ATLANTA – Authorities on Wednesday said a gunman suspected of killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at three spas may have frequented the businesses but that it was too early to determine if the shootings would be considered a hate crime.
At least four of the victims of the Atlanta-area spas shootings were women of Korean descent, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. Two others were of Asian descent, police said.
Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said it was too soon in the investigation to say whether the shootings were a hate crime. "We are just not there as of yet," Bryant said in a news conference early Wednesday.
The suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long of Woodstock, Georgia, was charged with eight counts of murder Wednesday in all three shootings. Four of the counts against Long are related to shootings at two spas in Atlanta. The other four are related to shootings at a spa in Cherokee County.
Long has not been charged with a hate crime, a specific charge that authorities must prove a crime was committed on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation. He purchased a firearm Tuesday – the day of the attacks – from Big Woods Goods, a sporting good story in Cherokee County. Matt Kilgo, the shop's attorney, said his clients are "fully cooperating" with police. "Everything they have will be turned over," Kilgo said.
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday that Long told authorities that his actions were not racially motivated and that he had a sex addiction.
"These locations, he sees them as an outlet for him, something that he shouldn't be doing," Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said. "He was attempting to take out that temptation."
All three spas are listed on Rubmaps.ch, an erotic review site that allows users to search for and review illicit massage parlors. The site is the most popular of its kind, where buyers who call themselves “hobbyists” or “mongers” looking for sex go to find and share information, according to a study by Polaris, a nonprofit group that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, both in Atlanta, have around 100 reviews, many recent. A review for Gold Spa on March 9 indicated that it was “full service,” as did a similar review from five days prior. Young's Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia, has 39 reviews on Rubmaps, the latest posted in February.
Long's motivations are still being investigated, and a criminal record wasn't immediately found. In 2019, Long's parents reported him missing when the then-19-year-old ran off with his girlfriend. "Their son sent them a text stating he was not returning home and wanted a fresh start," the report says.
Authorities note in the 2019 report that his parents said Long was "not suicidal, did not take any medication, and had no mental illnesses."
Baker said Long indicated he intended to travel to Florida to carry out similar acts at "some type of porn industry" there. A 9mm firearm was recovered from the suspect's car when he was arrested, Baker said.
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A visual timeline:What happened at Atlanta spa shootings
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the spas in Atlanta were not on police's radar: "As far as we know in Atlanta, these are legally operating businesses."
She acknowledged that the shootings are the latest incident in a string of violence nationwide against Asian Americans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is an issue that is happening across the country. It is unacceptable. It is hateful. It has to stop," Lance Bottoms said.
In Cherokee County, the victims were identified as Delaina Ashley Yuan, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Yan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44.
Four others were killed at the two Atlanta spas, but police have not yet identified them.
Michels' younger brother, John Michels, 52, said he believes his brother was "just in the wrong place at the wrong time." He said they grew up with a total of nine siblings in Detroit, riding dirt bikes and spending summer weekends at a lake and getting into mischief together. They both served in the U.S. Army at the same time and his brother served as an infantryman in the late 1980s.
"I'm the closest in age, so we were basically like twins," John said. "We did everything together growing up."
John said Paul Michels owned an alarm company in Atlanta, where he and his wife, Bonnie, have lived 26 years. "He was just a very hard-working Republican," John added, "and a very strong Trump supporter."
Even in grief, John insisted on putting out a message to the alleged slayer: "Although this is a tragedy, I forgive that man and so will Jesus Christ... I cannot hate him for it. I pray for his repentance."
What we know about the Atlanta shootings:Suspect arrested after 8 people killed at 3 spas parlors
Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks incidents of discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, called the incident an "unspeakable tragedy."
"This latest attack will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure," the group said.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first African American and South Asian American woman to be elected vice president, called the incident "tragic."
"The investigation is ongoing, we don’t yet know, we’re not yet clear about the motive. But I do want to say to our Asian American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people."
The shootings first unfolded Tuesday evening in Acworth, about 30 miles north of Atlanta. Baker said five people were shot at Young's Asian Massage Parlor. Two people were found dead on the scene. Three victims were taken to a hospital, where two later died.
About an hour after the shooting in Acworth, Atlanta police responded to a report of a robbery at Gold Spa in northeast Atlanta. Three women were found dead there, Atlanta Police Sgt. John Chafee said. While police were responding, there was a report of shots fired across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, where police found one woman dead, Chafee said.
Shortly after the first shooting, Cherokee County sheriff's officials released photos of the suspect, Reynolds said. Long's family immediately contacted the department and helped authorities in tracking him.
Reynolds said authorities anticipated the suspect's next moves and called sheriff's officials in Crisp County, who worked with Georgia State Patrol to stop Long. Long is to be arraigned Thursday morning, Reynolds added.
Lance Bottoms praised the swift coordination among law enforcement agencies.
"For as tragic as this was on yesterday for metro Atlanta, this could have been ... significantly worse," she said.
Youngs Asian Massage, the scene of the first attack, is on a strip mall with five other shops, settled between a salon and a boutique. The strip is on a busy road lined with similar strips malls, with little foot traffic as customers drove up Wednesday to do their shopping.
A smoke shop, record store and tool shop sit farther down the strip. There is a vacant shop between Smoke South and RetroSound Records.
