. Some of her workers told her they didn’t think they could work at the spa or stay in Georgia anymore.
“With COVID-19, it’s not easy to find workers,” she said. “Today, workers — they don’t want to work the store anymore. They want to go to other states. They say Georgia is too dangerous.”
Ma, who has worked at Heavenly Feet for eight years, said that she believed Americans had long resented Asians but that Trump had exacerbated resentment during the pandemic by making false claims that Chinese people brought the coronavirus to the country.
“They think we took their jobs because we work so hard,” she said. “They think we brought COVID-19.”
Over the last year, cities across the U.S. have documented a rise in aggression against Asian Americans. In a survey of police departments in 16 major cities, Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found a total of 122 anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 — a 149% increase from 49 in 2019.
Su Choe, a 31-year-old Korean community organizer for the Asian American Advocacy Fund in Atlanta, said she and other activists had called a rapid response team Wednesday morning to plan how to respond to the shootings — a process that involved everything from trying to figure out what had happened and settle on the correct language to describe the violent attacks to raising financial resources and trying to reach victims.
“I think it’s going to be a long journey,” she said. “It’s a big shock to have such a tragedy so near. Knowing that four of those victims are Korean women…. They’re from my community. They could be one of my friends, my neighbors.”
Times staff writers Melissa Etehad in Los Angeles and Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.
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