Spa shooter killed a compassionate, generous woman, her sons say

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The sons of Yong Ae Yue, one of the Atlanta spas shooting victims, share who their mother was to them and others. Video by Ryon Horne, photo by Hyosub Shin

Yong Ae Yue almost certainly had a bright smile on her face when she opened the door for the man who was about to kill her. That was just her way.

Of course she had no clue what was about to happen, her son, Elliott Peterson, said. “And she had no chance.”

The 63-year-old Norcross woman was among eight people shot and killed March 16 at three spas, two in Atlanta and one in Cherokee County. Yue, born in Korea, was one of six victims of Asian heritage.

Her two sons, Elliott and Robert Peterson, said their mother had a keen sense of humor, was generous and was at her best when cooking Korean meals for family and friends. The two brothers sat for an interview this week in the living room of Yue’s home, her ashes sitting on a shelf above them.

With tears, laughter and resolve, the two brothers recounted the day they learned their mother was killed and, in a happier time, reminisced about going with her to Korean karaoke bars where she joyously belted out songs by Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and other favorites.

March 31, 2021 Norcross - Robert (left) and Elliott Peterson, sons of one of Atlanta spas shooting victims, Yong Ae Yue, share a smile as they recall their late mother at their late motherÕs home in Norcross on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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March 31, 2021 Norcross - Robert (left) and Elliott Peterson, sons of one of Atlanta spas shooting victims, Yong Ae Yue, share a smile as they recall their late mother at their late motherÕs home in Norcross on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Robert Aaron Long, 21, stands charged with all eight murders. After his arrest, he said he killed women at the spas because he was addicted to sex and wanted to eliminate the temptation, law enforcement said.

That supposed motive, if true, makes Yue’s killing all the more confounding and senseless to her two sons. In October, she was hired by Aromatherapy Spa on Piedmont Road to cook, clean and monitor the security cameras.

“Of course, I want him held accountable for his actions for the damage he’s caused these eight families,” Robert Peterson, 38, a sociology professor, said of Long.

His older brother, Elliott Peterson, 42, wants answers.

“I do want to know the last moments of my mom’s life,” he said. “And if I know my mother she probably had a smile on her face when welcoming in another person, like she always did.”

Robert, welling with tears, feels differently.

“I’m tired of playing that image in my head,” he said. “I don’t want to see that. They described what happened. I can’t get that image out of my head, so that’s bothering me.”

March 31, 2021 Norcross - A tear runs down the cheek of Robert Peterson, younger son of one of Atlanta spas shooting victims, Yong Ae Yue, as he recalls his late mother in Norcross on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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March 31, 2021 Norcross - A tear runs down the cheek of Robert Peterson, younger son of one of Atlanta spas shooting victims, Yong Ae Yue, as he recalls his late mother in Norcross on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Yue, raised an orphan, met her future husband in 1976 at a bus ticket station. At the time, Mac Peterson was in the U.S. Army stationed at Camp Humphreys, about 40 miles south of Seoul. They wed and had their first son, Elliott, in 1978.

The family then moved stateside where Mac Peterson, who is Black, was stationed at Fort Benning. In 1984, two years after Robert was born, the couple divorced.

“My mother wanted us to have the best shot in America, so she made the tough choice to let us live with our father,” Elliott said.

After moving to Texas, Yue kept in touch with but rarely saw her sons through their teenage years. But she moved to Atlanta in 2001 to be near Robert, then in his freshman year at Morehouse College.

By that time, Elliott had already followed in his father’s footsteps. He enlisted in the Army at 18 and served 24 years. He retired in September, lives in Japan and trains U.S. soldiers in field exercises.

March 31, 2021 Norcross - Home of one of Atlanta spas shooting victims, Yong Ae Yue, in Norcross on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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March 31, 2021 Norcross - Home of one of Atlanta spas shooting victims, Yong Ae Yue, in Norcross on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Elliott, who has six children, knows all too well the pain of losing a loved one to gun violence. Almost a year ago, his 20-year-old son, Travion, was shot and killed in Spring Lake, N.C.

“I’m living this nightmare again,” Elliott said.

