Nation stricken by metro Atlanta massacre

Authorities investigate spa shootings as family members, community grieve
Jami Webb, the daughter of Xiaojie Tan, the owner of Young's Asian Massage who was killed in Tuesday's shootings, with her fiancé, Kevin Chen, outside the spa in Acworth, Ga., March 19, 2021. Tan died two days ahead of her 50th birthday. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Jami Webb, the daughter of Xiaojie Tan, the owner of Young's Asian Massage who was killed in Tuesday's shootings, with her fiancé, Kevin Chen, outside the spa in Acworth, Ga., March 19, 2021. Tan died two days ahead of her 50th birthday. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

A nation still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic fixed its weary gaze on metro Atlanta after a deadly shooting rampage here claimed eight lives, refocused attention on attacks against Asian Americans and renewed calls for bolstering hate crime and gun control laws.

The massacre has galvanized activists who vow to redouble efforts against racism and misogyny and has led police across the region to step up patrols around Asian-owned businesses. The alleged gunman is white. Six of the eight victims were Asian women.

Meanwhile, the country is learning more about the innocent people killed at three Atlanta-area spas, hard-working Georgians who leave behind spouses, children and grandchildren. Yong Ae Yue, 63, was known for her generosity and for doting over her dog, Iyong, a Shih Tzu mix with a diamond-studded pink collar.

Yong Ae Yue with her Shih Tzu mix, Lyong. (credit: Family photo)

Credit: Family photo

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Credit: Family photo

Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, provided for her two children by working full time at Waffle House. Hyun Jung Grant, 51, was a single mother who taught her son to moonwalk while she vacuumed.

The suspect’s church is condemning his actions and is seeking to expel him while his former halfway house roommate and 911 call recordings are shedding more light on his background.

During his Friday visit with Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden called for new criminal penalties to protect Asian Americans and others targeted by a “rise of hate crimes exacerbated during the pandemic.” Speaking at Emory University, Biden appeared to reference former President Donald Trump’s tendency to describe the coronavirus with racist slurs.

“They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated, harassed,” Biden said of Asian Americans. “We’re learning again what we’ve always known. Words have consequences. It’s the coronavirus. Full stop.”

The first vice president of Asian descent, Harris declared “a harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us.”

“Racism is real in America, and it has always been,” said Harris, whose mother was born in India. “Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too.”

‘Religious to the point of mania’

The suspect’s parents helped police catch him. A man called 911 Tuesday after the first shootings at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth and said a man seen in surveillance footage could be his son and that he had “a tracker on his phone,” according to emergency call recordings. Another anonymous caller, the recordings show, told a 911 dispatcher that the suspect had been kicked out of his parents’ house.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, has been charged with aggravated assault in addition to eight counts of murder; one shooting victim is recovering. Long, once an avid churchgoer who has been baptized twice, told police he was battling a sex addiction, had previously visited the Atlanta spas and had attacked them to eliminate his temptations. He was apprehended about 150 miles south of Atlanta on his way to Florida, where he told police he intended to attack the porn industry.

Long once checked himself into a rehab clinic for sexual addiction and was so intent on avoiding pornography that he blocked websites from his computer and only used a flip phone as he worried about falling “out of God’s grace,” The New York Times reported. Those details come from the newspaper’s interview with Tyler Bayless, who said he lived with Long in a halfway house near Atlanta for about five months beginning in August of 2019.

Bayless wrote about the shootings on Facebook Wednesday, saying they were “the product of an emotionally disturbed young man who was religious to the point of mania and who felt deep shame about why he frequented these places.”

“I wonder how this would have gone [if] he had been in an environment where he wasn’t repeatedly told how sinful he was for the things that drove him,” wrote Bayless, who did not respond to requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for comment.

In January 2019, Long’s parents filed a missing person’s report with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. Aaron had gone to his girlfriend’s home in Chattanooga and was expected home by 10 p.m., police records show. But at 12:30 a.m. the following morning, Long texted them saying he was not coming home because he “wanted a fresh start.”

Long’s church condemns the shootings

Long joined a pair of Christian groups — First Priority and Fellowship of Christian Athletes — while at Sequoyah High School in Canton, school yearbooks show. He worshipped at Crabapple First Baptist Church in North Fulton County. In a 2018 video posted on the church’s Facebook page, Long discussed how the biblical parable of the prodigal son led him to rededicate his life to Jesus Christ.

