The man accused of shooting to death eight people — including six women of Asian descent — at a string of Atlanta-area spas told authorities he had a “sexual addiction” and wanted to get rid of the temptation that the establishments represented.
Authorities said Wednesday that the attacks “did not appear to be” motivated by race. But rights groups stressed that the broader context of a recent surge of hate crimes and harassment targeting Asian Americans should not be ignored, and Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant cautioned that the investigation was still in its early stages.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Ga., was arrested Tuesday night in Crisp County, about 150 miles south of Atlanta, after the shootings at a spa in Acworth, Ga., and two Atlanta spas where many of the employees are Asian. The attacks fueled fears that the victims were targeted because of their race.
Authorities said Wednesday that Long, who was captured after his parents approached authorities, admitted carrying out the attacks. Asked if the shootings were racially motivated, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said that “we believe he frequented these places in the past and may have been lashing out,” but that racism “did not appear to be the motive.”
“He has some issues, potentially sexual addiction,” Reynolds told reporters. “We’re still early on, still have a lot of things to process.”
Bryant added that it was too early to say whether race was a component in the attacks.
“We’re still early in this investigation, so we cannot make that determination at this moment,” Bryant said. “There’s still a lot more work to be done.”
Authorities said Long had been heading to Florida to carry out similar attacks there. Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said the spas were “a temptation” for Long.
“It’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” Baker said. “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.”
At least four of those killed were of Korean descent.
On Wednesday, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office released the names of the deceased victims in the first shooting: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth, Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta, Xiaojie Yan, 49, of Kennesaw, and Daoyou Feng, 44, of unknown address. A fifth victim, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, was injured.
The Atlanta Police Department said the victims from the incidents that occurred within the city of Atlanta had yet to be positively identified and next of kin notification had not been confirmed by the Fulton County medical examiner.
“We are heartbroken by these acts of violence,” Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said in a statement. “Six Asian women lost their lives. Now is the time to hold the victims and their families in our hearts and in our light.”
On Wednesday morning, Long was transported to the Cherokee County Adult Detention Center on Wednesday morning. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said he was charged with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault with no bond.
A 2017 graduate of Sequoyah High School in Canton, Ga., Long belonged to Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton and described his interests on Instagram as “pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God,” the Daily Beast reported. On Wednesday morning, the church’s website and Facebook page were no longer publicly accessible. Its pastor did not respond to requests for comment.
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, Baker told the Associated Press. 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 the 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 department, about 150 miles south, that the suspect was headed south on Interstate 75 in a 2007 black Hyundai Tucson.
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 without incident and transported to the Crisp County jail.
With fear spreading across spas in the city, Atlanta police said that commanders in the area where the killings took place increased patrols and dispatched officers to check similar businesses nearby.
In a statement, STOP AAPI Hate, a national coalition addressing anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic, called the shootings an “unspeakable tragedy — for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the AAPI community — which has been reeling from high levels of racial discrimination.”
Even without knowing the suspect’s motive, the group said, “right now there is a great deal of fear and pain in the Asian American community that must be addressed.”
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.
“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,” said Phi Nguyen, litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.
The group added that, “while anti-Asian violence is woven throughout our nation’s history, the Trump administration’s relentless scapegoating of Asians for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased the incidences of hate and violence against Asian Americans around the country.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that its diplomats in Atlanta have confirmed with police that four of the victims who died were women of Korean descent. The ministry said the office of its Consulate General in Atlanta was trying to confirm the nationality of the women.
“We’re horrified by this violence, which has no place in America or anywhere, for that matter,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Seoul, where he met Wednesday with senior South Korean officials. “And I want to offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who died and to everyone in the Korean community who is shaken and deeply disturbed by this incident. We are as well, and we will stand up for the right of our fellow Americans and Korean Americans to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect.”
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, NH: “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.”
In the northwest suburbs of Atlanta, Young’s Asian Massage is a small business tucked in a strip mall, between a beauty salon and a boutique in a diverse neighborhood across the street from a taqueria, a carniceria and a panaderia.
The shootings 25 miles south near the Buckhead district of Atlanta took place on a stretch of Piedmont Road widely known across the city for its array of massage businesses and adult entertainment clubs. On its website, Gold Spa offers deep tissue and Swedish massages from an “international” staff. Aromatherapy Spa describes itself as an “Asian Latin American massage spa.”
The FBI is assisting the local agencies with the shooting investigation, according to FBI spokesman Kevin Rowson.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Chris Megerian in Washington and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
For the record:
5:15 AM, Mar. 17, 2021: A previous version of this story misidentified Frank Reynolds. He is the sheriff of Cherokee County, not Crisp County.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.