- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
ATLANTA — Investigators are poring over reasons why a gunman opened fire on Atlanta-area spas, killing mostly women of Asian descent in at least two massage parlors he frequented, authorities said Thursday.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, waived his right to an initial court appearance in Cherokee County on Thursday. Police on Wednesday said it was too soon to determine whether the shootings were a hate crime but said Long indicated he committed the shootings because of a sex addition, something former roommates said he'd been treated for and struggled with in the past.
Long told investigators he attacked the spas because he wanted to "eliminate" the temptation to feed his sexual compulsion. He faces four murder charges in connection to shootings at two spas in northeast Atlanta, as well as four murder charges and one count of assault in connection to a shooting at third spa in Cherokee County.
Authorities say Long opened fire at Young's Asian Massage in Acworth on Tuesday evening, killing four people and injuring a fifth, before driving 30 miles into Atlanta and killing four more people at two businesses, Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa. Long was arrested about 150 miles south of Atlanta. Police said Wednesday he was heading to Florida and intended to carry out more shootings as spas there.
The shootings came amid a recent wave of attacks against Asian Americans that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus across the United States.
More details on the latest news in the Atlanta spa shootings:
►President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Asian American leaders in Atlanta on Friday.
►Details are beginning to emerge about who the victims of the shootings were and the lives they lived. Cherokee County authorities have released the names of the four people killed and one injured there, while Atlanta police have yet to identify the four victims there.
►While the spas where the shootings happened were not on Atlanta police's radar, according to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, there were red flags that the businesses provided illicit services.
►Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Long may have frequented some of the spas where the shootings happened. Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said Long told police he "was attempting to take out that temptation" tied to a potential sex addiction.
►Baker was facing criticism after he described the gunman as having a "bad day" and a Facebook post appearing to be from his account shared a photo of a racist T-shirt about China and the coronavirus.
Scroll down and refresh this page for the latest updates from the USA TODAY Network. For updates to your inbox, sign up for the Daily Briefing newsletter.
Suspect 'frequented' Atlanta spas before attack; 4 victims still not ID'd
Atlanta police held a news conference Thursday afternoon, offering new details that the suspect frequented the two spa locations in the city that he's accused of targeting.
"I can say that he had frequented both of those locations," deputy police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said of Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa, the two spas that became crime scenes Tuesday.
Hampton said authorities are still investigating the motive and added he couldn't say whether Long "specifically targeted" victims at those locations.
Atlanta police have yet to officially release the identities of the four victims who died at the two spas. Hampton said the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office identified three of the four victims and he hopes to release their names soon.
"I was hoping we would be able to release the names of the victims, but we are not able to do that at this time," Hampton said at the news conference. "We need to make sure that we have a true verification of their identities. And then, that we made the proper next the kin notification."
Who were the victims?
Seven women and one man were killed in the string of attacks, the majority of whom were of Asian descent.
Those killed in the Atlanta shootings have not been identified, but police said all four were Asian women.
At Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County, the victims were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44. A 30-year-old Hispanic man was injured.
Xiaojie "Emily" Tan was listed as the owner of a limited liability corporation associated with Young’s Asian Massage and another spa.
Tan emigrated to the United States from China many years ago, and had an adult daughter who recently graduated from the University of Georgia, said friend and customer Greg Hynson.
“She was the sweetest person you’d ever meet," said Hynson, who had been treated by Tan for about six years for a stiff neck. "My heart was in my throat the second I heard of it. It still doesn’t seem real."
Yaun leaves behind a 13-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter. Her mother, Margaret Rushing, told WAGA-TV, that her daughter and son-in-law went to the spa on a date. When the shooting happened, Yaun's husband locked himself in a room and wasn't injured, said Yan's half-sister, Dana Toole.
“He’s taking it hard,” Toole said. “He was there. He heard the gunshots and everything. You can’t escape that when you’re in a room and gunshots are flying – what do you do?”
Paul Michels, who also died at the spa in Acworth, owned an alarm company in Atlanta, where he and his wife, Bonnie, have lived 26 years, his brother John said.
He believes his brother was "just in the wrong place at the wrong time." They grew up with nine siblings in Detriot, riding dirt bikes and spending summer weekends at a lake and getting into mischief together, he said. They both served in the U.S. Army at the same time and his brother served as an infantryman in the late 1980s.
The lone shooting victim who survived the attack, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, is hospitalized in intensive care.
