A white gunman accused of killing eight people, most of them women of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area massage parlours was charged with murder Wednesday in an attack that sent terror through the Asian American community that’s been increasingly targeted during the coronavirus pandemic.
Six of the victims were identified as Asian, and seven were women. Police said the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, told them that the shootings were not racially motivated. Authorities say he was charged Wednesday with eight counts of murder and one count of assault.
Four of the counts are related to shootings at two massage parlours in Atlanta, while the other four are related to shootings at a massage parlour in Cherokee County.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” said Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House and a frequent advocate for women and communities of colour.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that regardless of the shooter’s motivation, “it is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop.”
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the U.S., and the deadliest since the August 2019 Dayton, Ohio, killing that took the lives of nine people, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.
Authorities said they didn’t know if the suspect had ever visited the massage parlours where the shootings occurred but said that he had told them 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 spokesperson Capt. Jay Baker told reporters.
Baker drew criticism and scrutiny for saying, earlier Wednesday, the suspect had had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.”
A Facebook page appearing to belong to Baker promoted, in a post made last year, a COVID-19 T-shirt with racist language about China.
The same 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.
WATCH | Sheriff on what the suspect said about his motivation:
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.”
When asked by a reporter whether the businesses were a place where somebody could have sexual encounters, Bottoms did not answer, saying she did not want “to get into victim blaming, victim shaming here.”
Killings haunt Asian American community
The shootings followed a lull during the pandemic in 2020 that had the smallest number of mass killings in more than a decade, according to a database that 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 attack haunted members of the Asian American community who 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 former president Donald Trump and others have used racially charged terms like “Chinese virus” to describe it.
President Joe Biden said the FBI briefed him today and noted that Asian Americans are concerned about a recent rise in violence, which he has previously condemned.
“I think it is very, very troublesome, but I am making no connection at this moment to the motivation of the killer,” Biden said in the Oval Office.
Christopher Chan, advisory chair of the Asian American Action Fund’s Georgia Chapter, says he believes the suspect’s comments to police may mask a darker motivation.
“We need to let the police do a full investigation into his possible social media and communications and see if there was any racial hatred or racial animus with the suspect,” he told CBC’s Ginella Massa.
Chan said the kind of anti-Chinese rhetoric around COVID-19 used over the past year “painted a target” on the backs of Asian Americans.
“Words have meaning,” Chan said. “When you describe a virus in such terms as the last administration did, you’re going to suffer consequences for that. And Asian Americans are suffering those consequences.”
3 crime scenes
The attacks began Tuesday evening, when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage parlour near Woodstock, about 50 kilometres north of Atlanta, Baker said. Two people died at the scene, he said, while three were taken to a hospital where two of them died.
About an hour later, police responding to a call about a robbery found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at Gold Spa near Atlanta’s Buckhead area, where tattoo parlours and strip clubs are just blocks away from mansions and skyscrapers in one of the last ungentrified holdouts in that part of the city.
Officers then learned of a call reporting shots fired across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, where they found another woman apparently shot dead.
Concern, support from White House
U.S. President Joe Biden said the FBI briefed him on the shootings and noted that Asian Americans have grown concerned about a recent rise in violence against them, a surge he has previously condemned.
“I think it is very, very troublesome, but I am making no connection at this moment to the motivation of the killer,” Biden said in the Oval Office. “I am waiting for an answer, as the investigation proceeds, from the FBI and from the Justice Department.”
The FBI is assisting Atlanta and Cherokee County authorities in the investigation.
Vice-President Kamala Harris expressed support to the Asian American community after the “tragic” shooting, as she sent 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, who is the first Black and South Asian woman to hold the office of vice-president.
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.
“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, fuelled by white supremacy and systemic racism.”
Police in Atlanta and other major cities deplored the killings, and some said they would increase patrols in Asian American communities.
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.
Relatives of victims ‘lost’ and ‘numb’
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry earlier said that its diplomats in Atlanta have confirmed with police that four of the victims who died were women of Korean descent. The ministry said its Consulate General in Atlanta is trying to confirm the nationality of the women.
Some of the victims were identified by officials Wednesday: 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’s relatives told local news outlets that she and her husband were first-time customers on a date when the shooting began.
“I’m lost, I’m confused, I’m hurt. I’m numb,” Margaret Rushing, Yaun’s mother, told WAGA-TV.
Yaun leaves behind a 13-year-old son and an eight-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 sheriff’s office identified an injured person as 30-year-old Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz.
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.
Suspect’s family helped police
According to police, surveillance video had recorded a man pulling up to the Cherokee County business about 10 minutes before the attack there, and authorities said the same car was spotted outside the Atlanta businesses.
A manhunt was launched, and the suspect was taken into custody in Crisp County, about 240 kilometres south of Atlanta, Baker said.
The suspect refused to stop on a highway and officers bumped the back of his car, causing him to crash, Sheriff Billy Hancock said.
Officers said they located the suspect 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.