A white gunman was charged on Wednesday with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area spas in an attack that sent terror through the Asian American community, which has increasingly come under attack during the coronavirus pandemic.
Investigators are trying to unravel what might have compelled 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long to commit the worst mass killings in the United States in almost two years.
Long told police that Tuesday’s attack was not racially motivated. He claimed to have a “sex addiction”, and authorities said he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation.
But those statements spurred outrage and widespread scepticism given the locations and that six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” said state Representative 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”.
Authorities said they did not know if Long ever went to the spas where the shootings occurred but that 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 Captain Jay Baker told reporters.
Baker drew criticism for saying Long had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did”. A Facebook page appearing to belong to Baker promoted a T-shirt with racist language about China and the coronavirus last year.
The Facebook account featured numerous photos of Baker going back months, including one of him in uniform outside the sheriff’s office. The account was deleted on Wednesday night, and Baker did not immediately respond to voicemails and an email seeking comment. The sheriff’s office also did not respond to a message.
Meanwhile, 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 Atlanta mayor said police have not been to the spas in her city beyond a minor potential theft.
“We certainly will not begin to blame victims,” Bottoms said.
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the US, and the deadliest since the August 2019 Dayton, Ohio shooting that left nine people dead, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press news agency, USA Today newspaper and Northeastern University.
It follows a lull in mass killings during the pandemic in 2020, which had the smallest number of such attacks in more than 10 years, according to the database, which tracks mass killings defined as four or more dead, not including the attacker.
The killings horrified the Asian American community, which saw the shootings as an attack on them, given a recent wave of assaults that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus across the US. The virus was first identified in China, and then-President Donald Trump and others have used racially charged terms to describe it.
The attacks began when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlour near Woodstock, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Atlanta, authorities said. Four died: 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 and her husband came to the spa on a date, her mother, Margaret Rushing, told WAGA-TV. Yaun leaves behind a 13-year-old son and eight-month-old daughter.
Her half-sister, Dana Toole, said Yaun’s husband locked himself in a room and was not 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 manager of a boutique next door said her husband watched surveillance video after the shooting and the suspect was sitting in his car for as long as an hour before going inside.
They heard screaming and women running from the business, said Rita Barron, manager of Gabby’s Boutique.
The same car was then spotted about 48km (30 miles) away in Atlanta, where a call came in about a robbery at Gold Spa and three women were shot to death. Another woman was fatally shot at the Aromatherapy Spa across the street.
Long was arrested hours later by Crisp County deputies and state troopers.
Officers found Long thanks to help from his parents, who recognised 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.
President Joe Biden called the attack “very, very troublesome”.
“We don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight. The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop,” Biden tweeted on Wednesday.
Jill and I are keeping everyone impacted by the shootings in Atlanta in our prayers. We don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight. The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop.
— President Biden (@POTUS) March 18, 2021
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman in that office, expressed support to the Asian American community, saying, “We stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people.”
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 10 years.
“While the details of the shootings are still emerging, the broader context cannot be ignored,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta said in a statement.
“The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fuelled by white supremacy and systemic racism.”