Before killing spree, Georgia let an industry that exploits Asian women flourish

Tuesday's deadly attacks targeted an industry that Georgia governments have been trying to push out for decades. While the exact services offered at the spas that were attacked are not clear, last week the eyes of the world fell on an often-ignored segment of Atlanta’s “adult entertainment” industry. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Tuesday's deadly attacks targeted an industry that Georgia governments have been trying to push out for decades. While the exact services offered at the spas that were attacked are not clear, last week the eyes of the world fell on an often-ignored segment of Atlanta’s “adult entertainment” industry. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Local governments have tried to crack down, but an invisible population remains vulnerable

Six large red arrows point to the entrance of Aromatherapy Spa on Atlanta’s Piedmont Road, beacons to those seeking untold pleasures within.

Robert Aaron Long claimed he found the invitation irresistible. The 21-year-old from Woodstock frequented Aromatherapy, as well as the Gold Spa directly across the street, establishments open around the clock and whose advertisements feature women — particularly Asian women — in suggestive poses.

On Tuesday, authorities say, Long purchased a 9 mm handgun and headed to three spas — one in south Cherokee County and the two in Atlanta — where he shot eight people to death and seriously wounded one other. His motives remain the subject of investigation, but he told police he was trying to purge the sources of temptations while battling sex addiction.

Of the eight people slain, six were women of Asian descent, and at a time of increased violence against Asian Americans, many consider the shooting spree a hate crime.

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The attacks were also mounted against an industry that Georgia governments have been trying to push out for decades. While the exact services offered at the spas that were attacked are not clear, last week the eyes of the world fell on this often-ignored segment of Atlanta’s “adult entertainment” industry. Despite more than a decade of trying, Georgia has failed to rein in certain illicit massage businesses that hypersexualize and commodify women.

Laws and local ordinances aimed to crack down on prostitution and potential human trafficking have only resulted in sporadic police busts and occasional losses of state-issued massage therapy licenses. Meanwhile, behind the darkened windows of undistinguished commercial buildings, an invisible population remains vulnerable to the type of deadly, misogynistic violence seen Tuesday.

Why we are reporting this story

Since eight people, including six Asian women, were killed last week at metro Atlanta spas, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom been reporting deeply on the tragedy. Since the shootings, we’ve been:

• Tracking down friends, family and others who can speak for the victims

• Digging into the past of the suspect

• Reconstructing how and why the suspect and the victims met on one of the most violent days in Atlanta in recent history

• Talking to Asian-Americans about recent race-based violence

In today’s reporting, we shine a light on a problem among some massage businesses in Georgia. While exact services offered at the spas that were attacked were not clear, some spa businesses in metro Atlanta have trafficked and victimized women.

The newspaper understands the sensitivity of reporting this story as our community continues to grapple with the weight of what happened. However, there are urgent questions to consider:

Has our community’s failure to crack down on illicit business exposed women to victimization? Our reporting suggests that may be the case. Organizations who advocate on behalf of victims of sex trafficking argue that women who work in this segment of the sex industry are victimized and communities are largely blind to it. Additionally, these women are especially vulnerable to violence. This is important context to understand as we seek solutions to protect vulnerable women.

Will prosecutors charge the suspect with hate crimes? As previously reported in the AJC, prosecutors must decide if race or gender was a primary motivation behind the violence. Why the suspect might have targeted these victims and businesses is critical to that determination. Today’s reporting provides more insight into what prosecutors will have to consider.

The AJC will continue providing timely and in-depth coverage on these deaths and the aftermath. We invite you to share your views. Email Deputy Managing Editor Leroy.Chapman@ajc.com with your thoughts.

“There were Asian women shot and murdered and enslaved,” Woojin Kang, a 27-year-old graduate student at Emory University, said Thursday as he stood on the sidewalk in front of Gold Spa, displaying a poster to passing cars that said, “Asian women have been slayed.”

“They were terrorized,” Kang said. “They were people who look like me in my community who were murdered.”

What roles the victims played at the spas is not clear. At least one woman who died at Young’s Asian Massage, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, was on the premises as a customer. Paul Andre Michels, 54, who was white, also was killed in the Acworth shooting, along with Daoyou Feng, 44, and Xiaojie Tan, 49.

Tan, who held a state massage therapy license, is listed as the owner of that spa, as well as at least one other in Kennesaw.

Greg Hynson, a customer of the Cherokee location, said he was close friends with Tan and never saw or heard any evidence of illegal activity. “She ran a reputable business,” he said.

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The Atlanta victims, all of Korean descent, were identified Friday as Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51. According to a report in The Korea Daily, a Korean language daily published in the U.S., the three older women essentially acted as site managers, opening the door for customers or serving meals to workers.

