Georgia man gets life in prison after pleading guilty to 4 murders in Atlanta-area spa shootings

A Georgia man was sentenced to four counts of life without parole in Cherokee County on Tuesday, for the first four of the shooting deaths that left eight people dead at three Atlanta-area massage businesses in March.

Defendant still faces death penalty in upcoming trial for killing 4 others

Mary Yoo holds a sign as she attends a rally to support Stop Asian Hate at the Logan Square Monument in Chicago on March 20. The deadly shooting rampage in the Atlanta area earlier that month led to a series of demonstrations across the U.S. to demand justice for the victims and for an end to racism, xenophobia and misogyny. (Nam Y. Huh/The Associated Press)

A man accused of killing eight people, mostly women of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area massage businesses pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday in four of the killings and was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Robert Aaron Long, 22, still faces the death penalty in the other deaths, which are being prosecuted in another county, where he faces charges of domestic terrorism with a hate crime enhancement in addition to murder.

Those killed at a spa in Cherokee County were: Xiaojie (Emily) Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54. The victims killed in Atlanta were: Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

His shooting spree in March raised fears and tension among Asian Americans.

At Tuesday's sentencing, a prosecutor said Cherokee County investigators saw no evidence of racial bias. That's at odds with the hate crime and domestic terrorism prosecution Long faces in Atlanta.

Long walked through the massage business in Woodstock, Ga., "shooting anyone and everyone he saw," District Attorney Shannon Wallace said.

But the prosecutor said he was motivated by a sex addiction and his desire to eliminate sources of his temptation, not by any hate against Asians or women.

Anthony Roberts, 33, and Olivia Roberts, 28, pause before laying flowers at a makeshift memorial in March outside Gold Spa following the deadly shootings in the Atlanta area. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

"All of the evidence that was gathered with regard to Cherokee County, your honour, came to the same conclusion, that this crime was not motivated by a bias or hate against Asian Americans. As for gender bias, Wallace said a charge based on hatred of women would not have extended his sentence.

"This was not any kind of hate crime," she said.

Relatives of victims support guilty plea

Wallace said they had planned to seek the death penalty if Long didn't plead guilty. All the relatives of the victims that they've been able to contact are supporting the plea deal in the interests of swift justice, she said.

The prosecutor said the 22-year-old has signed a plea deal admitting to all of the charges in Cherokee County, where he was accused of malice murder, felony murder, attempt to commit murder and aggravated assault.

Bee Nguyen is Georgia's first Vietnamese-American state representative. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the attack on Wednesday.

Police have said the attacks began when Long shot and killed four people, three of them women and two of Asian descent, at Youngs Asian Massage just before 5 p.m. on March 16, 2020. He also shot and wounded a fifth person, they said.

Long then drove south to Atlanta, where he shot and killed three women at Gold Spa before going across the street to Aromatherapy Spa and fatally shooting another woman, police have said. All of the Atlanta victims were women of Asian descent.

Debate over hate crime charge

Long is scheduled to appear again next month in Fulton County, where District Attorney Fani Willis filed notice that she intends to seek a hate crime sentence enhancement along with the death penalty, based on the actual or perceived race, national origin, sex and gender of the four women killed in Atlanta.

Georgia's new hate crimes law does not provide for a stand-alone hate crime. After a person is convicted of an underlying crime, a jury must determine whether it's motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.

The 19-count Fulton County indictment includes charges of murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism.

Police said that after the shootings at the two Atlanta spas, the shooter got back into his car and headed south.

By then, his parents had called authorities to help after recognizing their son in still images from security video that the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office posted on social media.

His parents were already tracking his movements through an application on his phone, the prosecutor said, and that enabled authorities to track him down Interstate 75.

State troopers and sheriff's deputies spotted his SUV, and one of them forced Long to spin to a stop by bumping his vehicle. He then surrendered to authorities in rural Crisp County, about 225 kilometres south of Atlanta.

The shooter told police his attack was not racially motivated, and a Cherokee sheriff's spokesperson said it did not appear to be a hate crime, prompting widespread skepticism and outrage.

Cherokee sheriff's Capt. Jay Baker also drew criticism for saying at a news conference that Long had "a really bad day," and was removed from the case.