Guilty Plea in 4 Atlanta-Area Spa Killings

2 months ago 18
PR Distribution

The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, also faces four murder charges in a neighboring county, where the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty.

Robert Aaron Long pleaded guilty on Tuesday to four killings at Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County, an Atlanta suburb.
Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

July 27, 2021Updated 11:53 a.m. ET

CANTON, Ga. — The man accused of killing eight people at a string of Atlanta-area spas pleaded guilty on Tuesday to four counts of murder in suburban Cherokee County and will serve four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole plus 35 years in prison. But the man, Robert Aaron Long, still faces four other murder charges in nearby Fulton County, where the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty.

Mr. Long, 22, appeared in court in a white dress shirt and gray dress slacks, his wrists shackled at his sides. He was clean shaven and wore glasses, with his hair shaved at the sides and long at the top.

He stood before the judge and quietly answered, “Yes, ma’am,” when a prosecutor asked him if he understood the terms of the plea agreement.

The March 16 shooting spree set off a nationwide wave of concern over racially motivated attacks on Asian people at a time of broader anxiety and anger over racism in the United States. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent. Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, has indicated in court filings that she intends to seek enhanced penalties against Mr. Long, who is white, for committing crimes because of the “actual or perceived race, national origin, sex and gender” of the victims.

Mr. Long had not made a court appearance since he was arrested a few hours after the shootings at three spas. He was identified that evening by a state trooper while driving in an S.U.V. on Interstate 75, about 150 miles south of Atlanta.

Law enforcement officials later said that Mr. Long had told them he was on his way to Florida to carry out another attack on a business tied to the pornography industry.

Shannon Wallace, the Cherokee County prosecutor, on Tuesday gave one of the most detailed descriptions yet of Mr. Long’s day, based on an interview conducted with him by detectives just after his arrest.

Mr. Long had been kicked out of his parents’ house after he refused to return to inpatient treatment for his sex addiction, she said, and was living with a friend and “accountability partner” from his church. He had been working at a landscape company but was told not to come to work on March 16 because it was raining. Instead, he spent the morning viewing pornography. His friend could hear him, Ms. Wallace said, and confronted him about “the elephant in the room.”

Mr. Long left the house intending to kill himself, she said. He bought a 9 mm handgun and a bottle of Four Roses bourbon. At first he planned to go to Young’s Asian Massage, a strip-mall business in Cherokee County, northwest of Atlanta, for one final assignation with a sex worker and then kill himself, she said. But as he waited for an hour in the parking lot, drinking and growing more drunk, his plan changed: He decided to commit “vigilante justice” against the sex industry.

Officials and acquaintances have previously said that Mr. Long, who was raised in a strict evangelical Christian environment, frequented massage parlors and had previously sought out Christian counseling in an effort to rein in his impulses.

In response to questioning by Judge Ellen McElyea, Mr. Long said he had been kicked out of his parents’ house for visiting a spa in Atlanta and exchanging money for sex.

He told the judge that he had decided to go to Young’s Asian Massage on March 16 intending to “act out sexually.” He said he hoped that he would hate himself enough at that point “to do in my own life.”

Mr. Long said he had been to Young’s multiple times in the past. That day, he said, he went into the spa, gave his money to a woman behind a desk and was led to a room, where a young woman performed a sexual act on him. Afterward, he put on his clothes and went to a bathroom in the back of the parlor. Then he came out and began shooting.

After the shootings in Cherokee County, Ms. Wallace said, sheriff’s deputies released a still photo of Mr. Long to the news media, taken from security cameras near the spa. Mr. Long’s parents, she said, saw the photo and contacted the sheriff’s department. They had been following Mr. Long’s movements with a tracking app called “Find My Kid,” and law enforcement used it to locate Mr. Long as he fled south.

Ms. Wallace said that several Asian American acquaintances of Mr. Long were interviewed by law enforcement, and that none of them had ever seen him exhibit anti-Asian bias. Others said they had never heard him exhibit racial or ethnic bias of any kind.

“How about women?” Judge McElyea asked. Ms. Wallace said that if the case had gone to trial, her office would have filed for a hate crimes enhancement for bias based on gender. She said her office also would have sought the death penalty.

Prosecutors say one person was injured at Young’s Asian Massage and four were killed: Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33. The gunman then drove to the heart of Atlanta, in Fulton County, where he fatally shot four women of South Korean descent at two other spas: Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51.

On Tuesday, the Cherokee County courtroom was crowded with family members of those killed in the shooting spree as well as Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, the man who was injured in the attack.

Tuesday’s arraignment was the beginning of what could be a protracted legal drama even though many of the basic facts of the killings do not appear to be in dispute. With the death penalty looming as a possibility in Fulton County, Mr. Long and his lawyers may choose to go to trial. With Covid-related backlogs and other delays, a Fulton County trial might not start until 2024, an official in Ms. Willis’s office said.

In an important indicator of Mr. Long’s future in the Fulton County courts, Mr. Long and his lawyer told the judge on Tuesday that there were no issues of mental health or ability to understand the difference between right and wrong that would be a defense to his criminal liability.

Read Entire Article