Court records indicate a 51-year-old by the name of Hyun Jung Grant was arrested in Gwinnett County in 2009 on charges of pimping, prostitution, keeping a place of prostitution and giving a massage in a place used for lewdness. In a deal with prosecutors, the defendant pleaded no contest to the prostitution charge and the other charges were dropped, according to court records. The records do not show the penalty for the prostitution charge.

Such charges reflect one way local governments have tried to clamp down on massage parlors, whose wink-wink advertisements often convey messages that are clear to anyone but the naïve.

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Atlanta attorney Alan Begner, known for defending nude dance clubs against city and county enforcement actions, has also represented more than 40 massage parlors in similar cases. Begner cautioned against making broad assumptions.

“I don’t think that you can tell whether a spa is allowing sexual release for its customers by what you think the industry is like. Certainly some do, but many don’t,” Begner said.

“These places are all over the place,” he said. “They’re in rural areas right off the interstates, there are lots of them in Clayton County on Tara Boulevard and in every metro Atlanta county. They often don’t draw attention because there’s nothing to see looking in, there’s no people hanging out in the parking lot and so forth.”

Graphic accounts

The two Atlanta businesses targeted in Tuesday’s rampage had both held themselves out to the public with advertisements objectifying women in sexual stereotypes. Websites for both Gold Spa and Aromatherapy feature women wearing tight-fitting clothing and striking seductive poses.

The Aromatherapy website has graphics added to make the women literally sparkle. One woman wears a lacey bra.

Efforts to reach all three businesses were unsuccessful. One had its phone disconnected, one didn’t have voice mail and the other didn’t respond to messages.

ExploreFull coverage of the Atlanta spa shootings
National media outlets camped out in front of the Gold Spa, seen here, and Aromatherapy Spa on Wednesday morning, after Atlanta police found four women shot to death at the two businesses Tuesday. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
National media outlets camped out in front of the Gold Spa, seen here, and Aromatherapy Spa on Wednesday morning, after Atlanta police found four women shot to death at the two businesses Tuesday. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

There is one way to get a sense of what may be happening within the walls of massage businesses. A website called RubMaps allows self-styled connoisseurs of purchasing sex — known as “mongers” — to write detailed reviews of their experiences at massage parlors and to rate them on a five-star scale, while describing women’s ethnicities, ages and breast sizes.

All three businesses targeted Tuesday have dozens of reviews on RubMaps, dating back years, where purported customers describe paying for sexual experiences with staff members. In many cases, the reviews described manual stimulation. But there are several recent reviews for Aromatherapy and Gold Spa claiming that full-on sex occurred.

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“We jumped right into it after a fleeting massage,” one four-star review says, describing an encounter earlier this month at Aromatherapy with a Korean woman. The post says the customer paid $80 for the massage, plus a $100 tip.

Another RubMaps user claimed to have had sex with a Latina woman working at Gold Spa in February. The price was $60 to the house, with a $200 tip, the post says. “The massage was very blah, but everything else was just out of this world,” the four-star review says.

All told, there are 108 RubMaps reviews for Gold Spa, 99 for Aromatherapy Spa and 39 for Young’s Asian Massage.

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Last week, organizations that combat sex trafficking condemned both the killings and the industry in which they took place.

“If allegations prove to be true that the shooter chose his targets because of their connections to illicit massage businesses,” Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation said in a written statement, “then the tragedy of this hateful act is even deeper than it appeared at its horrific face value. Violent crime is far more likely when commercial sex is involved — including brothels fronted as spas and massage businesses — and women of color are disproportionately the targets and victims of that violence.”

A 2018 report by the nonprofit Polaris Project called “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses” said most of women trafficked into the industry come from China, with the next-highest group from South Korea. They get lured in their home countries by misleading ads promising thousands of dollars a month to work in an American massage business, not disclosing that they’ll be living inside the parlor or a group home controlled by their employer.

A memorial set up in front of Young's Asian Massage in Cherokee County honors the lives of Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng, who were shot and killed there, and others killed in Atlanta on Tuesday. Six of the eight victims were Asian women. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
A memorial set up in front of Young's Asian Massage in Cherokee County honors the lives of Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng, who were shot and killed there, and others killed in Atlanta on Tuesday. Six of the eight victims were Asian women. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

In some cases, the report says, women arrive on tourist visas and hire brokers to handle their visa process, plane tickets and other fees. The process may involve the women handing over their passports and being left tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which makes them vulnerable to being recruited into the sex trade.

“If a trafficker is able to convince a victim that he or she has done her an extreme favor by employing her — because she has limited education, does not speak the language, is told she is worthless, could not find work elsewhere, etc. — then anything the trafficker asks of the victim should be done because she owes the trafficker so much,” Polaris reported.

