ATLANTA — A white gunman was charged Wednesday with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area spas in an attack that sent terror through the Asian American community, which has increasingly been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic.
A day after the shootings, investigators were trying to unravel what might have compelled 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long to commit the worst mass killing in the U.S. in almost two years.
Long told police that Tuesday’s attack was not racially motivated. He claimed to have a “sex addiction,” and authorities said he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation. But those statements spurred outrage and widespread skepticism given the locations and that six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” state Rep. Bee Nguyen said, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House and a frequent advocate for women and communities of color.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that regardless of the shooter’s motivation, “it is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop.”
Authorities said they didn’t know if Long ever went to the massage parlors where the shootings occurred but that he was heading to Florida to attack “some type of porn industry.”
“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,” Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker told reporters.
Baker drew criticism for saying Long had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.” A Facebook page appearing to belong to Baker promoted a T-shirt with racist language about China and the coronavirus last year.
The Facebook account featured numerous photos of Baker going back months, including one of him in uniform outside the sheriff’s office. The account was deleted Wednesday night, and Baker did not immediately respond to voicemails and an email seeking comment. The sheriff’s office also did not respond to a message.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Frank Reynolds said it was too early to tell if the attack was racially motivated — “but the indicators right now are it may not be.”
The Atlanta mayor said police have not been to the massage parlors in her city beyond a minor potential theft.
“We certainly will not begin to blame victims,” Bottoms said.
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the U.S., and the deadliest since the August 2019 Dayton, Ohio, shooting that left nine people dead, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.
It follows a lull in mass killings during the pandemic in 2020, which had the smallest number of such attacks in more than a decade, according to the database, which tracks mass killings defined as four or more dead, not including the shooter.
The killings horrified the Asian American community, which saw the shootings as an attack on them, given a recent wave of assaults that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus across the United States. The virus was first identified in China, and then-President Donald Trump and others have used racially charged terms to describe it.
The attacks began when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor near Woodstock, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Atlanta, authorities said. Four died: 33-year-old Delaina Ashley Yaun, 54-year-old Paul Andre Michels, 44-year-old Daoyou Feng and 49-year-old Xiaojie Tan, who owned the business.
Yaun and her husband came to the spa on a date, her mother, Margaret Rushing, told WAGA-TV. Yaun leaves behind a 13-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter.
Her half-sister, Dana Toole, said Yaun’s husband locked himself in a room and wasn’t injured.
“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?”
The manager of a boutique next door said her husband watched surveillance video after the shooting and the suspect was sitting in his car for as long as an hour before going inside.
They heard screaming and women running from the business, said Rita Barron, manager of Gabby’s Boutique.
The same car was then spotted about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away in Atlanta, where a call came in about a robbery at Gold Spa and three women were shot to death. Another woman was fatally shot at the Aromatherapy Spa across the street.
Long was arrested hours later by Crisp County deputies and state troopers. He refused to stop on a highway and officers bumped the back of his car, causing him to crash, Sheriff Billy Hancock said.
Officers found Long thanks to help from his parents, who recognized him from surveillance footage posted by authorities and gave investigators his cellphone information, which they used to track him, said Reynolds, the Cherokee County sheriff.
“They’re very distraught, and they were very helpful in this apprehension,” he said.
President Joe Biden called the attack “very, very troublesome.”
“We don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight. The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop,” Biden tweeted Wednesday.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman in that office, expressed support to the Asian American community, saying, “We stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people.”
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Over the past year, thousands of incidents of abuse have been reported to an anti-hate group that tracks incidents against Asian Americans, and hate crimes in general are at the highest level in more than a decade.
“While the details of the shootings are still emerging, the broader context cannot be ignored,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta said in a statement. “The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fueled by white supremacy and systemic racism.”
Nico Straughan met Long when he moved to the area in seventh grade, saying Long brought a Bible to school every day and was “super nice, super Christian, very quiet.”
“I don’t know what turn of heart he might have had, but he went from one of the nicest kids I ever knew in high school to being on the news,” Straughan said. “I mean, all my friends, we were flabbergasted.”
The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize sex addiction in its main reference guide for mental disorders. While some people struggle to control their sexual behaviors, it’s often linked to other recognized disorders or moral views about sexuality, said David Ley, clinical psychologist and author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction.”
“These sexual behaviors getting this label are a symptom, not a cause,” Ley said.
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Colleen Long and Zeke Miller in Washington, Sudhin Thanawala in Woodstock, Georgia, Michael Warren, Jeff Amy and Ben Nadler in Atlanta, Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia, and Anila Yoganathan in Cherokee County, Georgia, contributed to this story.