Robert Aaron Long guilty of 4 murders, avoids death penalty; Fulton case still pending

Robert Aaron Long, accused of fatally shooting eight people at three metro Atlanta spas, pleaded guilty to four of the murders in a deal formalized Tuesday in a Cherokee County courtroom.

The agreement spares him a death sentence, though that possibility remains in Fulton County, where District Attorney Fani Willis said she will seek the death penalty for the 22-year-old defendant. Regardless, Long’s deal with Cherokee prosecutors ensures he will spend the rest of his life in prison. He was handed four consecutive life sentences, plus 35 years, without the possibility of parole.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is providing live updates from Cherokee County, where Long spoke publicly for the first time and provided new insight into his March 16 rampage inside Youngs Asian Massage that killed Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Michels, 54. A fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was injured.

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There was a heavy police presence during Tuesday's plea hearing.

Credit: Ben Gray

There was a heavy police presence during Tuesday's plea hearing.

Credit: Ben Gray

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There was a heavy police presence during Tuesday's plea hearing.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

UPDATE [2:45 p.m.]: In a news conference following today’s hearing, Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said the families of the shooting victims wanted “swift justice.”

“Today the families of those who were viciously murdered and the victims who were shot received justice,” Wallace said. “(Our) community will begin to heal from these unspeakable acts of violence.”

As a result of the plea deal, Long will spend the rest of his life in prison, Wallace said. She offered no comment on the case against Long in Fulton County, which involves four other victims.

Though Cherokee officials did not pursue the death penalty for Long, it remains a possibility in the Fulton case. Both the FBI and Cherokee DA’s office investigated whether to designate the shootings as a hate crime, but determined not to add that enhancement to Long’s charges.

Jongwon Lee, a volunteer attorney with the Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate Crime, said that the outcome of Long’s plea deal may be lost in translation for some in the Asian community.

“Plea bargains don’t exist in Asian countries,” Lee said. “I believe the DA needs to explain the process of negotiations to the Asian community or they will not accept the outcomes.”

There was also a cultural disconnect in the public court proceedings that addressed Long’s claims of sex addiction, Lee said, pointing out the importance of honor in Asian cultures.

“Why did the DA humiliate the victims so much?” Lee asked. “This is not a trial of the victims.”

Clement Lin, an Asian American and Atlanta resident, said he felt mixed emotions about Long’s four life sentences.

“In some ways, it feels like a relief, but I don’t fully trust our justice system,” Lin said. “At the end of the day, we know the motivations for these murders and the hatred towards Asian Americans won’t change as a result of this verdict. There’s still so much work to be done.”

UPDATE [1 p.m.]: Attorneys for Robert Aaron Long said it was the 22-year-old’s desire to accept responsibility for his actions from the time of his first interview with police.

“The Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace worked with us to negotiate this case to achieve today’s result bringing finality in Cherokee County,” said Canton attorney Zachary Smith, one-half of Long’s court-appointed defense team, in a statement. “It is our hope that the Fulton County District Attorney follows D.A. Wallace’s example and agrees to a similar resolution in that county.”

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Robert Aaron Long sits in court before pleading guilty.

Credit: Ben Gray

Robert Aaron Long sits in court before pleading guilty.

Credit: Ben Gray

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Robert Aaron Long sits in court before pleading guilty.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Smith said he and co-counsel Daran Burns have worked toward this resolution the past 113 days, calling the negotiated plea a success as it removed the death penalty from the table in Cherokee. Wallace said Tuesday she would have sought death if the case had gone to trial, but she never filed her intent to do so.

Smith made no further comment about the pending Fulton case.

UPDATE [11:30 a.m.]: Cherokee County Judge Ellen McElyea sentenced Robert Aaron Long to serve four lifetimes in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 35 years, in the March 16 shootings that killed four people and injured a fifth at Youngs Asian Massage near Woodstock.

Long’s defense attorney Daran Burns asked the judge to accept the plea deal outlined by Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace, saying the 22-year-old understands “the gravity of his actions.”

