A man accused of killing eight people, most of them women of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area massage businesses pleaded guilty Tuesday to four of the murders and was handed four sentences of life without parole.
Robert Aaron Long, 22, still faces the death penalty in the four other deaths, which are being prosecuted in a different county. His shooting spree at three different businesses in March ignited outrage and fueled fear among Asian Americans, who were already facing increased hostility at the time linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Many were particularly upset when authorities suggested that Long’s crimes were not racially motivated but were instead born of a “sex addiction,” which is not recognized as an official disorder.
In comments sure to further frustrate those outraged over Long’s apparent targeting of Asian women, a prosecutor reiterated Tuesday that Cherokee County investigators saw no evidence of racial bias. That’s at odds with the hate crime enhancement that Long, who is white, faces just miles away in the four deaths in Atlanta.
“This was not any kind of hate crime,” District Attorney Shannon Wallace said.
On March 16, Long shot and killed four people, three of them women and two of Asian descent, at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County, according to police accounts. A fifth person was wounded. Long then drove to Atlanta, where he shot and killed three women at Gold Spa before going across the the street to Aromatherapy Spa and fatally shooting another woman, police have said. All of the Atlanta victims were of Asian descent.
In Atlanta, Long could be sentenced to death if convicted in the four deaths. There, he also faces charges of domestic terrorism in addition to murder, and prosecutors have said they will seek to have the deaths classified as a hate crime.
Wallace explained that Cherokee County prosecutors came to a different conclusion. When Long walked through the first spa “shooting anyone and everyone he saw,” Wallace he was motivated by a “sex addiction” and his desire to eliminate sources of temptation at businesses where he engaged in sex acts.
As for gender bias, Wallace said a hate crime enhancement based on hatred of women would not have significantly extended his sentence.
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.”
Wallace said prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty if Long didn’t plead guilty. All the relatives of the victims that they’ve been able to contact supported the plea deal in the interest of swift justice, she added.
The prosecutor said the defendant signed a plea deal admitting to all of the charges in Cherokee County, where he was accused of malice murder, felony murder, attempt to commit murder and aggravated assault.
Those killed at the Cherokee County spa were: Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54. The Atlanta victims were: Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.
Long said he had planned to kill himself that day and went to the massage businesses thinking that paying for sex — which he considered hateful — would push him to do it.
“I was scared of killing myself and wanted to try to overcome that so I could,” he told Cherokee County Superior Court Chief Judge Ellen McElyea on Tuesday.
But at some point while sitting in his car outside the first spa, he decided to kill the people inside.
He said he was driven by a desire to “punish” the people who worked there.
Long is scheduled to appear again next month in Fulton County, where District Attorney Fani Willis filed notice that she intends to seek what is called a hate crime sentence enhancement.
Georgia’s new hate crimes law does not provide for a stand-alone hate crime. After a person is convicted of an underlying crime, a jury determines whether it was motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.
The 19-count Fulton County indictment includes charges of murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism.
Police said that after the shootings at the two Atlanta spas, Long got back into his car, and authorities said he intended to carry out similar crimes in Florida.
By then, Long’s parents had called authorities to help after recognizing their son in still images from security video that the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office posted on social media. His parents were already tracking his movements through an application on his phone, the prosecutor said, and that enabled authorities to track their son down.
Long told police his attack was not racially motivated, and a Cherokee sheriff’s spokesman said it did not appear to be a hate crime, prompting widespread skepticism and outrage at the time.
Cherokee sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker also drew criticism for saying Long had “a really bad day,” and was removed from the case.
State Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House and a frequent advocate for women and communities of color, said the shootings appeared to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.”