Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in the shootings that left eight people dead at three Atlanta-area Asian spas, has been indicted on murder charges, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty for hate crimes targeting the sex and race of the victims.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis filed notice with the Fulton Superior Court on Tuesday that she plans to seek the death penalty and enhanced hate crimes charges against Long in the first test of a hate crime law passed by the Georgia Legislature last year.
“I, along with my staff, have made a determination that this office will seek the death penalty,” Willis told reporters. “Last year, I told the voters of Fulton County that I could not imagine a circumstance where I would seek it. And at that time I did not.”
“Unfortunately, a case has arisen in the first few months of my term that I believe warrants the ultimate penalty,” she added. Further, we have filed a notice that we will seek sentence enhancement, pursuant to Georgia’s sentencing enhancement statute, commonly referred to as a hate crime statute, based on the race and gender of the victims.”
Willis said this is the law’s first application in Fulton County and, she believes, in the state.
Willis said she is comfortable with the sentencing decision.
“I have personally walked the crime scene in this case,” she told reporters. “I have spent more than six hours with the families involved in this case. We have reviewed the evidence, and I am comfortable in the decision that this is an appropriate sentence to seek.”
Willis added, “The message that I hope we are sending is, It does not matter your ethnicity. It does not matter what side of the tracks you come from. It does not matter your wealth. You will be treated as an individual with value.”
Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition against anti-Asian racism, said in a statement that while AAPI hate persists women continue to report incidents at a disproportionate rate “in no small part due to the combination of racism and misogyny Asian American women experience.”
“As our hearts still ache from the tragic Atlanta Spa Shootings, in which six Asian American women were murdered, we acknowledge the importance of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ decision to seek hate crime charges against Robert Aaron Long on the basis of both race and gender,” the statement said.
Long also indicted in Cherokee County
Long was also indicted in Cherokee County on four counts of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, 11 counts of criminal attempt to commit murder and aggravated assault, and aggravated battery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and criminal damage to property in the first degree.
The new law specifies enhanced penalties for crimes where victims were targeted for, among other things, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Seven of the victims killed in the spa shootings were women, and six of the victims were women of Asian descent.
Some public officials had early on raised concerns that ethnicity had come into play in the shootings, particularly given a nationwide spike in anti-Asian violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, is suspected of opening fire at the spas on the afternoon and early evening of March 16, first at a business about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, followed by two more at spas in northeastern Atlanta.
Long indicted on 19 counts in Fulton County
Long was indicted for a total of 19 counts in Fulton County: Four charges for malice murder, four charges of felony murder, one charge for domestic terrorism, five charges for aggravated assault, and five charges of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, according to the indictment.
Peter Skandalakis, director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said the enhanced hate crime penalty for homicide in the state is either maximum of life in prison with possibility of parole at 30 years, life without parole, or the death penalty.
Skandalakis said he wasn’t aware of the law being used over the last year. His agency’s mission is to provide support to prosecutors.
It will be up to a separate grand jury in Cherokee County to decide on charges for others killed in the shooting in Acworth, Georgia, that left four killed and one person wounded.
Authorities in Cherokee County previously said that Long told investigators that the shootings were not racially motivated and told them he has a “sexual addiction.”
Long’s appointed attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
Long was arrested the night of the shootings about 150 miles south of Atlanta, in a traffic stop on Interstate 75, authorities said.
Victim’s family reacts to indictment
Michael Webb and Jamie Webb, the ex-husband and daughter of Atlanta spa shooting victim Xiaojie Tan, issued a statement commending the DA for the decision to pursue the death penalty following Long’s indictment.
“Although nothing will bring our beloved Xiaojie back to us, we commend the DA’s office for their decision,” the statement said. “We have no question that the death penalty is both deserved and appropriate, if the accused is ultimately convicted of these unspeakable crimes.”
The Webbs say they hope the Cherokee County DA will make the same decision to pursue the death penalty.
“Naturally, a decision not to pursue this as a death penalty case in Cherokee County would be disappointing to us, to say the least,” the statement said.
The statement also said that killings being designated a hate crime brings no peace to the family.
“We have been careful along the way not to call for these murders to be designated as a Hate Crime. Rather, we were confident that the prosecutors would come to the appropriate decision based on their investigation,” the Webbs said in the statement. “We get no satisfaction whatsoever that the Fulton County DA’s office has designated this as a crime of Hate. It frankly disgusts us that anyone’s hate for another would cause them to commit such a horrible and cowardly act.”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta (AAJC-Atlanta), an affiliation of five organizations advocating for the civil and human rights of Asian Americans, also issued a statement following the indictment saying the effort to heal across the community will continue.
“Our communities in Georgia and especially the victims’ families are still grieving. Our work ahead continues to center healing, care and reimagining justice for our communities,” Stephanie Cho, Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said in the statement.
The statement said that the causes of racism need to be addressed so that people of all backgrounds can be safe.
“We join the growing calls nationwide for community-led solutions and accountability that address the root causes of racism, violence, and harm so that everyone, Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Brown, no matter where we were born, can go to work, walk down the street and move through our lives without fearing for ourselves or our loved ones.”
Suspect told deputies he had sex addiction and ‘issue with porn’
After his arrest, Long told 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 the time.
He was initially charged in Cherokee County with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault, according to the sheriff’s office. He also faced four counts of murder in Atlanta, according to city police.
Sheriff Frank Reynolds of Cherokee County, where the Acworth shootings took place, told reporters Long indicated “he has some issues — potentially sexual addiction — and may have frequented some of these places in the past.”
A law enforcement source told CNN shortly after the shootings that the suspect was recently kicked out of the house by his family due to his sexual addiction, which, the source said, included frequently spending hours on end watching pornography online.
Shooting spree leaves eight dead
Shortly before 5 p.m. on March 16, 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 Tan, 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.
The victims were identified as Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong Ae Yue, 63, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office.
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. He is being held without bond in Fulton County.
Georgia’s new hate crime law was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in 2020 following public outrage over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Georgia had been one of four states without a hate crime law.