Plea deal expected Tuesday in Cherokee spa killings

In this handout provided by the Crisp County Sheriff's Office, Robert Aaron Long is pictured in a jail booking photo on March 16, 2021, in Cordele, Georgia. Long, 21, was arrested as the suspect in a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas. (Crisp County Sheriff's Office/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In this handout provided by the Crisp County Sheriff's Office, Robert Aaron Long is pictured in a jail booking photo on March 16, 2021, in Cordele, Georgia. Long, 21, was arrested as the suspect in a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas. (Crisp County Sheriff's Office/Getty Images/TNS)

Robert Aaron Long, accused of fatally shooting eight people at three metro Atlanta spas, is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to murdering four of the victims.

Long is set for arraignment at 9 a.m. in Cherokee County, where he is accused of killing Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54, at Youngs Asian Massage near Woodstock on March 16.

He also shot a fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, just missing his heart, investigators said.

Cherokee District Attorney Shannon Wallace is “ethically prohibited from discussing any type of plea negotiation,” her spokesperson said in a statement.

But Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who charged Long with four additional counts of murder in a 19-count indictment, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she has been informed by a lawyer involved with the Cherokee case that it will be resolved Tuesday.

“In my world that means they’ve reached a deal,” said Willis, who announced in May that she would seek the death penalty for Long.

Wallace has not said whether she would seek a death sentence, an option that would factor into any potential plea deal, said Robert James, the former DeKalb County district attorney.

Typically, victims’ families or survivors like Hernandez-Ortiz would be consulted by prosecutors mulling a plea offering, James said.

“You better, because the last thing you want is a victim’s family coming out opposed to a deal,” he said. “Ultimately it’s a prosecutor’s decision, but you’d like to have everyone on the same page.”

Doug Rohan, who represents Hernandez-Ortiz, said his client has been invited to attend Tuesday’s hearing but has not been informed of any imminent deals.

James said he assumes, considering the charges against Long, that any deal would include a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

When presented with the alternatives, family members and loved ones generally prefer that outcome to a lengthy trial, he said.

And while Long, according to police, confessed to the killings, a death sentence is no sure bet, James said.

In the last seven years only one death sentence has been handed down in Georgia. A Gwinnett County jury in 2019 sentenced Tiffany Moss to die by lethal injection for starving her 10-year-old stepdaughter to death, then trying to burn the child’s corpse inside a trash can. In that case, Moss served as her own lawyer but put up no defense.

James noted Long’s mental health could emerge as a powerful mitigating circumstance in a death case, as Long had no prior criminal record.

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

After the Woodstock area shootings, Long drove to Atlanta, where police say he shot and killed three women at Gold Spa on Piedmont Avenue and another woman at Aromatherapy Spa across the street. All of the Atlanta victims and two of those killed in Cherokee were women of Asian descent.

Willis said she believes hate crime charges are also warranted. Georgia’s hate crimes law went into effect in June and provides sentencing guidelines for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.

Wallace has not addressed the possibility of hate crimes in the Long case.

“Today we have taken another step forward in seeking justice for the victims of this crime and for their family members,” she said in a statement following the May indictments.

Willis, fearing a lengthy delay in the Fulton County case if Long were to be transferred to a state prison following a plea deal, filed a motion last week to have the defendant transported to Fulton jail. Fulton Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville granted her request, and Long is set to be arraigned in Atlanta on August 23.