Suspect In Atlanta Spa Killings 'Big Into Religion'

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

(RNS) — A Woodstock, Georgia, resident has been arrested after a killing spree left eight dead in spas around the greater Atlanta area Tuesday (March 16).

Robert Aaron Long, 21, has been arrested in connection with the killings of four women at a spa in Cherokee County, Georgia, and four additional women in two other spas in northeast Atlanta, according to  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

According to police, the suspect told them he had a "sexual addiction," and he carried out the slayings to get rid of the temptation such places posed to him. Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said Long claimed he was on his way to Florida, where he had planned to commit similar acts of violence at a place connected with "the porn industry there."

Six of the eight spa victims were Asian women, raising concerns among the already alarmed Asian American community, which has faced a recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes around the country. Nearly 3,800 hate-related incidents have been reported by Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic, according to a report released Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate. Authorities have said it is too early to tell if Tuesday's attacks were racially motivated. 

"The reported shootings of Asian American women on Tuesday in Atlanta is an unspeakable tragedy — for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the AAPI community — which has been reeling from high levels of racial discrimination," tweeted Stop AAPI Hate on Tuesday evening.

An official from the South Korean Consulate in Atlanta confirmed that four of the slain women were of Korean descent, according to news reports.

Little is known about the suspect at this point, but a fellow student who graduated high school with Long in 2017 told The Daily Beast on Tuesday evening that "he was big into religion" and that Long's father was "a youth minister or pastor."

While not a pastor, Long's father was "considered an important lay leader in the church," according to Brett Cottrell, who led the youth ministry at Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia, where the family attended.

A post on the now-deleted Facebook page of Crabapple indicated Long was baptized there and records show he was a member of a youth group there in 2018, according to the Times.

Cottrell told the Washington Post Long was an active member of the church and the youth group "was his deal." He would stack chairs and clean floors and helped with a backyard Bible club for kids.

Long's parents helped identify him in the surveillance videos, calling the police to say they recognized their son. According to The New York Times, Long's parents had reported him missing in January 2019.

“They come across as a good Christian family,” Mary Morgan, a neighbor of the suspect's family, told The Washington Post. “They used to go to church on a regular basis, and I’ve never seen anything bad out of them.”

The Daily Beast also noted the tagline on an Instagram account that appeared to belong to Long: “Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life."

Long was first identified as a suspect in shootings at Young’s Asian Massage Parlor in Cherokee County, which left four dead and one injured. Video footage captured the suspect pulling up at 4:50 p.m. Tuesday, minutes before the shooting, according to the Cherokee sheriff's office. 

Around 5:45 p.m., four more people were shot and killed in two Atlanta spas across the street from each other. 

“It does appear that it’s the same suspect,” Baker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, based on surveillance images that place Long's car at the second and third crime scenes.

Long was captured about 150 miles south of Atlanta, in Crisp County, around 8:30 p.m. 

President Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday after being briefed on the shootings, saying that though he did not want to draw conclusions about the motivation behind the killings, he knows "Asian Americans are very concerned. Because, as you know, I have been speaking about the brutality against Asian Americans for the last couple months, and I think it’s very, very troubling."

Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first Asian American to hold the office, responded to the shootings as well on Wednesday, speaking during a meeting with Irish officials. “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,” she said.

This story was updated to reflect new information that Long's father was not a pastor, but a church lay leader.

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