His wife, Flor Gonzalez, said in an interview Thursday that he is currently intubated and due to have surgery as early as next week to remove the bullet in his abdomen.
Gonzalez said her husband, a Guatemalan immigrant, was on the way to a business next door to the massage parlor, where he sends money to family back home. He called her as the shooting was unfolding.
“They shot me, they shot me, come help me please,” she said Hernandez-Ortiz supplicated. Those were the last words Gonzalez has been able to hear from him, she said on the verge of tears. Guatemalan authorities on Thursday issued a statement, saying the consulate general in Atlanta was in contact with hospital officials and Hernandez-Ortiz's family, checking on his medical condition and offering assistance. Read more about those who were killed here.
– Trevor Hughes, Romina Ruiz, Dennis Wagner, John Bacon and Christal Hayes
100 gather at rally near crime scene
Atlanta residents on Thursday mourned Asian-American victims Thursday night, showing up at Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, adding flowers and poster-sized inspirational quotes to growing tribute areas.
Satya Vatti was an organizer for an evening rally of nearly 100 people in the Gold Spa parking lot — located across the street from Aromatherapy Spa. Vatti said she is angry that law enforcement officials have moved slowly to not only categorize the murders as a hate crime, but determine Long was targeting Asian women.
"Eight people are dead,” she said. “How can that not be a hate crime? He specifically targeted and sought out Asian workers. It doesn’t get much more clear than that."
As vehicles drove by the busy thoroughfare, sometimes honking, visitors paused near the massage spa entrances, somber, confused, angry and scared. Some kneeled, eyes closed, praying and sobbing. Others yelled into bullhorns.
— Gary Estwick
Historic congressional hearing on Asian discrimination turns emotional
A historic hearing Thursday on anti-Asian violence and discrimination, Congress' first on the issue in more than 30 years, turned emotional as lawmakers gave emotional pleas to end the use of divisive language just days after the spa shootings in Atlanta left the Asian-American community rattled.
"Our community is bleeding. We are in pain. And for the last year, we've been screaming out for help," Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., said, noting the continued pleas throughout the pandemic and rise in hate crimes targeting the Asian community.
'We will not let you take our voice from us': Rep. Meng responds to Republicans at hearing on anti-Asian discrimination
Responding to Republican lawmakers' arguments that the focus on hate crimes could hamper free speech Meng told lawmakers they could criticize other countries but "you don't have to do it by putting a bull's-eye on the back of Asian Americans across the county, on our grandparents, on our kids."
Getting visibly emotional, Meng said "this hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community, to find solutions. And we will not let you take our voice from us"
Earlier in the hearing, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, asked whether the committee's attempts to prevent hate crimes and hate incidents against Asian Americans would hamper free speech.
"It seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society," he said of the hearing, though he said he opposed hate crimes and wanted justice to be served for the perpetrator of the shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of whom were Asian or Asian American.
– Nicholas Wu
Biden, Harris to meet with Asian American leaders in Atlanta on Friday
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris plan to meet with Asian American leaders during their Friday visit to Atlanta.
The White House confirmed the meeting, first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which comes as Asian Americans – already facing increasing discrimination amid the coronavirus pandemic – have been rattled by the spa attacks.
Biden and Harris will meet with Georgia state legislators and Asian American and Pacific Islander advocates, according to the White House, to listen to their perspective on the rise in hate incidents targeting Asian Americans.
The trip to Atlanta was arranged before the shootings for the president to tout benefits of his recently approved $1.9 trill COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan.
– Joey Garrison
Visual timeline: What happened at Atlanta spa shootings
Suspect waives right to first court appearance
Long's initial court appearance scheduled Thursday was canceled after he waived his right to the hearing, the Cherokee County district attorney's office and Long's attorney' confirmed to USA TODAY.
"At this time, there are no other court hearings scheduled," Cyndi Crossland, a public information officer for District Attorney Shannon Wallace, said.
J. Daran Burns, an attorney appointed as Long's defense, said he had met with Long in the Cherokee County Adult Detention Center on Wednesday.
"Our firm has been in Cherokee County for 25 years, and when tragedy happens in our community, we feel it. Our condolences are with the victims and their families. We are working on behalf of our client, Robert Aaron Long, to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding this incident,” Burns said in a statement.
"Everybody is doing their jobs, both law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office. Now, our firm will conduct a thorough investigation on our client’s behalf."
