“Not a day goes by where we don’t think about our mother and what transpired,” Randy Park wrote recently on a fundraising page. “The cruel reality is that time cannot be reversed and the act undone. All we can do now is to hold on to her memory and live a fulfilling life.”
On March 16, 2021, a lone gunman opened fire in three metro Atlanta spas in Cherokee and Fulton counties, according to investigators. When the shooting rampage was over, eight people were dead, including six Asian women. One year later, Robert Aaron Long is serving a life sentence for the Cherokee shootings after he pleaded guilty. He awaits trial in Fulton, where prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty, a move that could take years.
In response to the shootings, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community created the AAPI Crime Victims and Education Fund, meant to prevent violence through education and assist victims. In September, representatives from several groups in Georgia gathered to announce the creation of a national advisory board and initial corporate donors, including Southern Company Gas and Nike. Organizers hope to raise $1 million for a fund to help victims around the country.
Long, 21, at the time of the shootings, told investigators he struggled with sex addiction. On the morning of March 16, he purchased a 9mm handgun from a Holly Springs store and planned to kill himself, he later told investigators.
Long drove to a liquor store and purchased bourbon, and from there, he drove to Youngs Asian Massage near Acworth in a dark-colored Hyundai SUV. Outside the business, Long sat in his SUV an hour drinking the bourbon before he went inside, he told investigators. He first paid for a service, then went to the restroom.
Then, the shooting started.
“I don’t recall thinking much after I pulled the trigger first,” Long said in a Cherokee courtroom in July before entering a guilty plea. “My mind felt like it was blank.”
Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Michels, 54, died in the shooting at Youngs Asian Massage. A fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was injured. Afterward, Long drove about 30 miles to Piedmont Road where Yong Ae Yue, 63, Soon Chung Park, 74, Suncha Kim, 69, and Hyun Jung Grant, 51, were killed at the Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa.
Long had planned to drive to Florida and commit similar crimes, he later told police. But his parents helped investigators track Long’s phone, and he was captured that night in Crisp County, about 150 miles south of Atlanta.
“Our hearts are breaking for the victims and their families, and we’re certainly keeping them in our prayers,” said Gov. Brian Kemp the following day. “We’ll let the investigation continue, but it was a tragic night in our state.”
The fight for justice
The passage of Georgia’s hate crime law, spurred by the Glynn County murder of Ahmaud Arbery, went into effect in 2020. After the spa shootings, many legal experts believed this would be one of the highest-profile cases under the new law.
Bonnie Youn, a legal recruiter and longtime board member of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said it wasn’t until she spoke at a rally after the shootings that she realized she looked like the women who were killed.
“We’re undoing the stereotypes of the model minority, of being neat and quiet and putting our heads down and taking it,” said Youn, who is Korean American. “We’re not taking it anymore.”
The day after the shooting, the Atlanta Korean American Committee against Asian Hate Crime formed, with Baik Kyu Kim as chairman. Kim, who lives in Duluth and owns two grocery stores in metro Atlanta, said that after the initial shock and sadness passed, he began to think about what could have motivated the killing of six Asian American women.
“We have a long, long history,” said Kim, who came to metro Atlanta in 1976 from Korea.
In Cherokee County, District Attorney Shannon Wallace said she’d planned to pursue the death penalty had the case against Long gone to trial. Additionally, prosecutors were prepared to argue that Long committed a hate crime when he targeted women. But the victims’ families requested swift justice, and Long took a plea deal in July.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who previously said she couldn’t “foresee a case” in which she would seek the death penalty, said the horrific spa shootings changed her mind. She’ll seek the death penalty when Long is tried in Fulton County.
“Eight bodies, four in one jurisdiction,” Willis said. “You then take 45 minutes — cause I’ve driven from here to there — to drive into my community. You go to two different locations. You try to assassinate five people. It changed my mind.”
Long has a motions hearing scheduled for April, but Willis anticipates the Fulton County case could take at least two years.
The Cherokee spa has a new name. An employee declined to discuss the shooting this week. Both Atlanta spas are closed. Gold Spa is now called VIP Spa, but it’s also closed at the moment. At the building that housed the spa across the street, there’s a sign advertising space for lease.
Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz was shot in the Cherokee spa. He still passes it every day on his way two and from work.
His voice is scratchy and not nearly as loud. But Hernandez-Ortiz knows how fortunate he is to be able to speak at all.
“When this was fresh, I was initially very angry,” Hernandez-Ortiz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But as days passed on and I had time to reflect, I realized I was so thankful to God for saving my life.”
Some family members are scheduled to attend events Wednesday on the somber anniversary. “The Asian Justice Rally – Break the Silence” will be held from noon to 2 p.m. at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot located at 65 MLK Jr. Drive SW in Atlanta. A commemorative event will be held at the Korean American Center, 5900 Brook Hollow Parkway in Norcross, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The events are important, organizers say, to continue raising awareness in the fight against crimes targeting Asians. But the grieving continues for those whose loved ones were killed a year ago.
For Robert Peterson, it’s the little things he misses most about his mother, Yong Ae Yue: her smile, her Korean home-cooking, even helping her change lightbulbs around the house when he and his brother would come to visit.
“I just miss all those small things we took for granted when she was here,” he said. “She’s just like any other mother. She just wanted to work, to provide her for her family and enjoy life and her friends. And someone took that away from us at a time me and my brother needed her most.”
— Staff writer Alia Malik contributed to this story.
THE STORY SO FAR
March 16, 2021: Eight people were shot to death at three metro Atlanta spas. Robert Aaron Long was arrested that night in south Georgia.
May 11, 2021: District attorneys in Cherokee and Fulton counties announced Long had been indicted.
July 27, 2021: Long pleaded guilty to four of the murders in a deal formalized in a Cherokee County courtroom. The agreement spared him a death sentence, though that possibility remains in Fulton County.
Aug. 30, 2021: Long made his first appearance in a Fulton courtroom. Fulton DA Fani Willis said Long was driven by racial, gender bias and she is seeking hate crime charges.
Sept. 28: In Fulton County, Long pleaded not guilty to four murder charges.
TIMELINE: March 16 spa shootings