The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Atlanta spa-shooting suspect pleads not guilty to murder charges for 4 of the killings

Robert Aaron Long appears at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Aug. 30. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Robert Aaron Long pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to four murder charges stemming from a shooting rampage at two Atlanta spas in the spring, months after he was sentenced to life in prison for killing four others that same day in a nearby county.

Long, 22, briefly appeared at Fulton County Superior Court and entered a not-guilty plea on four counts of murder and charges such as aggravated assault and domestic terrorism related to the killings in Atlanta on March 16. He did not address Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) announced her intent to seek the death penalty against Long for the Atlanta killings of Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63. Willis is also aiming for greater sentencing enhancements for Long under Georgia’s new hate-crimes law.

Long pleaded guilty in Cherokee County in July to charges that included four counts of murder. He received four sentences of life without parole plus an additional 35 years for his guilty plea related to the killings in Cherokee County of Paul Michels, 54; Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Delaina Yaun, 33. A fifth victim in Cherokee County, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was critically injured.

Jerilyn Bell, Long’s attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Despite the diversity of Asian experiences in the U.S., the deaths of the Atlanta spa shooting victims resonated throughout the community in familiar ways. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post, Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/The Washington Post)

Long admitted to the killings shortly after his capture March 16, according to law enforcement, telling investigators that he had a sexual addiction and went on the shooting rampage to “punish” sex workers.

He went to Young’s Asian Massage near Woodstock, Ga., where he first paid for a service before opening fire, prosecutors say. He then drove to Atlanta and continued shooting at two spas on Piedmont Road. After that, authorities say, Long headed south on the interstate, intending to carry out similar attacks in Florida. Authorities were able to capture him thanks to his parents, who had recognized him from security footage, and were tracking his movements through an app.

The mass shooting of eight people, including six Asian women, came during an increase in anti-Asian sentiment and behavior nationwide since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In the spring, Asian Americans reported thousands of hate-related incidents in all 50 states during the first year of the pandemic. House Democrats and critics called out President Donald Trump for his repeated use of terms such as “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu,” terms they said had fed into the rising violence.

Shootings in Atlanta put focus on year of heightened anti-Asian violence in the West

Long’s guilty plea in July was a part of a negotiated sentencing agreement by his attorneys with Cherokee County prosecutors so that the case would not head to trial. Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace (R) said she would have pursued the death penalty if those charges made it to trial.

Long indicated to a Cherokee County judge that he initially planned to commit suicide because of what he described as an obsessive addiction to pornography. But he said in court that he changed his mind while sitting in the Young’s Asian Massage parking lot.

Though Wallace said during the July hearing that investigators found no evidence that racial bias motivated the killings, Willis said Tuesday race and gender played a role in motivating Long on March 16.

Georgia’s hate-crimes law — which was enacted last year in response to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man whose fatal shooting in February 2020 in coastal Georgia sparked a national outcry — involves a jury determining after a person is convicted whether the crime was motivated by bias. If so, the person faces an additional penalty.

The Tuesday hearing lasted only a few minutes. Glanville, the Fulton County judge, asked Long’s defense if they wanted to waive indictment and plead not guilty. Bell, Long’s attorney, then said yes.

The next hearing in the case is set for Nov. 23.

Read more:

Atlanta spa killings lead to questions about sex work and exploitation

The Atlanta suspect isn’t the first to blame ‘sex addiction’ for heinous crimes. But scientists are dubious.