Audio from Atlanta 911 calls released
Police on Wednesday released audio from the 911 calls at the Atlanta spas.
In one of the calls, a woman at Gold Spa told the operator that there was a robbery ongoing. She said a white man had a gun and that she was hiding.
During the second call, a woman said she was not at Aromatherapy Spa but that her friend who was there called her. She said her friend was hiding in a back room after man shot a woman.
Suspect purchased a gun same day as shooting
Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said a 9mm firearm was recovered from Long's car.
On Tuesday, the same day of the attacks, Long purchased a firearm 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.
Suspect attended rehab for sex addiction
During an interview with Atlanta police, Cherokee County sheriff's deputies and FBI officials, Long said his actions were not racially motivated, Reynolds said.
"He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate," Baker said.
Long had been in rehab for sex addiction and felt guilty about his sexual urges, according to two people who lived with him in transitional housing.
Baker said Long believed there was "some type of porn industry" in Florida that he intended to confront and that he was on his way to the state when he was apprehended.
Authorities said the only police report on file with the Cherokee Sheriff's Office mentioning Long was from 2019 when the then-19-year-old ran off with his girlfriend and was reported missing by his parents. "Their son sent them a text stating he was not returning home and wanted a fresh start," the report states.
– Will Carless
What do we know about the spas?
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that the Atlanta spas were not on police's radar: “As far as we know in Atlanta, these are legally operating businesses,” she said.
But early signs indicate the businesses may not have been entirely above-board, leaving the women working there particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence. All three spas are listed on an erotic review site that allows users to search for and review illicit massage parlors.
Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa 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. A review for Aromatherapy Spa on March 2 also indicated sex was on the service list. Young's Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia, has 39 reviews, the latest posted in February.
More on the spas: Illicit reviews raise red flags that shooter targeted vulnerable women
One of the eight victims, Xiaojie Tan, was listed as the owner of a limited liability corporation associated with Young’s Asian Massage. The LLC also owns Wang’s Feet & Body Massage, a spa in neighboring Kennesaw also listed on the review site.
The reviews, coupled with advertising for 24-hour services, are red flags, said Elizabeth Kim, the chief operating officer of Restore NYC, a nonprofit that works to provide housing and economic solutions for survivors of trafficking.
Were the attacks targeting people of Asian descent?
Local police said Wednesday that it was too soon to tell whether the killings at the massage parlors were a hate crime. But Yale University Sociology Department chair Grace Kao, an expert on Asian American studies, said it was hard to disentangle race from the killings.
The shooter had targeted Asian American women, and given how "Asian American women have been viewed as exotic and feminine objects in U.S. mass media and suspected of prostitution from the earliest U.S. immigration restrictions," the suspect could easily have viewed Asian American women in the same manner, she said.
"If you talk to the average Asian American woman, most of us have been subject to varying degrees of sexual harassment that targets our gender and racial identities," Kao said. "They do not exist separately in the lives of individuals."
Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen said the shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.”
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."
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the "crimes are beyond terrifying, but it just brings home to so many Asian Americans that they are fearful of their lives and circumstances" as they faced both the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in hate incidents.
She said her group of lawmakers met with the Department of Justice to discuss a nationwide rise in hate incidents and "we are right now determining actions against AAPI hate." She called for the passage of legislation to improve hate crime reporting and also for the establishment of a national day to speak out against anti-Asian American hate on March 26.
Additionally, Baker, the Cherokee County sheriff spokesperson, faced criticism Wednesday after a Facebook page appearing to belong to him promoted a T-shirt with racist language about China and the coronavirus last year. Baker also drew scrutiny for saying Long was having a "bad day" when he carried out the shootings.
Where to donate, how to help Asian communities
Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks acts of discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, found that around 3,800 incidents of hate, discrimination or attacks on Asian Americans occurred from March 2020 through February 2021. You can donate to that cause here.
New anti-hate crime legislation is set to be introduced in both chambers of Congress, following executive orders from President Joe Biden addressing the attacks.
Several GoFundMe fundraisers have been started for the victims and for the Asian American community — the site has started a hub of verifiable fundraisers.
There are more ways you can help be an ally, including reading up on the history of anti-Asian racism and what to do if you see anti-Asian racism.
Contributing: Nicholas Wu, Dennis Wagner, Cara Kelly and Joey Garrison, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta shooting updates: Victims, suspect murder charges, how to help