Both brothers said their mom’s cooking brought their families together. Robert asked her so many times to cook his favorite dish — kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew with pork belly) — she showed him how to make it.

“She taught him well,” said Elliott, who said his favorite dishes of his mom’s were samgyupsal (grilled pork belly) and japchae (glass noodle stir fry).

Most visitors didn’t leave Yue’s home empty-handed. Before someone left, she’d typically reach into the refrigerator to get something she’d cooked and hand it over to be taken home.

“My mother was selfless,” Robert said. “She didn’t ask or need much. She didn’t have much either, but she gave all that she did have.”

In addition to her compassion for others, Yue had a strong work ethic.

“She wasn’t a person who wanted anything given to her or her kids,” Elliott said. “She wanted us to work for everything too. She came to America to work hard in this land of opportunity, as my mom would say.”

At home, Yue doted on her two pets, a cat and a shih tzu she named Iyong (she’d simply put an “i” in front of her own first name). Iyong, now kept by one of Yue’s best friends, is traumatized and spends much of her day lying in a corner, whimpering, Elliott said.

Yue always took Iyong with her to work so the dog was with her that day. “She must have been laying next to her” after the shooting, Elliott said.

Across the Pacific Ocean, Elliott was on his way to work at about 7:30 a.m. when he saw a news flash on his phone about the spa shootings. Not knowing which spa his mother worked, he texted her, asking whether she was OK. After 15 minutes passed with no response, he called her but she didn’t pick up.

“I had that feeling,” he said. “My mom has never not answered a phone call or a text.”

Elliott then called his brother in Atlanta and asked him to find out what happened. Robert made several phone calls before driving to the spa to see if Yue’s Kia Sorento was parked outside. When he didn’t see it — she’d parked in back — he drove to her home only to find her house empty and no car outside.

On his way back home he called the medical examiner’s office and was told someone with his mother’s name and birthday was there. Just as he pulled over to try and collect himself, an impatient Elliott called from Japan.

“Lamont, it was her,” Elliott, tears streaming down his face, recalled his brother saying. Yue often called Elliott by his middle name, Lamont.

In many ways, Yue was a traditional Korean mother. But she was adamant that her sons know both of their heritages. To her, “one was not more valuable than the other,” Robert said.

“She made sure that we were strong and very committed to that part of our racial identity,” he said. “She also recognized we grew up in America and discrimination against Asians and Blacks is part of the American fabric.”

As the two brothers spoke, Atlanta lawyer BJay Pak, who is representing the family, looked on from inside the kitchen.

“Both men understand, in a unique way, the ugly realities of negative stereotypes projected onto them because of their heritage — from which their mother tried to protect them when they were young,” said Pak, the former U.S. attorney. “The tragic irony — that her senseless murder may have been motivated by the very thing she was trying to protect them from — is not lost on them.”

April 5, 2018 Atlanta - U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak speaks about bribery scandals at Atlanta City Hall during a press conference at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Thursday, April 5, 2018. Rev. Mitzi Bickers made her first appearance in federal court Thursday to face charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015. She was released on a $50,000 appearance bond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Caption
April 5, 2018 Atlanta - U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak speaks about bribery scandals at Atlanta City Hall during a press conference at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Thursday, April 5, 2018. Rev. Mitzi Bickers made her first appearance in federal court Thursday to face charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015. She was released on a $50,000 appearance bond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Yue always said what was on her mind, Elliott said.

“My mom was always an advocate of treating people right, always not letting us be embarrassed of who we were,” he said. “Always ready to stand up and speak about discrimination if she saw you actively discriminating.”

Elliott referred to the recent attack near Times Square in New York in which video captured a man viciously kicking and stomping a 65-year-old Asian-American woman. A 38-year-old man faces charges of assault as a hate crime, attempted assault as a hate crime, assault and attempted assault, police said.

Had his mother witnessed such a thing, “She would have intervened,” Elliott said. “That’s what she would have wanted us to do. That’s what she’d want everyone to do. ... She’d stand up and say that you need to protect those who aren’t able to protect themselves. Now you can see how great my mother was.”