“The son goes off and squanders all that he has and lives completely for himself and then, when he finds he’s wanting to eat pig food, he realized there’s something wrong and he goes back to his father and his father runs back to him and embraces him,” he says on the video. “And by the grace of God I was able to draw the connection there and realize this is a story between what happened with me and God. I ran away living completely for myself, and he still wants me, and so that’s when I was saved.”

The church released a statement Friday, saying it was acting to remove Long from its membership “since we can no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.”

“We want to be clear that this extreme and wicked act is nothing less than rebellion against our Holy God and His Word,” the statement says. “Aaron’s actions are antithetical to everything that we believe and teach as a church. In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the actions of Aaron Long as well as his stated reasons for carrying out this wicked plan. The shootings were a total repudiation of our faith and practice, and such actions are completely unacceptable and contrary to the gospel.”

Purity culture

The “purity culture” embedded in the youth programs of conservative churches creates a cognitive dissonance for teens, said Ryan Clark, a Decatur minister who explores topics of religion and sexuality in the podcast “Touch.”

“Their hormones are raging, but they want to please the Lord,” he said. “In some kids’ minds it causes an existential crisis. Either I’m being controlled by the devil or I have some sort of demon, because all the hard work I’m doing isn’t working.”

The emphasis on chastity in the evangelical churches grew in the 1980s and 1990s as a reaction to societal changes pastors saw as challenging to their moral authority, including the availability of birth control, legalization of abortion and feminism, Clark said. In the 1990s and 2000s, massive Christian rock festivals drew thousands of young people to hear a message stressing the importance of sexual purity.

This stress of sublimating sexual urges is complemented in many conservative churches with teachings that both place women on a pedestal and make them subservient to men, he said. The stresses caused by this mixture of sex and religion can have toxic results, he said.

Clark added that “oftentimes in evangelical churches if all the Christian stuff you do doesn’t cure you of your sexual desire, you will label yourself — sometimes with help of a minister — as a sexual addict.”

Most evangelical protestant churches teach that salvation is permanent, so Long’s decision to be rebaptized is unusual. However, Clark said such attempts by teens to “rededicate their lives to the Lord” can be driven by sexual impulses or experiences and “wanting to wipe the shame of that out.”

‘None of those people deserved what happened to them’

Yong Ae Yue loved kids and grandkids, soap operas, reading, feeding hungry people and doting over a Shih Tzu named Iyong. Her two sons remembered her Friday in front of her home in Duluth where they had gathered to make arrangements and grieve since she was killed Tuesday.

Yue worked at one of the Piedmont Road spas. She gave people flowers, gifts, money to cover bills. It didn’t much matter what you needed, said Yue’s two sons. She did what she could, even if it was just care. Born in Korea, Yue moved to Georgia in the 1980s with her husband, a U.S. Army soldier she’d met back home.

”My mother didn’t do anything wrong,” said Robert Peterson, 38, who was born at Fort Benning. “And she deserves the recognition that she is a human, she’s a community person like everyone else. None of those people deserved what happened to them.”

Family photo

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On Friday, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office identified Yue and three other women killed at two Atlanta spas on Piedmont Road: Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69 and Soon Chung Park, 74. The victims at an Acworth spa have been identified as Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was in stable condition Wednesday.

Yaun and her husband went to the Cherokee spa Tuesday for their first date night since welcoming a baby girl about eight months ago. Her husband survived as the gunman left, headed to kill in Atlanta.

”Boy, I’m going to miss her,” Yaun’s grandfather James Yaun Sr. said, standing in his Bartow County doorway, not far from her home. “She was about the only company I had over here.”

He was proud of her, how she worked so hard to provide for her two children. She worked full time at Waffle House and for several years also supervised a roofing crew.

Kim liked line dancing and had been married more than 50 years, her family told The Times. She immigrated from Korea so her family would have better lives. At 74, Park was the oldest victim. She had lived in New York before before moving to Atlanta.

Grant, who lived in Duluth, was a single mother to two young men who say they had no other family in America. She worked at one of the Piedmont Road spas. Randy Park, 23, her eldest, told The Associated Press his mom taught him to moonwalk while vacuuming and liked to sing loud in the car with them.

”She was one of my best friends and the strongest influence on who we are today,” Park wrote on a GoFundMe page he set up to cover arrangements for his mom and help him and his brother get by.

The brothers had blown past their $20,000 goal with more than $2.3 million as of midday Saturday.

”Thank you everyone so much,” Park wrote after the fundraiser went viral. “This doesn’t represent even a fragment of how I feel. My mother can rest easy knowing I have the support of the world with me.”

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Tamar Hallerman and Shelia Poole contributed to this report.