Editor’s note: This story was updated to remove a quote from the district attorney.
CANTON, Ga. (AP) — A man accused of killing eight people, mostly women of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area massage businesses pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday in four of the killings and was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Robert Aaron Long, 22, still faces the death penalty in the other deaths, which are being prosecuted in another county. The string of shootings at three businesses in March ignited outrage and fueled fear among Asian Americans, who already faced increased hostility linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Many were particularly upset when authorities suggested Long’s crimes weren’t racially motivated but born of a sex addiction, which isn’t recognized as an official disorder.
Cherokee County prosecutors had planned to seek the death penalty but decided a plea deal would bring swift justice and avoid any lengthy appeals. That’s what the victims and their families who they were able to contact wanted, District Attorney Shannon Wallace said.
Bonnie Michels’ husband of 24 years, Paul, was the first person killed.
“A part of me died with him that day,” she told the judge. “I am shattered.”
Elcias Hernandez Ortiz, who was shot in the face, also addressed the court, saying it’s been very hard for his family.
“Honestly, this man, why didn’t he think before killing so many people? I only want justice,” he said through a Spanish translator.
On March 16, Long shot and killed four people, three of them women and two of Asian descent, at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County. A fifth person was wounded. Long then drove to Atlanta, where he shot and killed three women at Gold Spa before crossing the street to Aromatherapy Spa and killing another woman, police said. All of the Atlanta victims were of Asian descent.
In Atlanta, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said she intends to seek the death penalty. There, Long faces charges of aggravated assault and domestic terrorism in addition to murder.
Wallace reiterated Tuesday that Cherokee County investigators saw no evidence of racial bias. Long walked through the first spa “shooting anyone and everyone he saw” and told detectives he was motivated by a sex addiction.
Investigators interviewed people who knew Long for years, including three of Asian descent, who said they’d never heard him make racist comments, she said. Her team also considered the diversity of the people shot in Cherokee County. They included a Hispanic man and a white man and woman.
Asian American community leaders said Tuesday they were concerned that the shootings continue to be blamed on a sex addiction. Long’s crimes were “intended to target Asian people, specifically Asian women,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House and a frequent advocate for women and communities of color.
Wallace said she would have argued at trial that Long was motivated by gender bias, though that wouldn’t have extended his sentence.
Prosecutors in Fulton County, where all the victims were women of Asian descent, have said they believe Long was motivated by race and gender. They plan to seek a hate crime sentencing enhancement.
Georgia’s new hate crimes law doesn’t provide for a stand-alone hate crime. After a conviction on an underlying crime, a jury determines whether it was motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.
The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t recognize sex addiction in its main reference guide for mental disorders. While some people struggle to control sexual behaviors, it’s often linked to recognized disorders or moral views, said David Ley, clinical psychologist and author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction.”
Long previously underwent inpatient and outpatient treatment for sex addiction, Wallace said. In fact, it was another patient who gave him the idea to seek sexual services at massage businesses, she said.
Long signed a plea agreement admitting to all charges in Cherokee County, including malice murder, felony murder, attempt to commit murder and aggravated assault. Cherokee County Superior Court Chief Judge Ellen McElyea then handed him four sentences of life without parole plus an additional 35 years.
Those killed in Cherokee County: Michels, 54; Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Delaina Yaun, 33. The Atlanta victims were: Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.
Long said he planned to kill himself that day and went to the massage businesses thinking that paying for sex — which he considered shameful — would push him to do it. But while sitting in his car outside the first spa, he decided to kill the people inside.
After he was caught in south Georgia, Long told detectives he struggled with pornography and sex. He believed he was an addict and felt tremendous guilt when he viewed porn or engaged in sexual acts at massage businesses, Wallace said.
Long blamed the victims for his inability to control his impulses, Wallace said.
Long is scheduled for arraignment next month in Fulton County. His Cherokee County lawyers said in a statement they hope prosecutors there will follow Wallace’s example and reach a similar plea agreement.
Wallace said that after the shootings at the two Atlanta spas, Long intended to carry out similar crimes in Florida.
By then, his parents had called authorities after recognizing their son in images from security video that authorities posted online. His parents were already tracking his movements through an application on his phone so they would know if he visited massage businesses, the prosecutor said, and that enabled officers to find him.
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Savannah and Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta contributed to this report.