The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Atlanta shooting suspect was a patient at evangelical treatment center close to first targeted spa

Crabtree First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga., is the church attended by Robert Aaron Long, accused of killing eight people in shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area. (Chris Aluka Berry/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

ATLANTA — The first spa targeted in the Atlanta-area killings this week was in an area very familiar to Robert Aaron Long. It is located within a mile of an evangelical treatment facility where Long, charged in the shootings, spent time as a patient for what he described as “sex addiction,” according to a former roommate.

The evangelical facility, HopeQuest in Acworth, Ga., sits in a secluded forest at the end of a residential street about 30 miles outside Atlanta and down the road from Young’s Asian Massage. Police say that after killing four people and wounding a fifth there, Long drove 27 miles to two more spas in Atlanta where he fatally shot four more people.

HopeQuest has ties to major evangelical institutions and has promoted “ex-gay therapy,” the idea that people can become heterosexual through counseling. Long, 21, who grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, was a patient at the treatment facility in 2019 and again in 2020, according to his former roommate Tyler Bayless.

Police said Long was a customer at the two Atlanta-based spas that he also targeted. He has been charged with eight counts of murder and homicide and one count of aggravated assault in the March 17 attacks that left eight people dead, most of them Asian women.

The evangelical facility HopeQuest advertises its services for treating “sex addiction” and “pornography addiction,” alongside several descriptions for what it believes these addictions could include. Bayless said Long blamed his descent into addiction on pornography and used a flip phone instead of a smartphone to avoid temptation online.

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

Most evangelical churches, including Southern Baptist churches, teach that sex is permitted only within heterosexual marriages, similar teaching to the Catholic Church and other Christian traditions.

However, several experts have said this week that Long’s ties to evangelicalism shine a light into a subculture called “purity culture,” a belief among some evangelicals that promotes the idea that any sexual desire outside of marriage is lustful, and therefore sinful. Some evangelicals are taught from a young age to control their sexual urges and if they cannot, they are sometimes labeled sex addicts or porn addicts.

HopeQuest is affiliated with several large evangelical churches in and around Atlanta, including the North Point megachurch and the historical First Baptist Church of Woodstock. With several counselors licensed by the state of Georgia, it is also a “professional” affiliate of the evangelical organization Focus on the Family.

Christian leaders wrestle with Atlanta shooting suspect’s Southern Baptist ties

In addition to its work with patients on “sex addiction,” HopeQuest was once a hot spot for what some call “conversion therapy” and “ex-gay” rehabilitation. The founder and creator of HopeQuest, Roy Blankenship, was once considered one of the nation’s foremost conversion therapists.

Blankenship considered himself “ex-gay” and served on the board of the “ex-gay” Exodus International group, which was disbanded in 2013. After 22 years, Blankenship retired as chair of the board at HopeQuest in December 2018. He renounced conversion therapy and publicly came out as gay the following year. Blankenship still offers therapy services on his website, including for “sex addiction.”

Blankenship told The Post he is no longer involved with HopeQuest but declined to comment further.

The current director of clinical programs at HopeQuest is Wayne Carriker, who considers himself ex-gay and has promoted conversion therapy. A since-removed biography on the HopeQuest website said Carriker had “embraced homosexuality and a lifestyle of addiction that led him to prison.” Carriker joined the team of HopeQuest in 2011 after his release from prison and receiving a master’s degree from Wheaton College outside Chicago.

A HopeQuest staffer, who declined to provide his name, declined to comment further on behalf of the facility.

On its website, the HopeQuest facility posts a question, “How can I know if my husband is struggling with sexual addiction?” One of the answers includes, “You find receipts for sexually-related activities or purchases (i.e. drinks at a strip club, adult video rental, adult videos charged to hotel bills, etc.).”

“Although most men struggle with lustful thoughts, acting on those thoughts — whether through fantasy and masturbation, using pornography or actual contact with another person — is always hurtful to God and damaging to the marriage,” the website states. “The struggle with sexual thoughts and behaviors becomes problematic when a man chooses to use his sexuality to attempt to meet needs for nurture, comfort, solace, significance and security outside of the marriage.”

In some evangelical churches, sexual behavior outside heterosexual marriage is sometimes treated as a disease that can be fixed with the proper scriptural counseling.

Sexual sin plays an outsized role in many evangelical churches, said Sheila Wray Gregoire, the Canadian author of “The Great Sex Rescue,” a book about lies Christian women have been taught about sex. In popular evangelical literature, she found, women are taught to have sex with their husbands when they want it so they won’t watch porn. They’re also taught that all men struggle with lust.

“Women are not seen as people but as enemy who need to be defeated,” she said.

Earlier this week, a sheriff’s department official said that Long viewed the spas he allegedly targeted as “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” In evangelical literature, women are often treated as a sexual threat or seen as sexual fulfillment, said Rachel Joy Welcher, Iowa-based author of the book “Talking Back to Purity Culture.”

“They’re telling them not to lust, but the solution is to avoid women until they get married and channel all your sexual energy into your wife,” she said. “Wives are depicted as sexual outlets.”

Bayless, who was Long’s roommate at Maverick Recovery, a sober-living facility in Roswell, Ga., in 2019 and 2020 in the months between his stays at HopeQuest, said Long felt his very salvation was at stake, as he told his roommate that he was “living in sin” and “not walking in the light; he was walking in darkness.”

Bayless was trying to recover from an alcohol and drug addiction, and Long was there for what he called “sex addiction.”

“He was militant about it,” Bayless said. “This was the kind of guy who would hate himself for masturbating, would consider that a relapse.”

Some scientists have questioned whether “sex addiction” should be used to diagnose a psychological disorder.

Residents at Maverick were encouraged to hold each other accountable, Bayless says, and at least three times Long called Bayless into his room so he could confess his sins. Bayless said Long came back from a spa and called him into his room saying he was having suicidal thoughts.

“He would say, ‘I’m falling out of the grace of God and my pastor,’” Bayless said, and Long suggested church leaders agreed with him.

Crabapple First Baptist Church said in a statement on its website that it was devastated and grieving over the deaths, acknowledging that Long’s family members have been church members for many years. Long was accepted into membership, but the church said his actions directly contradict his confession of faith.

“He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires,” the church’s statement said of Long. “The women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders.”

A spokesman for the church said it would not comment further.

Bayless says that he urged Long to seek psychiatric or psychological counseling, but he refused.

Bailey reported from New York.