Prosecutor plans to seek hate crime charges and the death penalty in Atlanta spa shootings

By Jenny JarvieAtlanta Bureau Chief May 11, 2021 Updated 6:08 PM PT Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Copy Link URLCopied! Print

A Georgia district attorney plans to seek hate crime charges and the death penalty against a white gunman accused of fatally shooting eight people — including six women of Asian descent — at three Atlanta-area massage spas.

Robert Aaron Long, the 22-year-old charged in the March 16 rampage, was indicted Tuesday on multiple counts of murder and aggravated assault for four homicides at two spas in Fulton County.

In a notice of intent to seek enhanced penalties for crimes involving bias and prejudice, Dist. Atty. Fani Willis said Long selected the victims — all Asian women — because of “actual or perceived race, national origin, sex and gender.”

“The message that this office is trying to send … is that Lady Justice in this community is blind,” Willis said at a news conference Tuesday. “And if you harm any member of our community, you are going to be held accountable.”

Harassment and attacks against people of Asian descent have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shootings stirred fear in Asian communities across the country.

Willis said the case marks the first time that prosecutors have invoked a new hate crime law, which was passed last year with bipartisan support after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was pursued by three white men as he jogged in a Georgia neighborhood and then fatally shot.

Under the statute, a prosecutor can ask for additional penalties if a person convicted of a crime is also determined to be motivated by hate. Factors could include the victim’s race, national origin, sex or gender.

Willis declined to discuss details of the case and did not indicate which of those factors she believed motivated Long, who told police that he had targeted the spas because he had a sexual addiction.

The indictment covers the killings at Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, located across the street from each other in northeast Atlanta. It charges Long with four counts of murder, four counts of felony murder, five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one count of domestic terrorism and five counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

The four victims were Suncha Kim, 69, Soon Chung Park, 74, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

In a separate indictment, Cherokee County Dist. Atty. Shannon Wallace announced Tuesday that a grand jury in that county charged Long for the four killings at Young’s Asian Massage in a strip mall in Acworth, about 25 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta.

The victims included two Asian women — Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44 — as well as a white woman, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, and a white man, Paul Andre Michels, 54. A Latino man, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, was shot and wounded.

In that indictment, Long was charged with four counts of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, 11 counts of aggravated assault, one count of aggravated battery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and criminal damage to property in the first degree.

Cherokee County prosecutors did not comment on whether they would pursue additional hate crime penalties and said they would announce their decision on whether to pursue the death penalty before arraignment.

Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds drew widespread criticism after the shootings when he said that Long “did not appear to be” motivated by racial bias.

Reynolds said that in an early interview Long confessed to the killings, telling investigators that he had a “sexual addiction” and wanted to get rid of the temptation that the establishments represented.

That account was subsequently echoed by the shooter’s former roommate, Tyler Bayless, who lived with Long at a halfway house in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, Ga., from August 2019 until late January or February 2020.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bayless said that when he lived with Long, a member of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga., Long visited several Asian spas for sexual services and was racked by religious-related guilt and shame.

“He would come back and say, ‘I’ve done it again. I’ve gone to these places,’” Bayless said. “One time he got back, he looked me in the eye and told me he was falling out of the grace of God.”

The attacks began at Young’s Asian Massage on March 16 about 5 p.m.

Less than 50 minutes later, Atlanta police officers responded to a report of a robbery at Gold Spa, where they found three women who had been fatally shot. Around the same time, they received a report of shots fired at Aromatherapy Spa, where they found the body of another woman who had been shot.

After the shootings, authorities said, Long got back into his Hyundai Tucson and headed south on Interstate 75. After Long’s parents contacted officials and provided cellphone information that allowed them to track him about 140 miles south of Atlanta, a state trooper performed a maneuver that caused the Tucson to spin out of control. Long was then taken into custody.

In legal filings, Willis indicated that prosecutors were pursuing the death penalty because the offense of murder was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved depravity of mind.”

The decision broke a promise she had made during her campaign for district attorney last year, when during a candidate forum she committed not to seek the death penalty.

On Tuesday, she explained her shift.

“Unfortunately, a case has arisen in the first few months of my term that I believe warrants the ultimate penalty,” she said. “And we shall seek it.”