A year of ‘grieving, healing and reflection’ following Atlanta spa shootings

Marcus Lyon was inside the Cherokee County spa when Robert Aaron Long opened fire, killing four people, including the person performing Lyon’s massage therapy. A fifth victim, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was shot in the face but survived. Not a day goes by that Lyon doesn’t think about what happened. The Canton man also wonders how different things might have been if he hadn’t left his gun in the car that afternoon. “I definitely think about it, especially when I drive past the place,” he said. “I think about it almost every day. It’s always there.” Since the shootings, Lyon said he keeps his handgun with him at all times.

“If had it in there I would have shot the guy,” said Lyon, who installs solar panels for a living.

He has gone to counseling to help cope with the stress of what he experienced that afternoon. He said he doesn’t believe in the death penalty, but hopes the gunman thinks about the eight lives he took each and every day.

Robert Peterson is constantly reminded how much he misses his mother. Yong Ae Yue, 63, was one of six Asian women killed that afternoon.

For Peterson and his older brother, the grief of losing their mother will never subside. Peterson described his mom as hard-working woman who loved to have fun any chance she got. She always loved cooking for her family and friends. Her son now often prepares the traditional Korean dishes she taught him to make.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Some have said this pain will go away and I will smile again,” he said during a recent memorial. “To be honest, that day has yet to come. Life after this tragedy has been about grieving, healing and reflection, but this past year has not been easy.”

Suncha Kim’s daughter penned a letter that was read aloud during the memorial. It talked about speaking to her mom for the last time the morning before her death and how clearly she still remembers her voice a year later.

“My mother, the grandmother of my children, was killed by a person that none of us knew,” she wrote. “She disappeared forever from our everyday lives in an instant.”

Credit: GoFundMe

Credit: GoFundMe

“I felt great sorrow and an aching heart and I was also mad, really mad. Over the past year I have been helped and supported by so many.”

Daokun Feng, the brother of Daoyou Feng, couldn’t travel to the U.S. from China when his sister was shot and killed. Members of the Atlanta Chinese American Alliance raised money and held a funeral service for the 44-year-old.

“Since last year when we lost our beloved sister, our whole family is still in pain and grieving,” Daokun Feng wrote. “My sister came to the United States by herself to look for a better life, to help the family. She worked hard and always treated everyone nicely. We still don’t understand why such a nice and lovely girl was killed by someone full of hatred in his heart.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

He said their mother, who is elderly, still doesn’t know that her daughter is dead.

“Every day she wants us to give her a call and see how she’s doing,” he wrote. “That really breaks our heart ... We just hope that this kind of hatred and death will never happen to anyone in the future.”

Randy Park, one of Hyun Jung Grant’s two sons, recently wrote that it’s been nearly a year since his mother called to say she loved them.

Credit: GoFundMe

Credit: GoFundMe

“Eric and I have set our sights on our future and have mostly returned to our daily routine. But the missing nightly phone calls of her telling us “Goodnight” and “I love you” have left a canyon in our hearts,” he wrote on an online fundraising site. “Not a day goes by where we don’t think about our mother and what transpired. The cruel reality is that time cannot be reversed and the act undone. All we can do now is to hold onto her memory and live a fulfilling life ... Through our lives she will not be forgotten.”

State Sen. Michelle Au happened to be in the well of the Senate the day before the shootings, delivering a speech about the rise in violence against Asian Americans in the U.S.

“I didn’t want people in Georgia, especially our legislative leaders, to feel like we were insulated or immune from this issue,” said Au, who was the first Asian American woman elected to the Georgia State Senate. “And then the events of March 16 happened 24 hours after that.”

Credit: TheCOLCollection

Credit: TheCOLCollection

Au noted the killings galvanized Atlanta’s Asian American community and brought some people closer together. But she called the acts of violence that claimed the lives of eight people “a new chapter in an old story.”

“It was something that was shocking, obviously, because of the brutality of the crime and the scope of it,” she said. “But many of us were not surprised that it happened.”

Phi Nguyen, executive director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said people of Asian descent in this country have been stereotyped and stigmatized for centuries.

The organization founded in 2010 quickly responded to the spa shootings, offering support for the families of those killed and their loved ones. Typically, her group fights against anti-immigration legislation in Georgia, as well as the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

“There’s certainly a level of community trauma that we all experienced as members of the community that was targeted,” said Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American. “In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, our community came together in a very powerful way, and even nationally, this tragedy has created an inflection point for the Asian American community.”