A man suspected of killing eight people at three Atlanta-area spas was headed to Florida “perhaps to carry out additional shootings” when he was arrested Tuesday night, Atlanta’s mayor said Wednesday, citing investigators.
His family had helped police search for him, authorities said, perhaps averting further harm that the mayor said “could have been significantly worse.”
“It’s very likely there would have been more victims,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a news conference at Atlanta police headquarters.
And preliminary information indicates that the killings – of six Asian people and two White people – may not have been racially motivated, but instead could relate to the suspect’s claim of a potential sex addiction, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said at the joint news conference.
Still, it was too early to know a motive, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said. “There’s still a lot more work to be done. … We’re just not there as of yet,” Bryant said.
Because of the victims’ backgrounds, some public officials had raised fears before Wednesday’s police news conference that ethnicity had come into play, amid rising concerns nationwide about anti-Asian violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
Police say Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, is suspected of opening fire at the spas late Tuesday afternoon and early evening, first at a business about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, followed by two more at spas in northeastern Atlanta.
Long was being held Wednesday in Cherokee County on four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault, the sheriff’s office said.
He was arrested Tuesday night about 150 miles south of Atlanta, in a traffic stop on Interstate 75, authorities said.
After his arrest, Long indicated to investigators he believed he had a sex addiction and “an issue with porn,” and claimed to see the spas as “a temptation … that he wanted to eliminate,” Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said at Wednesday’s news conference.
Long “may have frequented some of these places in the past,” Reynolds said, without specifying whether he meant exactly those businesses or spas like them. Long also told investigators the killings were not racially motivated, Reynolds’ office said in a news release.
Baker, like the Atlanta mayor, said Long told investigators he was headed to Florida and was “going to do more acts” there.
Bottoms, acknowledging most of the victims were Asian, said “we know violence against Asian Americans is an issue that’s happening around the country; it is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop.”
The spas were “legally operating businesses” which were not on the authorities’ radar, the mayor said.
South Korea’s foreign ministry, which had been in touch with its consulate in Atlanta, has said that four of the victims were of Korean ethnicity. The six Asian victims were women, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, citing authorities.
Suspect’s family saw his image and helped identify him, authorities say
Shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, deputies were called to Young’s Asian Massage between the Georgia cities of Woodstock and Acworth after reports of a shooting, Cherokee County sheriff’s officials said.
That shooting left four people dead — two Asian, and two White — and one person injured, Baker said. Two of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene, while the other two died at a hospital.
Killed were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Yan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44.
The injured survivor was Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, authorities said.
About an hour later and 30 miles away, Atlanta police responded to what was described as a robbery at the Gold Massage Spa on Piedmont Road in Atlanta. Police said they found three people dead.
While there, police received another call of shots fired across the street at the Aroma Therapy Spa, where they found one person dead, Bryant said.
Investigators found surveillance video of a suspect near the Cherokee County scene and published images on social media.
Long’s family saw the images, contacted authorities and helped identify him, Reynolds said Wednesday.
“The family members are very distraught, and they were very helpful in this apprehension,” Reynolds said.
Investigators were able to track Long’s phone, and Reynolds reached out to the sheriff in Georgia’s Crisp County, well to the south, to let him know Long appeared to be heading in that direction, the Cherokee County sheriff said Wednesday.
Around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the highway patrol about 150 miles south of Atlanta was alerted that a suspect in the Cherokee County shooting was heading its way, Reynolds said in a video on the Crisp County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page.
After Long’s vehicle was spotted, a chase ensued on Interstate 75 and a state trooper performed a manoeuvre that sent the SUV out of control, authorities said.
Police confiscated a 9-millimetre gun from his vehicle, according to Baker, the Cherokee County sheriff’s captain.
Video evidence – including that showing Long’s vehicle in the area of the Atlanta shootings – suggests that Long is responsible for the killings in Atlanta, police there said.
Long has claimed responsibility for the shootings in Cherokee County and in Atlanta, the Cherokee County sheriff’s office said.
US media went to the home of Long’s grandparents in Morristown, Tennessee, on Wednesday. “All I want to say is that he is our grandson and we still love him very much,” said Long’s grandmother, Margaret Long, who was visibly upset.
Long’s grandfather interrupted the conversation, saying they’d been told not to speak to anyone and gave no further comment.
The suspect was in sex addiction rehab last year, former roommate says
Long spent time in rehabilitation for sexual addiction last year, a former roommate told CNN Wednesday.
The roommate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he lived with Long for several months in summer 2020 at a transition house for people exiting rehab.
Long had been in rehab for sexual addiction, the roommate said, adding that Long didn’t talk about his addiction but had seemed to be doing better by the time he left the transition house. The roommate said he hadn’t been in contact with Long “in a long time.”
The roommate said he saw a surveillance photo of Long online after the shootings Tuesday night, and “when I zoomed in I could see the side of his face, and I knew it was him.”
The roommate called police that night, identifying the suspect as Long, according to records from Cherokee County’s emergency dispatch office.
Long seemed to have “self-hatred,” the roommate said.
But overall, he said, Long seemed kind and generous, often cooking food for his friends. The roommate also said he “never heard him say anything racial.”
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” the roommate said of the shooting.
A community shaken
President Joe Biden was briefed overnight about the shootings, and White House officials have been in touch with the Atlanta mayor’s office and the FBI, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
Before Wednesday morning’s news conference, police had not commented on possible motives.
In a statement Tuesday, the Stop AAPI Hate organization said the incident shows that more needs to be done to protect Asian Americans.
“The reported shootings of multiple Asian American women today in Atlanta is an unspeakable tragedy – for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the Asian American community, which has been reeling from high levels of racist attacks over the course of the past year,” it said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in South Korea’s capital to meet with the nation’s foreign minister, mentioned the attacks in remarks Wednesday.
Noting the foreign ministry’s report that four victims were of Korean ethnicity, he expressed condolences to the victims’ families and ‘to anyone in the Korean community who is shaken and deeply disturbed by this incident.”
US Rep. Judy Chu of California wrote overnight that she was devastated to learn about the shootings, and that the Asian American community “has been facing a relentless increase in attacks and harassment over the past year.”
“As we wait for more details to emerge, I ask everyone to remember that hurtful words and rhetoric have real-life consequences. Please stand up, condemn this violence, and help us #StopAsianHate,” she posted on Twitter.
In New York, the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau said on Twitter it will also deploy additional officers to protect Asian communities in the city “out of an abundance of caution.”