ATLANTA (AP) — A white man accused of killing eight people, most of whom were of Asian descent, at massage parlors in the Atlanta area told police the attack was not racially motivated and that he potentially had a “sex addiction,” officials said Wednesday.
Still, authorities said they were investigating whether the deaths were hate crimes amid concerns over a wave of attacks on Asian Americans. Six of the victims were identified as Asian and seven were women.
It was not clear if Robert Aaron Long, 21, ever went to the parlors where the shootings occurred; one official said he had while another indicated he may have only visited businesses like them. Authorities also said 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 spokesman Capt. Jay Baker told reporters.
When asked by a reporter whether the businesses were a place where somebody could have sexual encounters, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did not answer, saying she did not want “to get into victim blaming, victim shaming here.”
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.”
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the US, and the deadliest since the August 2019 Dayton killing that took the lives of nine people, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. It follows a lull during the pandemic in 2020 that had the smallest number mass killings in more than a decade. The database 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. Still, 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 then-President Donald Trump and others have used racially charged terms like “Chinese virus” to describe it.
Georgia state Representative Bee Nguyen said the shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.”
Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor, said that regardless of the shooter’s motivation, “it is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop.”
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, Baker, the sheriff’s spokesman, said. Two people died at the scene, and three were taken to a hospital where two died, he said.
About an hour later, police responding to a call about a robbery found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at Gold Spa, along of 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 shots fired across the street, at Aromatherapy Spa, and found another woman apparently shot dead.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden has been briefed on the “horrific shootings” and would receive an update later Wednesday from Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The FBI is assisting Atlanta and Cherokee County authorities in the investigation.
Vice President Kamala Harris expressed support to the Asian American community, 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 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 Atlanta and other 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.
Crisp County Sheriff Billy Hancock said in a video posted 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 PIT, or pursuit intervention technique, maneuver, “which caused the vehicle to spin out of control,” Hancock said. Long, of Woodstock, was then taken into custody “without incident.”
Crisp County sheriff’s spokeswoman Haley Wade said Wednesday morning that Long is no longer in their custody and that her office has turned over its information to the other Georgia agencies and the FBI.
Rita Barron, the store manager of a business neighboring the massage parlor that was targeted in Cherokee County, said that security footage of the parking lot outside the stores showed the gunman had been sitting outside 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 that in high school Long brought a Bible to school every day and would walk around with it in his hands.
“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 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.
US 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.