Long, a White man who was described by those who know him as a devout Christian, told investigators he did not have a racial motive. But police said it was too early to exclude that possibility. And officials noted that the attacks had come amid a wave of anti-Asian sentiment and behavior.
“Whatever the motivation was for this guy, we know that the majority of the victims were Asian,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a news conference. “We also know that this is an issue that is happening across the country. It is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop.”
Of the eight people fatally shot Tuesday evening, six were Asian women.
Long was charged Wednesday in all eight killings, law enforcement officials said. He was charged with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault for the attacks in north suburban Cherokee County, where the killings began and where Long lives.
Atlanta police said he also was charged with four counts of homicide in their city, where the other victims were killed. Long was being held without bond and was due to make his first court appearance over Zoom on Thursday.
Apprehended on a highway Tuesday night after a brief manhunt, Long told authorities he was headed to Florida, where he may have been planning to carry out similar attacks to the ones in Georgia, police said. A 9mm firearm was recovered from his vehicle. Long had legally purchased a gun earlier Tuesday, the store that sold it to him confirmed.
Investigators said cooperation from Long’s parents helped speed his arrest.
Long grew up in a one-story home in Woodstock, Ga., a leafy, majority-White town about 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta. Photos and video on social media, as well as accounts from Long’s former pastor and neighbors, paint a picture of a young man who, like the rest of his family, was active and visible at the Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, another nearby Atlanta suburb.
Those who knew him then said they struggled to reconcile their memories of Long with the allegation he committed mass murder. A 2017 high school graduate, Long does not appear to have had a criminal record.
“I don’t say this callously: I don’t know what’s happened in Aaron to get to this point,” Brett Cottrell, his former youth pastor, told The Washington Post. “What happened last night doesn’t seem in any way like the young man I knew.”
Cottrell said Crabapple First Baptist Church was predominantly White but included several people of Asian and African descent.
“I don’t recall any sermons dealing specifically with racism, but the general tenor was to welcome and to be as inclusive as possible,” he said.
In a statement to The Washington Post, church elders said they were “heartbroken” about “the tragic news about the multiple deaths in the Atlanta area.”
Hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked across the United States. Since the start of the pandemic, Asian Americans reported nearly 3,800 hate-related incidents in all 50 states, according to a report released Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks such cases against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
As details of the killings came to light Wednesday, two House Democrats called out former 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.
“President Trump clearly stoked the flames of xenophobia against AAPIs with his rhetoric,” Rep. Judy Chu (Calif.) said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “What we saw yesterday is the result of that.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) said members of Congress had echoed the former president’s language. “Cut it out, because you also have blood on your hands,” he warned them.
In a telephone interview Tuesday night with Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo, the former president again used the term “China virus” to describe the coronavirus.
Asian American leaders both locally and nationally said the Tuesday shootings were the kind of horror they have long warned would result from such language.
“This is what we feared,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.
She pointed to a history of “exotifying” Asian American women, especially those who are service workers.
“The people that are most fearful to go to work today in Atlanta are Asian American women,” Choimorrow said. “They’re fearful to go to their service jobs today because of what happened yesterday.”
President Biden said Wednesday he was “very concerned” about the shootings, saying he had been briefed on Tuesday’s violence and that the investigation remains ongoing.
“I’ve been speaking about the brutality against Asian Americans for the last couple months, and I think it is very, very troubling,” Biden said. “I am making no connection at this moment to the motivation of the killer. I’m waiting for an answer as the investigation proceeds.”
An FBI spokesman said Wednesday that the bureau stands ready to investigate the shootings at the Atlanta-area spas as a federal case if evidence emerges pointing toward a criminal civil rights violation.
Some details offered by authorities fit patterns seen in other mass killings.
Researchers have found that mass killers and active shooters are usually male, typically target places known to them and are often fueled by grievances. Those grievances can involve attackers blaming others for their problems or otherwise perceiving some wrong, researchers have found.
An FBI study in 2018 looking at active shooters found that most of those examined had a grievance that “may not have been reasonable or even grounded in reality, but it appeared to serve as the rationale for the eventual attack, giving a sense of purpose to the shooter.”