Rita Barron, owner of Gabby’s Boutique, sits next door to the parlor and described the owners and employees as hardworking.
Barron was in the shop with her husband and customers the night of the shooting. One of the bullets was shot through the shared wall, near the baseboard of a wall lined with jackets for sale.
She said her husband noticed the suspect had been sitting in his vehicle outside the parlor for about an hour before the attack.
Barron saw workers run out of the store, so she sent her husband to investigate. When he discovered what happened, they called 911. She said they were not the first to call 911, and police showed up shortly after.
"I feel confused," she said, adding that she'd never heard gunshots before and wondered what the noises were. She said the owner and employees are "very, very hard workers" who open early and stay late in the evening.
Barron said she knew several of the victims. Aside from the workers, one of those shot was a customer of hers who was in critical condition, she said. Another is a waitress at a nearby Waffle House. She was killed.
Barron said she has been in contact with the wife of the man who is in critical condition. His wife told Barron that they are asking for prayers for him. "If we can pray for him, that's good," she said.
The two spas in Atlanta, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, are two of several neighborhood businesses that are frequented during late nights. Their customers and services remaining discreet behind blacked out windows and parking lots behind buildings.
Gold Spa has a blacked-out glass door which prevents visibility from the outside. The windows are concealed by shutters that appear rusted. At least one set of window covers appear to be held together with duct tape. The only thing visible inside is an LED ATM near the front entrance.
Mallory Rahman and her 4-year-old daughter, Zara, left flowers on the steps of Gold Spa in Atlanta to pay respects to the young women who were murdered there the night before.
“I told her that some people were hurt here that should not have been hurt. Some people were hurt by a bad person,” Rahman said. “I know she’s young, but I also want to teach her from a young age.”
She said her family lives walking distance from the two spas on Piedmont Road, the site of the shootings. While she has not supported the spas as a customer, she is sickened by the events.
“My mom is in town from out of state and we just cried. It’s just terrible,” Rahman said.
Nearby Aromatherapy Spa, Craig Barnes owns G Salon, a day spa he opened in this Piedmont Heights neighborhood in 1999.
The spas and strip clubs that share the Atlanta thoroughfare with Barnes were here when he arrived more than two decades ago, he said. The immediate area includes a Mexican restaurant and pizzeria, auto repair shops, medical offices, a psychic and apartment lofts.
“Twenty-one years, no issues,” Barnes said. “I’ve never met anyone, never seen anyone there (at the site of Tuesday’s shooting) in 21 years. They’re quiet. They don’t do business at the same time I do.”
When Barnes shuts his doors to customers at 7 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on Saturdays, the 24-hour spas are preparing for a rush of late-night guests.
Tuesday’s shooting occurred during evening rush hour in Atlanta. Barnes was at his salon. One of his customers called from across the street to cancel an appointment. She couldn’t make it, she told him.
Barnes told her not to worry. His team members would wait for her, not realizing the streets were blocked off.
“No, you don’t understand,” the customer told Barnes. “Look out your door.”
Big Woods Goods, a sporting goods store in nearby Holly Springs, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Long purchased a firearm from the store on Tuesday and the owners were were cooperating with law enforcement. A person who answered the phone Wednesday declined to comment to USA TODAY.
Shannon Gott, owner of Backwoods Bowstrings, a hunting supply shop north of Atlanta, said Long shopped there about once a year for arrows, and the store posted a photo of Long this past year on the store's web gallery after he "harvested an animal" during deer season.
"Apart from that, I know nothing about this idiot," Gott said, noting the store posts photos of many of its customers. He added that he is going to take down the gallery, and expressed sympathy to friends and family of those killed.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, violence against Asian Americans has sharply increased since March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The group said Asian Americans have been blamed for the pandemic and connected the attacks to racist rhetoric from politicians, including former President Donald Trump.
Stop AAPI Hate tracked nearly 3,800 incidents of hate, discrimination or attacks on Asian Americans from March 2020 through February 2021. At least 48 incidents have occurred in Georgia, the group said.
Sam Hu, a second-generation Korean American visiting Atlanta this week, spent early Wednesday morning trying to make sense of what happened.
“The problem seems so insurmountable. I don’t even know where to try to begin. I think that’s why I’m so sad. It’s random, but it’s not. It’s premeditated, but it’s not. ... I’m worried because it could happen anywhere.”
Hu said he believes Tuesday’s shootings are hate crimes. He wants local, state and federal officials to move fast to categorize them as such. To not do so would be the latest disservice to Asian Americans, he said.
“I just couldn’t help but think that, like, that could have been me, my parents, my friends, my loved ones,” Hu said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the “horrific shootings” and administration officials have been in contact with the mayor’s office and the FBI.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in South Korea on Wednesday morning to meet with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong. He acknowledged the shooting and the fact that four of the victims were believed to be of Korean descent. “We are horrified by this violence which has no place in America or anywhere,” Blinken said.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a tweet he appreciated law enforcement's "quick apprehension" of Long.
"Our entire family is praying for the victims of these horrific acts of violence," the governor said.
Contributing: Cara Kelly, Christal Hayes, Erin Mansfield, Jordan Culver, Dennis Wagner and Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press