Days after they were gunned down at the Atlanta-area massage spas where they worked, details about the victims were scarce, leaving their lives and their stigmatized industry wreathed in mystery.
One of the Gold Spa employees was identified by her son as Hyun Jung Grant. Randy Park told the Daily Beast that he had been at the family’s townhome in Duluth, Ga., a northern suburb of Atlanta that is a hub for Koreans in the region, when he received a call from the daughter of a witness who survived the attack. Park, 23, said that for much of his life he did not know what his mother did for work.
“She would always tell me if anyone asks, that she works at a makeup parlor,” he told the news site. “So that’s what I fronted to everybody. The truth was she worked at a massage parlor and I knew that for a fact because she admitted it to me after I looked it up online.”
Park said his mother had worked hard to support two children, and been an elementary school teacher in Korea before immigrating.
According to local business owners and Atlanta K, a local media site, the other Gold Spa employees lived in the same city, and a group traveled back and forth between their homes and the spa every three days to a week.
“They were isolated and would eat and sleep over there in the spa,” said Lee Sang-yeon, president of Atlanta K. “They had very poor working conditions.”
Lee said the women were known to acquaintances and customers only by their last names, which has made the investigation into their identities difficult.
He said the victim who worked at Aromatherapy Spa was a manager who opened the main door, mistakenly believing the gunman was a customer. Several other employees were inside a second, locked door, set up for security purposes because the business deals with a lot in cash.
South Korea’s consulate in Atlanta said it had been working in close coordination with U.S. law enforcement officials to identify the women but that those efforts had been complicated because the women were not carrying official forms of identification.
“We are trying to match fingerprints, DNA, X-rays, photos and medical history and try to identify the possible match and bring in the next of kin,” said Lee Kwangsuk, the consulate official working on the investigation.
“We do not even know if they were all Korean citizens,” Lee said. “We received some calls from those who are probably family members in Korea, but this has not been confirmed. We are working to expedite the process and get the outcome in the soonest manner.”
An investigator with the Fulton County medical examiner’s office said three of the Atlanta victims had been identified Thursday. But investigators were still unsure of the identity of the fourth victim and decided not to release any of the names until all four were identified, according to the investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
When visual identification by a physically present family member is not an option, medical examiners typically start by taking fingerprints that can be checked against several databases. For noncitizens, for example, the Department of Homeland Security maintains a database of international travelers who are fingerprinted upon arrival in the United States. Another national database, called NamUs, maintains information about missing and unidentified people. Separately, South Korea fingerprints all citizens when they reach the age of 18.
James Gill, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said other methods of identification include looking at dental records or comparing DNA with possible relatives. However, “these usually require an idea of who the person is,” he said.
In Cherokee County, the four victims who died at Young’s Asian Massage have been identified. A fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was shot in the forehead, lungs and stomach while walking outside the shop and remains in critical condition.
The dead include two women who are believed to be ethnic Chinese.
Spa owner Xiaojie Tan would have turned 50 on Thursday. Instead, Tan, of Kennesaw, Ga., was remembered by her friends who left flowers at her business.
Tan, or Emily as she was known by friends, was dedicated to her job and her daughter, a recent University of Georgia graduate, said friend and customer Greg Hynson, 54.
Hynson said they met six years ago. Tan, whose family is from China, sometimes hosted Lunar New Year and Fourth of July parties with food and fireworks at her spa, Hynson said.
“She was a very good friend, a kind, sweet person,” he said.
A former competitive weightlifter, Hynson said he frequently received massages at Tan’s spa for his neck and upper back. He said he was outraged by the assertion by police that the alleged gunman, Robert Aaron Long, 21, suffered from “sex addiction” and that he gunned down the spa workers to “eliminate temptation” — an unfair stigmatization, he said, that suggested the spas were fronts for prostitution.
Tan and her business were “absolutely professional,” Hynson said. “She cared about her job, she cared about her customers, she cared about her friends and family.”
Daoyou Feng, 44, who also was killed, had recently started working at Young’s and was not proficient in English, Hynson said, adding that he did not know more about her.
An editor reached by phone at the World Journal, a Chinese-language news site with offices in Atlanta, said its reporters had not been able to ascertain anything yet about Feng — not even the proper Chinese characters for her name. The editor said it is still unclear whether she had ties to China, Taiwan or another country.
Family members and friends have been more outspoken about the other victims in Cherokee County, a contractor and a customer who were caught up in the shooting at Young’s.
Paul Andre Michels, 54, was a former Army infantryman who owned a business installing security systems. His brother told the Associated Press he was doing work for the spa and “might have been talking with the spa’s owner about how the business operates” because he was thinking of opening a spa himself.
Delaina Yaun, 33, had Tuesday afternoon off, so she and her husband decided to treat themselves. They booked a couples massage and were in separate rooms when the gunman entered and started shooting, according to DeLayne Davis, a relative. Yaun was killed. Her husband escaped.
“They were just taking an afternoon together,” Davis said. “It was the first time they’d ever been to that place.”
The past year had been momentous for Yaun. Over the summer she gave birth to her second child, a daughter. Shortly after, she and her husband, Mario Gonzalez, were wed in a small ceremony in Ringgold, Ga.
“Her dreams were finally coming true. Things were falling into place with her,” said Lisa Marie, Yaun’s longtime friend. “It was good to see her happiness.”
Friends and relatives said Yaun put her family above all else. When a divorce upended her sister’s family a couple of years ago, Yaun took in two of her sister’s preteen children to live in her home.
She was close with her mother, who lived with her as well. Marie remembered getting misty-eyed seeing the two of them dance to Boyz II Men at her wedding. “They were inseparable,” she said.
When she wasn’t with family, Yaun worked hard, covering the third shift at a local Waffle House. She’d been a server at the restaurant chain since 2013 and was recently cross-trained as a grill operator, Waffle House said in a statement.
Her Facebook page was sprinkled with pictures of her wedding and her children, along with loving messages from her husband.
“It’s you who occupies all of my heart,” he wrote in one of their last exchanges.
“Thank you, my love,” she replied. “You and me.”