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Atlanta spa shooting suspect pleads not guilty in four of the slayings

Atlanta spa shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long
Robert Aaron Long is accused of killing eight people at Atlanta-area spas in March.
(Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A man already sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to fatally shooting four people at a massage business outside Atlanta entered a plea Tuesday of not guilty to killing four others on the same day at two spas inside the city.

Robert Aaron Long, 22, appeared briefly Tuesday in Fulton County Superior Court, where he waived arraignment and entered a not guilty plea on charges including murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism. Dist. Atty. Fani Willis is seeking the death penalty, as well as a sentencing enhancement under Georgia’s new hate crimes law.

In July, Long pleaded guilty in Cherokee County to charges including four counts of murder. He received four sentences of life without parole, plus an additional 35 years.

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Those killed in Cherokee County were Paul Michels, 54; Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Delaina Yaun, 33. The Atlanta victims were Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

Tuesday was the second time Long appeared before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville. The hearing lasted just a few minutes. Defense attorney Jerilyn Bell spoke for Long, who did not address the judge. Glanville set the next hearing in the case for Nov. 23.

During a brief appearance last month, Glanville asked Long’s court-appointed defense attorneys about their qualifications to handle a death penalty case and went through a checklist specific to capital cases.

Long a minority in American Christianity, Asian American Christians have found a new voice after the Atlanta spa shootings. They are a bridge between those who blame an evangelical ‘purity culture’ for the deaths and activists who say the growth of anti-Asian hatred cannot be ignored.

When the killings happened in March, Asian Americans were already experiencing an uptick in hostility related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that a majority of those killed at the Atlanta-area spas were women of Asian descent heightened feelings of fear and anger. Many Asian Americans have been upset by Long’s assertions that he was motivated by the shame he felt from his sexual urges, rather than by racial bias.

At Long’s plea hearing in Cherokee County in July, Dist. Atty. Shannon Wallace said investigators had found no evidence of racial bias behind the killings. She said if the Cherokee County case had gone to trial, she would have been prepared to seek the death penalty and would have argued that Long was motivated by gender bias.

Wallace said she spoke to the Cherokee County survivors and families of victims before agreeing to a plea deal. She said she made that decision in the interest of getting justice quickly and avoiding a drawn-out trial and appeals process.

Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, said last month that she believes race and gender played a role in Long’s motivation. Georgia’s hate crimes law does not provide for a stand-alone hate crime. After a person is convicted of an underlying crime, a jury must determine whether it was motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.

Willis has said that the families of the Atlanta victims understand it may be a long road but are in favor of seeking the death penalty. Byung J. “BJay” Pak, a former U.S. attorney who represents the families of Yue and Kim, said they believe a lengthy judicial process is a small price to pay to get justice for their loved ones.

“They’re ready, and they have the resolve to do it,” Pak said. He noted that the family members try to come to court for the hearings to seek closure and justice and to remind the judge and others of what’s been lost.

After shooting five people at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County, Long drove about 30 miles south to Atlanta, in Fulton County, where he shot three women at Gold Spa and one woman across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, police say.

He then headed south on the interstate, and authorities have said he intended to carry out similar attacks in Florida.

His parents called police after recognizing their son in images from security video posted online by authorities in Cherokee County. They were already tracking his movements through an app on his phone, which allowed authorities to find him and take him into custody on the interstate.


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