Emotional spa shooting victims, families speak out at sentencing hearing

Not a day goes by that Marcus Lyon doesn’t think about the shootings that left eight people dead and rattled metro Atlanta’s Asian American community.

The 31-year-old had stopped by Youngs Asian Massage near Acworth the afternoon of March 16 to unwind and decompress. His massage had just started when gunfire erupted inside the spa.

“I probably wasn’t even in there for more than two minutes,” Lyon said Tuesday. “That’s when I started hearing the gunshots.”

His masseuse, Daoyou Feng, opened the door to see what was happening. That’s when the 44-year-old woman was shot to death during a rampage that began in Cherokee County and continued at two other spas in northeast Atlanta.

Robert Aaron Long pleaded guilty to the Cherokee killings Tuesday morning and was handed four consecutive life sentences, plus 35 years, without the possibility of parole.

Lyon looked on during the hearing, along with friends and family members of the other victims who had gathered for Long’s plea deal.

Several wiped tears from their eyes as Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace went over the details of the mass shooting. Others sat forward, listening intently with their hands clasped in front of them.

The plea agreement spares Long a death sentence in Cherokee County, though that possibility remains in Fulton, where District Attorney Fani Willis said she will seek the death penalty for the 22-year-old. Tuesday’s deal with Cherokee prosecutors ensures Long will spend the rest of his life in prison while sparing his victims’ families a lengthy and gut-wrenching trial, Wallace said.

The other three people killed at the Cherokee County spa along Ga. 92 were Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, the shop’s 49-year-old owner; Delaina Yaun Gonzalez, 33; and Paul Michels, 54. A fifth person, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was injured in the shooting and still has a round lodged inside his body.

Speaking through an interpreter, the soft-spoken Guatemala native apologized for his raspy voice after taking the witness stand Tuesday morning. Prior to the shooting, Hernandez-Ortiz loved to sing, he said, but his voice was damaged by the bullet that entered his face and lodged in his esophagus.

“I never thought something like this would happen in my life,” said Hernandez-Ortiz, who has a 10-year-old daughter. “I used to sing and now I won’t be able to anymore.”

The 30-year-old appears to be doing better after months of recovery. He said he thanks God that he survived, but feels for the families of those who weren’t as fortunate.

“We are all still suffering,” Hernandez-Ortiz told the courtroom, adding that Long “doesn’t deserve freedom.”

“This man, why didn’t he think before killing so many people?”

Lyon recalled going into “survival mode” when the shooting began that afternoon, ducking behind the massage table to get out of harm’s way.

“I thought I was going to die, but I had to think of something fast,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution outside the courtroom.

Had Feng not opened that door, Lyon feels confident he too would have been killed. It’s a thought that often keeps him awake at night as he wonders what, if anything, he could have done differently.

Lyon had a 9 mm handgun in his car that afternoon, which he retrieved after Long left the spa and police were on their way. Had he brought it inside with him initially, he believes he could have saved several lives.

“I wish I would have brought my gun,” he said. “Because (Long) wouldn’t be standing in there right now.”

In an impact statement during the hearing, Bonnie Michels said her husband Paul was a Detroit native who served in the U.S. 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 for 24 years.

“There was something magical about him,” the widow said through tears. “I was drawn to him like a moth to a light.”

Michels described her husband as her rock, telling the court she misses his smile and the laughs they shared together over the years.

“A part of me died with him that day,” Bonnie Michels said, her voice cracking. “It was so unfair to Paul to have his life cut short like this.”

Following the shooting at Youngs, Long got on I-75 South and drove to two more spas he had frequented in northwest Atlanta, killing three more women at Gold Spa on Piedmont Road and a fourth at Aromatherapy Spa across the street, authorities said.

Those victims were Yong Ae Yue, 63; Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51.

Lyon, who owns a transportation business, got up and left the hearing early Tuesday as Long began to tell the judge that his sexual addiction was what drove him to kill the victims, six of whom were women of Asian descent. He said he never bought the excuse that Long targeted his victims as a way of eliminating sexual temptation.

“I watch porn, but I’m not about to kill nobody,” Lyon said. “Even if you have a sexual addiction, you don’t have to kill people.”

Lyon said he and the victims’ families had been contacted ahead of time about the plea deal, and said they were supportive if it meant Long would remain behind bars for the rest of his life.

Wallace said her office initially planned to seek the death penalty, but agreed to a punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole after speaking with the family members of the Cherokee County victims. She also said sheriff’s office investigators and members of the FBI looked into the possibility that Long’s shooting spree was motivated by anti-Asian bias, but said they found no evidence to suggest that’s what motivated the shootings.

State Sen. Michelle Au, Georgia’s first senator of East Asian descent, said she hoped Tuesday’s sentence would bring some closure to the victims’ families.

“On what may be an incredibly difficult day for those affected by the March 16th shootings, I am holding the families and our communities in my thoughts, and hope today’s events bring some measure of peace.” Au said in a statement. ”What justice looks like in the long term, however, results from not any one decision, but from continued attention, work and commitment to addressing violence and discrimination.”

Wallace said the families she spoke with opposed the death penalty in Long’s case, opting instead to see him spend the rest of his life in prison “faced with the memories of his own monstrosity.”

“We’re hopeful that the sentence imposed today will bring some peace and healing to all of those impacted by this tragedy,” the district attorney said.

Cherokee victims:

Xiaojie “Emily” Tan was the owner of Youngs Asian Massage. The Kennesaw woman immigrated to the U.S. from China and raised her daughter, Jamie, who had recently graduated from the University of Georgia. Tan was killed just three days shy of her 50th birthday.

Daoyou Feng, 44, was born in rural China, prosecutors said. She moved to the U.S. to pursue the American Dream, but one day planned to return and start her own business. She leaves behind an 82-year-old mother, a brother and a sister,

Delaina Yaun Gonzalez was a 33-year-old mother of two enjoying a rare spa day with her husband when she was gunned down.. “She had a beautiful new baby girl and a young son,” Wallace said Tuesday, adding that Yaun had also recently gotten married.

Paul Michels, 54, was a handyman who loved ones said could build or fix anything. The U.S. Army veteran worked hard every day, but loved spending time with his wife, Bonnie, whenever he could. He lived in Tucker, but was friends with Tan and regularly worked odd jobs at her home and her business, authorities said.

Fulton victims:

Yong Ae Yue, 63, adored her two sons and loved cooking for people anytime she got the chance. Rarely spotted without a smile on her face, the Norcross woman liked to visit Korean karaoke bars, where she joyously belted out songs by Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and other favorites.

Soon Chung Park, 74, loved dancing, especially the tango and the cha-cha. She’d raised five kids on her own after she was widowed, and she’d worked all her life — mostly as a cook, though she once owned a jewelry store. She planned to move north to be closer to her grandchildren, but her life was cut short before she got that chance.

Suncha Kim was 69. A mother of two and grandmother of three, she was married to a loving husband who she planned to grow old with, her granddaughter said.

Hyun Jung Grant, 51, worked hard to provide for her two sons. She lived in the Duluth area and loved disco and club music, regularly strutting or moonwalking as she did her household chores, her oldest son, Randy Park, said. In the car, she would jam with her sons to tunes blasting over the stereo.