US prosecutor says Atlanta Spa shootings were hate crimes, seeks death penalty

FULTON, GEORGIA (NYTIMES) – A prosecutor said on Tuesday (May 11) that the man accused of killing eight people at spas in and around Atlanta had targeted some of the victims because they were of Asian descent, and said she was planning to seek the death penalty against him.

The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 22, who is white, was formally indicted on murder charges Tuesday in the four killings at two massage businesses in Atlanta, which shook the country in March amid a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes.

Long had already been charged with murder in Cherokee County in four other killings at a spa there less than an hour before the Atlanta attacks.

In a court filing, Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, said Long had targeted the four victims in Atlanta, all of whom were women of Asian descent, because of their race, national origin, sex and gender. Willis did not lay out any new evidence about Long’s motivation in the filing or respond to a request for comment.

The police said after the attacks that Long had told investigators that he had not targeted the victims because of their race. Instead, he claimed to have struggled with a “sex addiction,” they said. The Atlanta police have said that Long was a customer at the two Atlanta businesses that he targeted, although they have not said that he went there for sex.

Grand jurors also indicted Long on one count of domestic terrorism, saying he had intended to “intimidate the civilian population” of Georgia.

The attacks were among the first large-scale shootings in public places in more than a year and stoked fear in many Asian Americans, who have increasingly reported being targeted in attacks since the coronavirus pandemic began.

All of the women killed in Atlanta were employees of the massage businesses there, and all had immigrated from Korea. They were identified as Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51.

Willis filed a notice in court that she will seek hate crime penalties if Long is convicted of murder. Under Georgia law, a prosecutor can ask a jury to determine if a person convicted of an underlying crime is also guilty of a hate crime, which carries an additional penalty.

A lawyer for Long did not immediately return a request for comment.

The attacks began on the evening of March 16, when four people were shot and killed at Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County. The victims were Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33. The gunman also shot another man, who survived.

The district attorney in Cherokee County has not indicated that she plans to seek hate crime penalties against Long.

Shortly after the first shooting, the police in Atlanta responded to a call about an attack at Gold Spa, another massage business, where they found three women who had been shot and killed. As they were investigating the scene, they were alerted to another shooting, across the street, at Aromatherapy Spa, where they found the last victim, another woman who had been fatally shot.

Sheriff’s deputies stopped Long about 150 miles (241km) south of Atlanta in Crisp County, where he was driving on the highway. A police official later said that investigators believed Long was planning to attack a business in Florida connected to the pornography industry.

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A former roommate at a halfway house said Long had gone to a Christian addiction centre for treatment for his professed “sex addiction” but could not stop himself from going to massage parlors and paying for sex.

The intention to seek a death sentence for Long is a reversal for Willis, who was elected as district attorney in November after previously serving in the prosecutor’s office. Willis said during her campaign that she could not “foresee a case” in which she would seek the death penalty, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I believe that life without parole is an appropriate remedy,” she said, according to the newspaper.

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