A nationwide horror: Witnesses, police paint a picture of a murderous rampage that took eight lives
By TIM CRAIG, MARK BERMAN, HANNAH KNOWLES AND MARC FISHER | The Washington Post | Published: March 18, 2021
ATLANTA — Robert Aaron Long's family had finally had it. Long, 21, was so obsessed with sex — watching hour upon hour of pornography online, visiting the kinds of spas where the customers bought "massages with happy endings" — that on Monday night, his parents kicked him out of the house, according to police and a friend who confirmed the account.
The next day, police said, Long bought a handgun. And then, as dusk fell over metropolitan Atlanta on Tuesday evening, Long launched himself on what authorities say was a premeditated trail of terror. He drove to three Atlanta-area Asian spas, where he shot nine people, killing eight of them.
He was on a mission, he would later tell police, to stem his addiction to sex. The spas were "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate," said Capt. Jay Baker, a spokesman for the Cherokee County sheriff's office.
That restatement of the confessed shooter's motive was meant to allay fears that Long had embarked on a racially motivated campaign of terror against Asian women, but it instead raised disturbing questions about his animus toward women and the racial attitudes that fueled his decision to target Asian spas.
Long was on his way to Florida to continue his massacre when police cornered him on Interstate 75 and arrested him Tuesday night, authorities said.
By the time he was captured, Long was the subject of nationwide horror about the killing of eight people — six of them Asian women. Many Americans were already on edge before Tuesday's news; the country remained in the throes of social upheaval resulting from police killings of Black Americans and attacks on Asian Americans that surged after President Donald Trump took to calling the coronavirus the "China virus" or "kung flu."
Tuesday's attacks instantly unleashed a gut-wrenching collective anxiety — was this another outburst of racial hatred?
Long's journey from membership in a religious social club at his suburban high school to a murderous rampage, ostensibly driven by his addiction to sex, remains fuzzy. What is already clear is that this latest in a seemingly never-ending series of mass shootings hit the country where it hurt most — in its anguished struggles over race, gender and the allure of gun violence.
Sometime earlier on Tuesday, Long got into his black 2008 Hyundai Tucson and drove from his hometown of Woodstock, Ga., about 12 miles north to the city of Canton, where he bought a 9mm pistol at Big Woods Goods, a shop devoted mainly to hunting supplies, an attorney for the store confirmed.
Even before Long, who is White, left home, the area was on alert for attacks targeting Asian Americans. On Monday morning, state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat, had raised the alarm. Speaking to fellow senators at the state Capitol, Au, an anesthesiologist and first-generation Chinese American who was elected last fall, called the jump in crimes against Asian Americans since the pandemic began last year "a new chapter in a very old story."
"All I'm asking right now, as the first East Asian state senator in Georgia, is simply to fully consider us as part of our communities," she said. "We need help, we need protection, and we need people in power to stand up for us against hate."
Around 4 p.m. on a chilly, damp day in Acworth, a suburb of 20,000 people about 45 minutes north of Atlanta, a man dressed in black pants and a magenta-and-black hoodie parked his car outside Young's Asian Massage.
The man — later identified as Long — sat in his car for upward of an hour, according to Alex Acosta, whose wife owns a boutique next door to the spa. The shops are part of a small commercial strip that also includes a vape store, a record shop, a beauty salon and a tool store.
About 4:50 p.m., surveillance cameras caught Long entering Young's, according to the Cherokee County sheriff's office.
The spa has been open despite the pandemic. A note on the front door set the minimalist rules: "If you have cold or flu symptoms. Wait for your massage at a later time. We are attempting to avoid the spread of any virus. Sorry for any inconvenience and please understand our position with this."
At Gabby's Boutique next door to Young's, Rita Barron was helping customers when she heard a "pah-pah-pah" noise and women screaming, she said.
"Oh, my God, what is that?" she said. Later she would learn that a bullet had punched through her wall.
But in the moment, Barron, 47, didn't think it was a shooting. She thought maybe the spa workers next door had dropped something heavy. Coming out of the bathroom, Acosta, Barron's husband, wondered if perhaps an animal had gotten inside, causing a ruckus.
Acosta went outside to check and ran into three spa workers with whom he struggled to communicate. He said they did not speak fluent English and that he is most comfortable speaking Spanish.
But a few terrifying words made it through: A man with a gun. People shot.
Acosta urged the women not to go back inside. He rushed back into the boutique and told his wife to call 911.
At 4:54 p.m., Cherokee County dispatched police to Young's after receiving calls about gunshots and injured people.
Yet several owners of nearby shops said they heard nothing and had no idea anything was amiss until police and ambulances swarmed the area.
Officers walked into a bloody scene, bodies on the floor and the wounded staggering about. Outside the shop, moments after police arrived, Acosta saw a man who looked like he had been shot in the face: There was blood between his eyes, and he made it only five steps before falling.
Authorities carried two Asian women out of the spa and laid them on the pavement, Acosta said. He couldn't tell if they were alive — one was bleeding from her head, the other from her neck or chest. A White man and woman who were shot seemed to be treated inside the spa, he said.