In some recent high-profile cases, attackers or people charged in mass killings have been explicit about their bigoted intentions and sentiments, including during and after mass killings in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Charleston, S.C.
All of those massacres led to hate-crime charges.
Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said it remains unclear whether the shootings in Georgia could be classified as a hate crime.
“I think it’s important we acknowledge the fact if this is hate crime,” Bryant said at a news conference. “We are still early in this investigation, so we can’t make a determination. We are very early.”
Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County sheriff’s office said Long had been “fed up,” though he did not specify why.
“Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did,” Baker said in comments that drew a swift backlash online for appearing to minimize the severity of the crime.
Denying hate as a motive is unlikely to spare Long any punishment, since he already faces eight counts of murder, and the possibility in Georgia of the death penalty.
Those killed in Atlanta were four women of Korean ethnicity, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. South Korea’s consulate in Atlanta dispatched a consul to the site, according to a ministry statement.
The Cherokee County sheriff’s office on Wednesday identified the four people killed there as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth, Ga.; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw, Ga.; and Daoyou Feng, 44, whose address was not immediately known. A fifth victim suffered wounds that are not life-threatening, police said.
Yaun was a well-liked Waffle House employee who relatives and friends say was killed while on a date night. She had been a server at the restaurant chain since 2013, the company said in a statement.
She and her husband, Mario, were getting a couples massage at Young’s Asian Massage when the gunfire began, according to a GoFundMe page set up to support her family. Her husband escaped.
Atlanta officials did not release the names of the victims there.
The killings began just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, authorities said, when surveillance video showed a man in a navy and red hoodie walking into Young’s Asian Massage, a spa on a busy commercial strip about 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta.
Four victims were shot inside the parlor along Highway 92, Baker said. Two died at the scene and two later died in a hospital.
Those fatally shot were two Asian women, a White woman and a White man. A Hispanic man was taken to a hospital with injuries, Baker said.
Video showed the suspect jumping into a black Hyundai Tucson and speeding away, police said. Less than an hour later, about 5:47 p.m., a gunman killed three women inside Gold Spa, about 27 miles south of the first shooting, said Sgt. John Chafee of the Atlanta Police Department.
Police responded to a call of a “robbery in progress” at Gold Spa and were still there when shots were fired across the street inside Aromatherapy Spa, according to Chafee. Officers found one woman inside that business who also was fatally shot.
With the help of surveillance footage, police said they soon identified Long as the suspect. Police posted photos of the Hyundai Tucson and Long and launched a massive search. In Crisp County, about 150 miles south of Atlanta, the sheriff’s office said it heard at about 8 p.m. that a homicide suspect was headed its way.
About a half-hour later, state troopers and Crisp County deputies spotted Long’s vehicle, and a trooper performed a tactical “PIT” maneuver, or pursuit intervention technique, that caused the car to “spin out of control,” Crisp County Sheriff Billy Hancock said.
While Long was waiting to be taken to his cell, he “asked if he was going to be here for the rest of his life,” a Crisp County sheriff’s deputy wrote in an incident report.
On Wednesday afternoon, five bouquets of flowers rested at the front of the door of Young’s Asian Massage, located in a small commercial strip that also includes a vape store, a record shop, a beauty salon and a tool shop. Someone also left a basket of shamrocks along with a handwritten note that said, “from people who care.”
Adrian Lopez, the owner of Big Savings Tool & Liquidation, five doors down, said that no matter what the suspect may say, he believes the attack was racially motivated.
“He does this here and then goes to Atlanta and does it again to similar places,” said Lopez, who emigrated from Mexico 18 years ago. “If it was one, you could maybe say something went wrong. But to go to two more places and do it again?”
Correction: An earlier version of this article included a police misspelling of one of the victim’s names. It is Xiaojie Tan, not Yan.
Witte and Firozi reported from Washington. Pulliam Bailey reported from New York. Haisten Willis in Woodstock, Alex Kellogg in Atlanta and Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Alice Crites, Mark Berman, Miriam Berger, Matt Zapotosky, Marisa Iati, John Wagner, Donna Cassata, Antonio Olivo, Timothy Bella, Devlin Barrett, Andrea Salcedo, Teo Armus, Jaclyn Peiser, Tim Elfrink, Brittany Shammas and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.