ATLANTA — A White gunman accused of killing eight people, most of them women of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area massage parlors was charged with murder Wednesday in an attack that sent terror through the Asian American community that’s increasingly been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, told police that the attack was not racially motivated and claimed to have a “sex addiction,” with authorities saying he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation. Six of the victims were identified as Asian and seven were women.
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 that they didn’t know if Long ever went to the massage parlors where the shootings occurred but that he was planning to go to Florida in a plot 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.
When asked whether somebody could have sexual encounters at the businesses, Bottoms did not answer, saying she did not want “to get into victim blaming, victim shaming here.” She said police have not been to the parlors in her city beyond a minor potential theft.
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.” Neither he nor Baker clarified their statements, and Baker did not return a text message seeking more details.
Cherokee County authorities say Long was charged Wednesday with four counts of murder and one count of assault.
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 assaults in more than a decade, according to the database, which tracks mass killings defined as four or more dead, not including the shooter.
Many suspects who commit mass shootings have a history of violence against women. 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 Tuesday evening, when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor near Woodstock, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Atlanta, authorities said. Two people died at the scene, and three were taken to a hospital, where two died.
About an hour later, police responding to a call about a robbery found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at Gold Spa, which is in a strip of tattoo parlors and strip clubs in one of the last ungentrified holdouts in an upscale area of Atlanta. Officers then learned of a call reporting gunfire across the street, at Aromatherapy Spa, and found another woman apparently shot dead.
President Joe Biden said the FBI briefed him on the shootings and noted that Asian Americans are concerned about a recent rise in violence, a surge he has previously condemned. He called the attack “very, very troublesome” but was waiting for answers on the shooter’s motivation.
Vice President Kamala Harris offered condolences to the victims’ families.
“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,” said Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to be vice president.
Over the past year, thousands of cases 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.
“We are heartbroken by these acts of violence,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta said in a statement. “While the details of the shootings are still emerging, the broader context cannot be ignored. The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fueled by white supremacy and systemic racism.”
Police in major cities deplored the killings. Seattle’s mayor said “the violence in Atlanta was an act of hate,” and San Francisco police tweeted #StopAsianHate. The New York City police counterterrorism unit said it was on alert for similar attacks.
In Georgia, Crisp County Sheriff Billy Hancock said in a video on Facebook that his deputies and state troopers were notified Tuesday night that a murder suspect out of north Georgia was headed their way. Deputies and troopers set up along the interstate and “made contact with the suspect,” he said.
A state trooper performed a pursuit intervention technique that “caused the vehicle to spin out of control,” Hancock said. Long was then taken into custody “without incident.”
Rita Barron, manager of a business neighboring the massage parlor targeted in the first shooting, said security footage of the parking lot outside the stores showed the gunman had been sitting in his car for about an hour, just watching.
Nico Straughan, 21, who went to school with Long, described him as “super nice, super Christian, very quiet” and said Long brought a Bible to high school every day and would walk around carrying it.
“He went from one of the nicest kids I ever knew in high school to being on the news yesterday,” Straughan said.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has said its diplomats in Atlanta have confirmed with police that four of the victims who died were women of Korean descent. It said its consulate general in Atlanta is trying to confirm the nationality of the women.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in South Korea meeting with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, mentioned the killings during an opening statement.
“We are horrified by this violence which has no place in America or anywhere,” he said.
In the aftermath of the incidents, the National JACL issued statement. In part, it read: “The JACL mourns the loss of lives and condemns these acts of violence. Regardless of whether these actions were racially motivated, we recognize that these events have shaken the Asian American community. We must continue to stand together in solidarity and support one another as we navigate these difficult times. It is our hope that some light is shed on these events and that justice is sought for those who were harmed.
“Whether these murders were intended to target the victims because of their work, gender or their Asian ethnicity, they come at a time when our community is already feeling exposed and vulnerable. The impacts of the discrimination and outright racism that have been brought to the forefront by the Covid-19 pandemic have continued to wear us down, and while the motives behind this most recent attack still remain unknown, the implications are harrowing.
“We call upon all Americans to do what they can to stop these acts of violence; this must end now. Hate crimes and incidents of bias need to be deplored in all walks of life, through discussions in our families, schools, places of employment, houses of worship, and beyond. We cannot continue to tear one another down for our race, gender, profession, etc. When will enough be enough?”
Calling the shootings “an unspeakable tragedy,” Stop AAPI Hate said, “ … our hearts go out to the loved ones of the victims and to the Asian American community in Atlanta,” and that regardless of whether the killings were motivated by hate, this incident “ … will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure. There has been a documented pattern of recent attacks against our community, as we have received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents across the country since March 2020. Not enough has been done to protect Asian Americans from heightened levels of hate, discrimination and violence. Concrete action must be taken now. Anything else is unacceptable.”
In a statement, the Japanese American National Museum said it “grieves for the loss of life and condemns the killing in the strongest terms.”
“While this violent crime is still being investigated, regardless of the motivation, the deadly shootings add to the already heightened sense of fear in Asian American communities across the country, as anti-Asian hate crimes have soared,” the Museum added.
“We look forward to the outcome of the House Judiciary Committee panel that will examine the crisis on Thursday when Asian American leaders will testify about the rise in racism and violence, and how to combat the attacks,” said JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs.
(This AP story was supplemented with statements from different advocacy organizations.)