Atlanta spa shootings were hate crimes, prosecutor says

By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

A prosecutor said earlier this week that the man accused of killing eight people at spas in and around Atlanta had targeted some of the victims because they were of Asian descent, and said she was planning to seek the death penalty against him.

The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 22, who is white, was formally indicted on murder charges Tuesday in the killings at three massage businesses in and around Atlanta, which shook the country in March amid a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes.

Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, said Long had attacked four women at two massage businesses there because of their race, national origin, sex and gender. All of the victims at the Atlanta spas were Korean American women. The authorities have said that Long drove to the Atlanta businesses after killing four people at another spa in a suburb in Cherokee County.

The district attorney in Cherokee County has not indicated whether she plans to seek hate crime penalties against Long; two of the victims at that spa were of Asian descent and two were white.

The police said after the attacks that Long had denied targeting the victims because of their race. Instead, he claimed to have struggled with a “sex addiction,” they said. The Atlanta police have said that Long was a customer at the two Atlanta businesses that he targeted, although they have not said that he went there for sex. A lawyer for Long did not return a request for comment.

In a news conference Tuesday, Willis said she had reviewed statements that Long had given to investigators and believed that seeking the death penalty and hate crime enhancements was appropriate, but she did not lay out any new evidence about his motivations.

“If you harm any member of our community, you are going to be held accountable,” Willis said, adding that she wanted to send a message to victims that “it does not matter your ethnicity, it does not matter what side of the tracks you come from, it does not matter your wealth, you will be treated as an individual with value.”

Grand jurors in Fulton County also indicted Long on one count of domestic terrorism, saying he had intended to “intimidate the civilian population” of Georgia.

The attacks were among the first large-scale shootings in public places in more than a year and stoked fear in many Asian Americans, who have increasingly reported being targeted in attacks since the coronavirus pandemic began.

All of the women killed in Atlanta were employees of the massage businesses there, and all had immigrated from South Korea. They were identified as Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51.

Willis filed a notice in court that she will seek hate crime penalties if Long is convicted of murder. Under a new Georgia law, a prosecutor can ask a jury to determine if a person convicted of a crime was motivated by race or other factors, which carries an additional penalty. Willis said she believed she is the first prosecutor in the state to seek to use the law since it went into effect last July.

The attacks began on the evening of March 16, when four people were shot and killed at Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County. The victims were Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33. The gunman also shot another man, who survived.

Shortly after the first shooting, the police in Atlanta responded to a call about an attack at Gold Spa, another massage business, where they found three women who had been shot and killed. As they were investigating the scene, they were alerted to another shooting, across the street, at Aromatherapy Spa, where they found the last victim, another woman who had been fatally shot.

Sheriff’s deputies stopped Long about 150 miles south of Atlanta in Crisp County, where he was driving on the highway. A police official later said that investigators believed Long was planning to attack a business in Florida connected to the pornography industry.

A former roommate at a halfway house said Long had gone to a Christian addiction center for treatment for his professed “sex addiction” but could not stop himself from going to massage parlors and paying for sex.

The intention to seek a death sentence is a reversal for Willis, who was elected as district attorney in November after previously serving in the prosecutor’s office. Willis said during her campaign that she could not “foresee a case” in which she would seek the death penalty, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I believe that life without parole is an appropriate remedy,” she said, according to the newspaper.

On Tuesday, she defended the move.

“Last year, I told the voters of Fulton County that I did not imagine a circumstance where I would seek it,” she said. “And at that time, I did not. Unfortunately, a case has arisen in the first few months of my term that I believe warrants the ultimate penalty, and we shall seek it.”

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