ATLANTA — Authorities on Wednesday said a gunman suspected of killing eight people, six of who were Asian women, at three spas may have previously 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 massage parlor 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 during a Wednesday morning news conference.
However, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday that the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, told authorities that his actions were not racially motivated and that he had a sexual 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.”
Baker said that 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 added.
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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.
What we know about the Atlanta shootings:Suspect arrested after 8 people killed at 3 massage 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 they 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.
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 they were cooperating with law enforcement. A person who answered the phone Wednesday declined to comment to USA TODAY.
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: Jordan Culver, Dennis Wagner and Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press