ExploreCanton attorney appointed to represent suspect in spa killings

Because of the pending death-penalty case in Fulton, Long has been advised not to make any statements, Burns said.

“His willingness to accept responsibility for what he’s done doesn’t stop here in Cherokee,” he said.

McElyea offered her sympathies to both Long’s family and the victims’ families. “After the sentence is signed and the cameras are turned off, the families will be still be grieving,” she said.

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Judge Ellen McElyea presided over the plea hearing for spa shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long and gave him four life sentences.

Credit: Ben Gray

Judge Ellen McElyea presided over the plea hearing for spa shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long and gave him four life sentences.

Credit: Ben Gray

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Judge Ellen McElyea presided over the plea hearing for spa shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long and gave him four life sentences.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

UPDATE [11:15 a.m.]: Robert Aaron Long has formally pleaded guilty to the March 16 shootings inside Youngs Asian Massage that killed Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Michels, 54, and injured Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz.

Long said in court Tuesday that Michels was his first victim. The 54-year-old was shot as Long exited a bathroom and saw him leaning over a counter.

“I don’t recall thinking much after I pulled the trigger first,” Long said. “My mind felt like it was blank.”

According to Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace, the others were shot as Long made his way from the back of the building to the front. Long told the judge the deadly spree “didn’t feel like more than five minutes.” He didn’t recognize any of the victims, he said.

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Bonnie Michels, wife of spa shooting victim Paul Michels, gives an impact statement.

Credit: Ben Gray

Bonnie Michels, wife of spa shooting victim Paul Michels, gives an impact statement.

Credit: Ben Gray

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Bonnie Michels, wife of spa shooting victim Paul Michels, gives an impact statement.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In an impact statement before the court, Bonnie Michels said her husband was a Detroit native who served in the Army, owned his own business, loved gardening and was an asset to his bowling team. She planned to grow old with him, following wherever he wanted to go, she said. They were married 24 years.

The sole surviving victim, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, said he is thankful to God to be alive, but the aftermath has been hard on his family, including his 10-year-old daughter.

“I used to sing and now I won’t be able to do it anymore,” he said through a translator.

ExploreSpa shooting survivor stood face-to-face with gunman, begged for mercy

The last to speak before Cherokee County Judge Ellen McElyea hands down Long’s sentence, Hernandez-Ortiz said Long did not deserve freedom.

UPDATE [11 a.m.]: When Long arrived at Big Woods Goods gun store in Holly Springs, he said he chose “one of the cheaper” 9 mm handguns and a box of 50 bullets. His account was overdraft when he tried to make the $460 purchase, but he returned with bills after cashing a work check, Long told the judge.

From there, Long said he drove to a liquor store for a fifth of Four Roses bourbon, because he was “scared to kill myself.” He drank in the parking lot of the spa for about an hour, he said, hoping he would “hate myself enough at that point… to end my own life.”

He was sitting in the car when he began thinking about killing the people inside, Long told the judge, adding he had frequented Youngs in the past. He described it as shifting the blame from himself to those inside the spa.

“I wanted to stop the places and basically punish the people that I could…,” Long told the judge. He loaded the 9 mm in his car outside the spa before making his way inside.

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Robert Aaron Long stands before Judge Ellen McElyea in Superior Court of Cherokee County on Tuesday.

Credit: Ben Gray

Robert Aaron Long stands before Judge Ellen McElyea in Superior Court of Cherokee County on Tuesday.

Credit: Ben Gray

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Robert Aaron Long stands before Judge Ellen McElyea in Superior Court of Cherokee County on Tuesday.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

UPDATE [10:45 a.m.]: Long said the decision to kill himself March 16 at Youngs Asian Massage was born of shame. He told the judge he was “embarrassed and ashamed” when his roommate overheard him watching pornography in his room and asked him about it. Long refused to discuss it with him.

“It never felt like I had a lot of control over those urges and it became obsessive to the point it occupied a lot of thought space,” Long told the judge, adding his addiction to porn “hurt a lot of relationships in my life and I still found myself going back to it.”