Crackdown attempts

Though Georgia has a regulatory board that oversees the massage industry, it’s shown little proclivity for pressing cases against businesses that transgress into sexual territory. A 2018 examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that 25 of the 26 sexual misconduct complaints lodged with the state over the previous three years had resulted in zero public disciplinary action.

Just last year, the Georgia Board of Massage Therapy merely suspended a business owner’s massage therapy license for six months and fined him $500 following an undercover operation by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office at ATR Massage. One of the workers there, according to a board order, touched an officer’s genitals during a massage, made a hand gesture for masturbation and asked for a tip.

“Violent crime is far more likely when commercial sex is involved — including brothels fronted as spas and massage businesses — and women of color are disproportionately the targets and victims of that violence."

- Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation

Neither the Massage Therapy board’s chairman or vice-chair returned messages from the AJC. The board’s executive director referred questions to a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, who said most regulation of massage parlors happens at the city and county level.

The regulatory board “issues licenses to qualified massage therapists and disciplines licensed therapists if they do not comply with applicable rules and regulations,” a written statement from the Secretary of State’s office said. “The Board does not license facilities or have any authority to shut down businesses offering illicit activities.”

Over the years, several Georgia cities have tried various tactics to regulate massage parlors where illicit sexual activity is believed to occur. They can hit them with citations for fire safety or sanitation violations, or improper wiring of whirlpools or saunas, among other things. They can require massage therapists to cover their arms and knees, use tables and not beds, and provide customers’ names to the government upon demand.

Atlanta police found four people shot to death Tuesday at Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, both located in the 1900 block of Piedmont Road in Atlanta. Robert Aaron Long, 21, was apprehended in South Georgia on Tuesday night and has been charged in the killings. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Atlanta police found four people shot to death Tuesday at Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, both located in the 1900 block of Piedmont Road in Atlanta. Robert Aaron Long, 21, was apprehended in South Georgia on Tuesday night and has been charged in the killings. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

In Macon, investigators quickly learned that many of the women who worked in the establishments were Asian, few spoke English, and most had moved through a circuit of massage parlors that ran from Los Angeles to Denver to Atlanta to other Southeastern cities. Many had accumulated criminal charges related to prostitution along the way, said Rebecca Grist, the Macon-Bibb County solicitor who prosecuted numerous cases involving massage parlors.

It was “very obviously human trafficking,” Grist told the AJC. “They would shuttle the workers around in the middle of the night.”

Once local authorities began targeting the businesses, some tried to regroup in different industries. Soft Hands Spa, Grist said, adopted a new name suggesting it had become a tanning salon — but when police officers raided it, none of the tanning beds were even plugged in.

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“Madams” operated most of the spas, and even though they may have been listed as owners, they reported to other, unknown figures, Grist said.

“How you cut the head off that Hydra, I do not know,” she said. “We could never get the real head.”

The enforcement effort caused many spas in the Macon area to shut down, although they may have simply moved to less visible locations.

“They were entrenched decades before we realized what was going on,” Grist said. “Either they’re really not there, or we forced them underground.”

A woman places flowers near a makeshift memorial outside the Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
A woman places flowers near a makeshift memorial outside the Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Former Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who led efforts to crack down on illicit massage parlors, said he found the use of zoning and regulatory powers a more effective way of running them off than criminal investigations, which often resulted only in misdemeanor charges against an individual worker. Their employers would then claim not to have been aware of what the worker was doing.

To prove an entire operation is a brothel, Porter said, undercover officers might have to complete sex acts with multiple people to make a case.

“If a cop goes in and goes all the way to the happy ending and then comes back and testifies, where ‘I went and had the whole deal,’ juries tend to dislike that,” Porter said.

Crime scenes

The Atlanta spas targeted in Tuesday’s attacks were closed, at least temporarily, late in the week. At both the Aromatherapy and Gold spas, people had left bouquets of roses, daisies and daffodils at the front doors. Hand-lettered signs listed the names of the dead. “In solidarity,” one said. “Rest in peace, beautiful angels,” read another.

The buildings that house both spas appear to contain residences. Outside a side door to the basement of the Aromatherapy, a small herb garden grows. A stainless steel bowl of cat food sat outside a rear door to the Gold Spa, beside three discarded lighters.

On Thursday, a few dozen activists rallied outside the businesses, calling for an end to racist violence against Asian Americans. As they gathered in the Gold Spa’s parking lot, passing motorists waved in support, some shooting cell phone video of the scene.

Directly across Piedmont Road, another massage parlor, the St. Jame Spa, was open for business. Next door is a strip bar, Club Platinum. Cars filled the parking lot at dusk, customers beckoned by what lies within.

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