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 “sexual 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.
Officials did not say that Robert Aaron Long, 21, ever went to the parlors where the shootings occurred. They also said he was planning to go to Florida in a plot to attack “some type of porn industry.”
“He made indicators that he has some issues, potentially sexual addiction, and may have frequented some of these places in the past,” said Sheriff Frank Reynolds, of Cherokee County, where one of the targeted businesses was.
He said it was too early to tell if it was racially motivated — “but the indicators right now are it may not be.” He added: “We believe that he frequented these places in the past and maybe have been lashing out.”
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the U.S., 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 Rep. Bee Nguyen said the shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms 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, Cherokee County Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Jay Baker said. Two people died at the scene, and three were taken to a hospital where two died, Baker said.
About an hour later, police responding to a call about a robbery found three women dead from apparent gunshot wounds at Gold Spa near Atlanta’s Buckhead area, where tattoo parlors and strip clubs are just blocks away from mansions and skyscrapers in one of the last ungentrified holdouts in that part of the city. 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 after the “tragic” shooting, 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 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 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, and some said they would increase patrols in Asian American communities. 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.
Surveillance video recorded a man pulling up to the Cherokee County business about 10 minutes before the attack there, and the same car was spotted outside the Atlanta businesses, authorities said. A manhunt was launched, and Long was taken into custody in Crisp County, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Atlanta, Baker said.
Rita Barron, the store manager of a business neighboring Youngs in Cherokee County, said a bullet was shot through their shared wall. She said that security footage of the parking lot showed the gunman had been sitting outside in his car for about an hour just watching the stores.
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.
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 was then taken into custody “without incident.”
Crisp County sheriff’s spokeswoman Haley Wade said Wednesday morning that Long, who is white, is no longer in their custody and that her office has turned over its information to the other Georgia agencies and the FBI.
U.S. 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.
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Colleen Long and Zeke Miller in Washington, and Anila Yoganathan in Cherokee County contributed to the this story.