As he spoke, Long was even-tempered, clear and forthcoming. He did not appear to be emotional. Cherokee County Judge Ellen McElyea pressed him to articulate what he thinks is wrong about pornography.

“It’s taking something I believe to be meant for a monogamous relationship, between a man and a woman, and making sport of it without any relationship efforts in it,” Long said. “And essentially taking sex out of the context I believe to be only correct in a marriage relationship.”

[10:30 a.m.]: Robert Aaron Long stated before a Cherokee County judge his intent to enter a guilty plea, waiving his right to trial in order to avoid a death sentence.

Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said in court Tuesday she intended to seek the death penalty against Long, who was indicted on 23 counts in the Cherokee shootings alone. Long stood before Judge Ellen McElyea in a white collared shirt and gray slacks, shackled at the waist, and admitted guilt.

McElyea is now submitting questions directly to Long, asking him to retrace his steps on March 16. It is the first time he has spoken publicly about his involvement in the spa slayings.

ORIGINAL STORY: Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace is recommending four consecutive life sentences for Long, plus 35 years to serve in confinement in the state’s penal system. Wallace said her office spoke at length with many of the victims’ families, and they are in agreement with the plea and the state’s recommendations.

In court Tuesday, several of the victims’ families wiped tears from their eyes as Wallace detailed the March 16 shootings that killed Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Michels, 54, inside Youngs Asian Massage. A fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was injured.

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At the first location of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in Cherokee County, five people were shot, leaving one injured and four dead. The four victims who died include, from left to right: Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54.

Credit: Family Photos

At the first location of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in Cherokee County, five people were shot, leaving one injured and four dead. The four victims who died include, from left to right: Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54.

Credit: Family Photos

Combined ShapeCaption
At the first location of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, Youngs Asian Massage Parlor in Cherokee County, five people were shot, leaving one injured and four dead. The four victims who died include, from left to right: Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54.

Credit: Family Photos

Credit: Family Photos

Wallace said Long went to the spa with the intention of killing himself after receiving one last service. On the morning of the shootings, he watched pornography for nearly 3 hours, according to a friend who allowed Long to live with him. He then left for the spa, stopping to buy a handgun and a fifth of bourbon along the way, Wallace said.

It was while drinking alcohol in the spa’s parking lot, the district attorney said, that Long changed his plans and decided to kill those inside. After he received service, Wallace said Long came out of a bathroom and began shooting “anyone and everyone he saw.”

Tan, Feng, Yaun, Michels and Hernandez-Ortiz were shot as Long made his way from the back of the building to the front, Wallace said in court.

He then drove to Atlanta to continue the shooting spree at businesses he had frequented, according to Wallace. He is accused of killing three women at Gold Spa on Piedmont Avenue and another at Aromatherapy Spa across the street. All of the Atlanta victims, and two killed in Cherokee, were women of Asian descent.

ExploreSpa shootings: A timeline of events that left 8 dead in metro Atlanta

Following Long’s capture in Crisp County, about 150 miles south of Atlanta, Cherokee police said he blamed his actions on a sexual addiction that clashed with his strict religious upbringing. Investigators say he had been a patron at least two of the spas.

ExploreWhat we know about the spa shooting victims

The FBI got involved in the investigation to determine whether the acts were hate crimes. Law enforcement officials interviewed three people of Asian descent that had known Long many years, Wallace said. All three indicated they had never known Long to be racist.

Wallace said Cherokee and FBI investigators would not have been able to prove Long targeted victims by race, had the case gone to trial. But prosecutors would have argued that he targeted women, a group included under Georgia’s hate crimes law that went into effect in June.

A hearing is ongoing Tuesday, and a formal plea is imminent. Long’s sentence will be decided by a judge.

News of the plea deal first surfaced last Wednesday, when Willis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she had been informed the Cherokee case had been resolved. In the coming days, Long will be transferred to a Fulton jail. He’s scheduled to be arraigned in Atlanta on Aug. 23. Willis has said she believes hate crime charges are warranted.

— Staff writers Shaddi Abusaid, Paradise Afshar and Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.