One of the bleeding women carried out was the spa's owner, he said. He didn't know her name, though he had once visited her house to do some construction work. The owner, Xiaojie Tan, who would have turned 50 on Thursday, died in the attack. She was a licensed massage therapist, according to Georgia state records.
Within minutes, ambulances arrived and hurried the three survivors down Interstate 75 to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, where two of them later died.
The dead ranged in age from 33 to 54. Two were Asian and two were White, police said. The lone survivor, 30-year-old Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, an immigrant from Guatemala, was apparently outside the spa, near a money exchange shop that he frequented, when he was shot, his wife told The Washington Post.
Delaina Yaun, a 33-year-old waitress at a Waffle House, was inside with her husband, Mario, receiving a couple's massage when she was shot and killed, according to a GoFundMe page set up to support her family. Her husband escaped.
The other people killed at Young's were Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta, and Daoyou Feng, 44, said police, who declined to say which of the victims were employees of Young's.
In Acworth, word spread quickly that the victims included several Asian women. Adrian Lopez, owner of Big Savings Tool & Liquidation, five doors down from Young's, concluded that the attack was racially motivated.
Before the shootings, Lopez's big worry was that someone might rob his store. Now, he said, Latinos needed to be on guard and express unity with their Asian neighbors.
"I feel as a Spanish man, if that happens to them, we are going to be next," said Lopez, who emigrated from Mexico 18 years ago. Three of the six businesses on the strip are owned by Latino merchants.
Shortly after they arrived, police began collecting images of the shooting suspect recorded by nearby surveillance cameras.
Acosta shared the boutique's surveillance footage with authorities. He realized that the shooter's car had been parked outside the spa for almost an hour before the man entered Young's. After the shootings, the man who had gone into the spa got back in the Hyundai and sped away.
Police posted photos from the surveillance footage online in hopes of crowdsourcing the shooter's identity.
It worked with remarkable speed. According to police, Long's father called 911 and said it might well be his son whom they were seeing on TV and on social media. An anonymous second caller said Long had been tossed out of his parents' home the previous evening and warned that he was "emotional," according to a police incident report.
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds drove over to Woodstock to see the family. The parents were, he said, "very distraught and . . . very helpful."
The parents described their son as a young man who had struggled with his sex addiction, even spending time in a rehab program. Long had visited massage parlors and "sees them as an outlet for him, something that he shouldn't be doing — an issue with porn," said Baker, the spokesman for the sheriff's office.
Tyler Bayless said he lived with Long for five months during 2019 and 2020 at Maverick Recovery, a sober-living facility in Roswell. Bayless was trying to recover from an alcohol and drug addiction, and Long was there for what he called "sex addiction."
"He hated the pornography industry," Bayless said. "He was pretty passionate about what a bad influence it was on him. He felt exploited by it, taken advantage of by it."
One more thing, the family told the sheriff: Long had a cellphone with him, and its tracking program was turned on.
Police took off after the fleeing suspect.
As Cherokee County officers zoomed down I-75, back at their headquarters, word arrived from Atlanta. More people had been shot, also at Asian spas.
5:47 p.m.: About 30 miles south of Young's, in the Piedmont Heights neighborhood of Atlanta, a woman who worked at the Gold Spa called 911.
For nearly two minutes, the caller, who spoke with a heavy accent, and the 911 operator struggled to understand each other.
"Repeat the address," the operator said.
"Yeah, we're in a robbery right now, so, can help please come?" the caller replied.
"OK, repeat the address. . . . You need police, fire or ambulance?"
"Police, fire or an ambulance?"
"I don't know. . . . There's a robbery here — that guy, he's like — need police now."
They went back and forth about the location, the name of the business and description of the bad guy.
"They have a gun," the caller said, sounding strained, almost breathless.
"Where is he at in the building?" the operator replied.
"This is Gold Spa."
"I know," the operator said. "Where is the person who is robbing the spa? Where is he right now?"
"I don't know, I'm hiding right now."
They established that the shooter was a White man.
"What is he wearing?" the operator asked.
"I don't know — please come, OK?" the caller replied.
Police were dispatched even as the call was ongoing.
Gold Spa — and another, Aromatherapy Spa — sit atop a hill on a heavily traveled street where a strip club and several other spas, all on the same block, are open 24/7, coexisting with a Cathedral of St. Philip Thrift Store and a Champ's Chicken.
Anthony "Ant" Smith, an employee at Studio 219 Ink, a piercing shop next door to Gold Spa, said Tuesday was especially busy for him. It was Studio 219's weekly special, offering customers basic piercings for $10.
Smith said neither he nor his half-dozen customers who had been waiting in the parking lot for their turn heard any gunfire.
Instead, his clients "just started coming in saying something must be going on because the police and firetrucks had pulled up," Smith said.
By the time Smith finally looked outside, about 5:30 p.m., he saw police searching the area, appearing to be especially interested in the foliage that lines the parking lot behind Gold Spa.
