Authorities in the southern U.S. state of Georgia say suspect Robert Aaron Long claimed Tuesday’s shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors were not racially motivated but were instead a result of “sex addiction” issues. Seven of the eight victims were women.
The 21-year-old man was arrested just hours after the attack. Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said Long had “frequented” two of the parlors located in Northeast Atlanta.
Long had been expected to be arraigned Thursday afternoon, but The Washington Post, citing the Cherokee County district attorney’s office, said Long waived his right to appear, doing so in writing through his attorney.
In addition to six victims of Asian descent, a white man and a white woman were also killed. A ninth person remained hospitalized with injuries, police said.
Authorities have identified four of the victims as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Yan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Xiaojie Yan, 44, whose address is unknown.
Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, was injured.
The other victims' names have not been released.
Prosecutors Wednesday charged Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. He was arrested late Tuesday and was being held in the Cherokee Country Adult Detention Center.
The crime created a wave of fear in the Asian American community, which was already reeling from attacks that have occurred since the start of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago. The virus first surfaced in China in December 2019.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House.
Nguyen has been a frequent advocate for women and communities of color in the state, the Associated Press reported.
Esther Kao, an organizer with a group that does outreach work to Asian and Asian American sex workers, told the Associated Press that “There’s this assumption that all these massage parlor workers are sex workers. That may or may not be the case.” She said, “The majority of massage parlors are licensed businesses that also provide professional, nonsexual massages.”
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker told reporters that Long “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.”
Officials said Long may have been on his way to Florida to commit more shootings when he was arrested.
Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said it was too early to classify the shootings as hate crimes.
Baker was criticized on social media Wednesday for telling reporters that Long had “a really bad day” and for earlier Facebook posts that disparaged people of Asian descent.
In Facebook posts last March and April, Baker encouraged followers to buy an anti-Asian T-shirt that said the coronavirus was an “imported virus from Chy-na,” repeating language similar to what then-U.S. President Donald Trump began to use after the outbreak began.
“Place your order while they last,” Baker said in one of the Facebook posts that he has not commented on.
President Joe Biden said he was withholding judgment about the motivation behind the shootings until there is more information.
"I am making no connection at this moment of the motivation of the killer. I am waiting for an answer from — as the investigation proceeds — from the FBI and from the Justice Department," he said before hosting a bilateral meeting with the prime minister of Ireland. "I'll have more to say when the investigation is completed."
Biden has ordered flags flown at half-staff through March 22 to honor the victims. He and Vice President Kamala Harris are scheduled to travel to Atlanta on Friday to meet with Asian American leaders.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms condemned the carnage, saying, "A crime against any community is a crime against us all.”
Harris said the shootings speak “to a larger issue, which is the issue of violence in our country and what we must do to never tolerate it and to always speak out against it."
Former U.S. President Barack Obama used the event to call for “common-sense gun safety laws.”
The first attack took place at a massage parlor in the town of Acworth, about 50 kilometers north of Atlanta. Authorities there said a shooter killed two Asian women, a white woman and a white man, and wounded another man.
About an hour later, police in Atlanta found three Asian women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at a beauty spa. They then found another Asian woman dead of a gunshot at a spa a short distance away.
Police said surveillance video showed the suspect’s vehicle at all three locations and that they were very confident the same shooter was responsible for all the attacks.
The shootings come amid a rising number of attacks against people of Asian descent in the United States.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans jumped by 149% in 16 major U.S. cities from 2019 to 2020, according to a study released this month by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Overall hate crimes fell 7% during the same period.
The Asian American Coalition for Education said in a statement Thursday it “strongly condemns the increasing violence and rising hate incidents targeting Asian Americans in recent months” and called for a multifaceted approach to address the disturbing trend.
The AACE urged governments at all levels commit sufficient law enforcement resources to protect Asian Americans, begin investigations to identify causes of such attacks and launch collaborative campaigns to improve education to discourage violence. The organization also called on politicians to “dissociate the pandemic with any ethnic groups, because Asian Americans did not cause the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the United States 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.