ACWORTH — Metro Atlanta residents and workers are shocked and upset after eight people were killed in a string of deadly shootings in Cherokee County and Atlanta on March 16.
Four people died of injuries in a shooting at Young’s Asian Massage at 6468 Highway 92 near Acworth in Cherokee County that afternoon. About an hour later, police responded to shootings at Gold Spa and Aroma Therapy Spa in Atlanta, which left four more people dead. Hours later, in Crisp County, authorities arrested Woodstock’s Robert Aaron Long, 21, charged with both the Cherokee and Atlanta shootings.
Long has confessed to the shootings, according to Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker. Long allegedly told investigators he was motivated not by the victims’ race — six of the eight who were killed were Asian women — but by his belief the massage parlors were an outlet for his sex addiction.
Last Wednesday morning, a few flower pots and other plants had been left outside Young’s Asian Massage. Cindy Anderson, who lives just past the shopping center and is from Woodstock, brought a live shamrock plant and left it at the front door.
“They just deserved better than this,” she said. “I don’t care what color they were, what nationality they were. They didn’t deserve to die, because according to him, somebody felt like they were an outlet for his sexuality. Well, get counseling. You don’t go out and kill people.”
The shooting had weighed heavily on Anderson, and she decided to bring a live plant to remember the victims.
“It really affected a lot of people, especially those of us who live in that area and grew up in this area,” she said. “When I heard of this, I said, nobody goes into a shop and doesn’t stay long, and just kills everybody without a motive behind them as to hatred. And this world is in a mess right now. It’s in a mess. It needs to change. We need God in our lives.”
Adrian Lopez and his coworkers noticed a large police response Tuesday afternoon. Lopez is the manager of Big Savings Tools and Liquidation, at the other end of the strip mall that houses Young’s Massage. He said he stepped out and noticed a man on the ground with his face bleeding, and then made sure everyone at the store was inside.
“I’ve been living over 14 years in this area, and I’ve never seen anything happen close by,” he said. “We’re in shock.”
Rita Barron, owner of Gabby’s Boutique next to the massage parlor, said a bullet had entered her store during the shooting. Neither she nor any of her employees were injured, but it left a hole in the lower wall.
“I hear a big noise, something heavy, like a boom,” she said. “The jackets were moved on the wall, because they shot through the wall.”
She heard screaming and saw two Asian women run out of the store, she said. She called 911, but someone had already called and police arrived shortly after.
One of the women who died was the wife of a regular at Gabby’s and was getting a massage at Young’s when the shooting occurred, Barron said.
“She was a good person,” she said.
Alex Cua, who works near Young’s Massage, said he was advising a group of robotics club high schoolers working on their latest project when the shooting occurred. When deputies arrived, they told him not to leave the building, as the suspect was still at-large.
Cua, who is from the Philippines, said as he learned more details about the shooting, his first thought was that it was a hate crime.
“I try not to think about it, but it’s hard to avoid thinking about that, especially from where I’m standing,” he said. “I’ve been hearing it more and more from my friends in California, in New York.”
The teens he was advising were surprised and “couldn’t believe what was going on,” Cua said.
Wednesday morning, he was the only person in his office. Normally, since the pandemic, there have been about four working there during business hours. Some of his relatives asked him to stay home, but he decided to come in.
In Atlanta, motorists slowed down and took photos of the spas, located across the street from each other on Piedmont Road near its intersection with Cheshire Bridge Road.
Donny Lobisomem was busy tattooing a customer at Studio 219 Ink when the shooting occurred next door at Gold Spa. Lobisomem didn’t hear any gunshots over the music playing in the tattoo shop. He heard something about lots of cops outside, but didn’t think much of it.
After finishing the tattoo, he stepped outside to find a whole section of Piedmont Road blocked off, with police at Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa across the street. Lobisomem thought of the elderly Asian woman who works at Gold Spa, with whom he has a friendly acquaintance.
“I don’t know her. But when I see her, we greet each other and stuff like that,” Lobisomem said. “I was trying to see if she was all right, but nobody was saying anything … I’m praying she’s not one of the deceased victims.”
Lobisomem said he wasn’t aware of any sexual activity taking place at Gold Spa and said “they don’t bother anybody.” The suspect’s claims of sex addiction perplexed Lobisomem.
“I don’t understand that,” he said. “You can’t control yourself enough from these urges? And you just kill somebody? You kill people because you can’t control yourself? That’s crazy.”
Bonnie Youn, a former immigration attorney and activist for the Asian American community, came to pay her respects by placing white flowers — the color of mourning in some Asian cultures — at the door of Aromatherapy Spa.
As she was swarmed by TV cameras, Youn stressed that she did not want to take away the spotlight from Asian American advocacy groups. She asked people to support Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta and the Center for Pan Asian Community Services.
“I don’t know what the intentions of the perpetrator were, whether he meant to target specifically Asian women,” Youn said. “But that’s certainly the context of what is happening around the country right now. And that’s the potential focus.”
The suspect’s stated motive is “a terrible confluence of biblical shame and the victimization of these women,” she said.
Youn was not familiar with these particular establishments, but as an immigration attorney she worked with people who were employed by spas and massage parlors.
“They had very sad stories … I’m not at liberty to share what’s said in confidence,” Youn said. “I will just say there’s victimization, there’s exploitation. And I don’t want the impression of Asian women being sex workers to be the messaging that comes out of this and how the media portrays the victims. It’s not about that. Asian Americans are Americans. And if we’re going to try to bring awareness to this issue, we have to be recognized as not foreigners, and not working at spas.”
Youn hopes the aftermath of the shootings creates greater safety for the Asian American community without making them feel intimidated.
State Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, visited the spas Wednesday afternoon. Park said he wanted more information from police on how Long acquired a gun.
“I think the Asian-American community is very concerned,” he said.
Park called for Long to be held accountable “to the fullest extent of the law,” adding that as the investigation continues, “hopefully we’ll be able to bring greater information as soon as possible, to alleviate the concerns and fears of the community.”