"I looked out and saw this mayhem," Smith said. "They had blocked off all of the streets and were searching in the bushes."
Smith pulled out his phone and tapped on the Citizen app, which delivers real-time information on police movements. The app reported a possible armed robbery at Gold Spa. Smith returned to his customers.
Gold Spa never attracted much attention from its neighbors, shopkeepers said. Occasionally, Smith saw an Asian woman in the parking lot feeding stray cats.
Javan Young, a manager at Studio 219, also heard nothing. He was about to take his 6 p.m. break when he saw "all the officers pull up and jump out guns blazing," he said.
At night, Young said, the spa usually had an armed security guard on-site, but he had never seen one during the day.
5:49: Responding to the 911 call about a "business robbery in progress" at Gold Spa, Atlanta police found three dead women, all apparently shot and killed.
As officers started to document the scene at Gold Spa, at 5:57, a second 911 call came in from just down the road, at Aromatherapy Spa.
The 911 caller, a woman named Nina, seemed to have a connection with the spa but wasn't on the premises. She said a friend had called to tell her that a man had entered the spa and now there'd been gunshots, and "the lady's like passed out, in front of the door. Everybody's scared, so everybody's hiding, so I don't know what's going on exactly, but I need the ambulance or something."
"I didn't understand exactly," the 911 operator said. "So, what happened?"
"Everybody heard the gunshots, and some ladies got hurt," Nina said.
The women in the spa were hiding behind desks, in the back of the facility, wherever they thought they might not be found.
As the four-minute call continued, police and paramedics made their way to Aromatherapy Spa, arriving at 6 p.m., according to police dispatch records.
Inside, officers found another woman dead from gunshot wounds.
By the time Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant heard the details of the two homicide scenes in his city, his investigators knew about the similar incident in Acworth.
Three Asian spas, eight deaths, and now video footage showing that the same car seen at the Acworth scene was present at the two spas on Piedmont Road in Atlanta.
As bulletins flashed across the Internet, Asian American organizations and politicians began raising the alarm about what appeared to be attacks on one already-anxious community. In Atlanta, New York, Seattle and other cities, police fanned out to check on Asian spas and Asian American-owned businesses.
And on I-75 south of Atlanta, Long was speeding toward Florida.
Shortly before 8 p.m., Reynolds, the Cherokee County sheriff, told his counterpart and buddy in Crisp County, a couple of hours south of Atlanta, that a possible homicide suspect was heading toward his territory.
Crisp Sheriff H.W. "Billy" Hancock radioed his deputies: Watch out for a black Hyundai Tucson with Georgia tags, according to an incident report.
About 150 miles south of Atlanta, Crisp deputies and state troopers saw the Hyundai. A state trooper moved into position to execute a PIT — "precision immobilization technique" — a controversial method of stopping a suspect's car by using the police vehicle to bump against it, forcing it to spin out.
Long came to a halt and gave up without a fight, police said. He was placed in the rear of a state trooper's car and handcuffed. Police said they found a 9mm firearm in Long's car.
By 8:30 p.m., Long had been booked into the Crisp County Detention Center and changed into a jail uniform. As he waited to be put in a cell, he "asked if he was going to be here for the rest of his life," according to the police report.
Long was taken to a padded cell and placed on suicide watch, the report said.
Investigators from the Cherokee County sheriff's office arrived and interviewed Long. They said he confessed to the shootings and insisted that the killings were not racially motivated.
Rather, he said that the spas were a temptation to him.
"We believe that he frequented these places in the past," Reynolds said, "and may have been lashing out."
Long told police he had been heading to Florida, where he intended to attack more spas.
"This could have been significantly worse," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, said.
At 9:55 p.m., the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus tweeted that its members were "horrified by the news coming out of GA at a time when we're already seeing a spike in anti-Asian violence. #StopAsianHate."
Across the country, Asian American advocates called for the shootings to be investigated as hate crimes. Four of the slain women were of Korean descent, according to a statement from South Korea's Foreign Ministry.
On Wednesday morning, Long was transported back to Cherokee County and placed in its detention center. He was charged with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in the killings in Cherokee County and then four homicide counts in the bloodshed in Atlanta. If convicted, Long could face the death penalty.
A scheduled hearing for Long in Cherokee County was canceled when he waived his right to an initial appearance, according to his attorney's law firm. He is being held without bail.
On Wednesday afternoon, five bouquets of flowers rested at the front of the door of Young's Asian Massage in Acworth. It was St. Patrick's Day, and someone also left a basket of shamrocks, along with a handwritten note that said, "From people who care. Woodstock Acworth."
The note ended with the only sentiment so many could muster: "I'm so sorry."
Craig reported from Atlanta; Berman, Knowles and Fisher reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Missy Ryan in Washington and Alex Kellogg and Jonathan Krohn in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Jenny Choi, left, and Kristi You place flowers at the entrance of Gold Spa.
CHRIS ALUKA BERRY/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST