Families of victims in Atlanta spa shootings trying to make sense of tragedy

Mourners left signs and flowers outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta on Friday. The memorial has grown since Tuesday's shootings left eight people dead and another injured at three metro Atlanta spas.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Mourners left signs and flowers outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta on Friday. The memorial has grown since Tuesday's shootings left eight people dead and another injured at three metro Atlanta spas. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Yong Ae Yue just wanted to work.

A licensed massage therapist, the 63-year-old was laid off last year when the pandemic hit and was excited to finally start shifts at a spa again, her two sons told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday.

“My mother didn’t do anything wrong,” said Robert Peterson, 38. “And she deserves the recognition that she is a human, she’s a community person like everyone else. None of those people deserved what happened to them.”

The Gwinnett County woman was one of eight people — six of them women of Asian decent — whose lives were cut short Tuesday during a deadly shooting spree at three spas across metro Atlanta. The shootings spurred fear around the world of further violence against Asian Americans, who already had faced surging racist violence amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta victims’ loved ones are trying to make sense of the tragedy.

Yong Yue with her sons, Elliott Peterson and Robert Peterson. The 63-year-old was one of eight people killed Tuesday when a 21-year-old gunman went on a shooting spree at three metro Atlanta spas, authorities said.

Credit: Family Photo

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Credit: Family Photo

Peterson described his mother as a kind and deeply caring woman. If you stopped by her house, she’d sit you down, ask if you’d eaten, and then insist on a trip to H Mart grocery store so she could make a meal.

“She feeds all my friends,” said Peterson, adding they loved the Korean home cooking she brought to Georgia in the 1980s after meeting her boys’ dad, an American soldier. Elliott Peterson, 42, the couple’s oldest, also served in the U.S. Army before retiring in September.

Investigators on Friday also released the names of the other three women killed during Tuesday’s shooting at two Atlanta spas on Piedmont Road. The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office identified them as Soon Chung Park, 74, Suncha Kim, 69, and Hyun Jung Grant, 51.

When Yue wasn’t working, she could be found taking someone flowers, food, gifts or that little extra cash they needed to make rent, her sons said in front of her Duluth home. Otherwise, Yue was probably watching movies, soap operas or reading.

At her side would be her dog, Iyong, a Shih Tzu mix with a diamond-studded pink collar. On Friday morning, a friend took the dog on a walk. When she came back, she leaned her head on Elliott Peterson’s shoulder. She clutched Lyong with both arms to her chest as tears glistened in her eyes.

”Don’t cry,” Elliott Peterson said. “That’s what she would say.”

Yong Yue with her Shih Tzu mix, Lyong.

Credit: Family Photo

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Credit: Family Photo

Grant, a mother of two, lived in Duluth, her son Randy Park said on a fundraising page. She was the only family he and his younger brother had in America and worked hard to provide for them, he wrote.

Hyun Jung Grant, 51, was among the four women killed Tuesday in Atlanta's spa shootings. She lived in Duluth and had two sons.

Credit: GoFundMe

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Credit: GoFundMe

“She was one of my best friends and the strongest influence on who we are today,” Park said. “Losing her has put a new lens on my eyes on the amount of hate that exists in our world. As much as I want to grieve and process the reality that she is gone, I have a younger brother to take care of and matters to resolve as a result of this tragedy.”

Park told The Associated Press his mother loved disco and club music, often strutting or moonwalking as she did household chores. In the car, she would jam with her sons to tunes blasting over the stereo.

The single mother found ways to enjoy herself despite working “almost every day” to support her children, Park said.

“I learned how to moonwalk because, like, I saw her moonwalking while vacuuming when I was a kid,” he said.

Park said his mother’s work was a sensitive subject because of the stigma that follows the massage businesses. Grant reportedly told her sons that they should tell others she worked doing makeup with her friends.

Ultimately, Park said, he didn’t care what she did for a living.

“She loved me and my brother enough to work for us, to dedicate her whole life,” he said. “That’s enough.”

The GoFundMe page launched Thursday to help support Park and his brother in the wake of their mother’s death had raised more than $1.3 million as of Friday afternoon, and donations continue to pour in.

Five people were shot during the Cherokee County attack; only one survived. Those who died were identified as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44, of Kennesaw. The fifth victim, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, was injured. He remains at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital.

Vigil held outside Youngs Asian Massage in Acworth. Video by Ryon Horne

The suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was arrested in South Georgia on Tuesday night following the shooting spree that began at an Acworth-area spa and continued in Atlanta at two similar businesses. Cherokee officials said Long told them the shootings were not racially motivated, but a Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office report released Friday lists “Anti-Gender Female” under a category marked “Hate/Bias.”

Atlanta police said they haven’t ruled out charging the Woodstock-area man with a hate crime.

“Nothing is off the table,” Atlanta police Deputy Chief Charles Hampton told reporters Thursday afternoon.

Investigators said Long had a sex addiction and regularly patronized the types of businesses targeted in Tuesday’s shootings, reportedly calling them a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” Atlanta police confirmed he frequented both spas on Piedmont Road — Gold Spa, where three women were shot to death, and Aromatherapy Spa across the street, where officers discovered a fourth woman dead.

According to the Medical Examiner’s Office, three of the women killed in Atlanta were shot in the head and a fourth died of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. The 9 mm handgun used in the shootings had been purchased hours earlier at a Holly Springs gun store.

Greg Hynson saw Xiaojie Tan for the final time last weekend. Tan, known as “Emily” to her friends, would have turned 50 on Thursday. She was among those killed when the alleged gunman opened fire at Youngs Asian Massage, the spa she owned near Acworth.

Hynson, who was in the area last week, figured he’d pop in.

”We said hello, but she was really busy — the shop was always busy — so I told her I would check back with her later,” Hynson said.

That time never came.

The two met about five years ago through a mutual friend and became fast friends. A former weightlifter, the 54-year-old also got massages at Tan’s spa.

“I consider her dear and close to me,” he said. “She had a heart of gold and was the sweetest, nicest person. She treated everybody equally.”

None of that was a surprise to Jami Webb, Tan’s 29-year-old daughter. She told USA Today that her mother “loved to make friends with all her customers.” She said her mother, who was born in China, was obsessed with the idea of traveling and dreamed of seeing the world. She often asked her customers where they had been.

#DPD stands with our Asian community during these tumultuous times and with that, our department has increased patrols...

Posted by Duluth Police Department on Friday, March 19, 2021

In response to the shootings, police across metro Atlanta have stepped up patrols in Asian American communities and around Asian-owned businesses. Departments have also encouraged residents in those communities to report any suspicious activity.

— Staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.

 Zhaoren Li, 57, places flowers at the makeshift memorial outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta on Friday to commemorate the women killed in Tuesday's shooting. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com