ATLANTA—A Georgia man who professed a passion for guns and God was in custody on Tuesday night after a string of shootings that police said appeared to target Asian women at massage parlors and left eight people dead.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, was caught on video at the crime scenes and later nabbed on a highway two hours south of Atlanta following a police chase, authorities said.
Police stressed that it was too early to announce a motive—but at least four of those killed were of Korean descent, and the horrific attacks come amid a wave of targeted violence against the Asian-American community.
A trickle of details about the suspect, who went by his middle name, offered few clues.
“Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life,” read the tagline on an Instagram account that appeared to belong to Long.
A student who graduated from Sequoyah High with Long in 2017 who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Daily Beast, “He was very innocent seeming and wouldn’t even cuss. He was sorta nerdy and didn’t seem violent from what I remember. He was a hunter and his father was a youth minister or pastor. He was big into religion.”
The rampage began at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth in Cherokee County, where two people were killed, one other person succumbed to their injuries en route to a nearby hospital, and one died while in treatment, according to the sheriff’s office. The victims were two Asian women, a white woman, and a white man, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A Hispanic man was also injured in the shooting and was rushed to a hospital for medical treatment, a spokesman for the sheriff said.
About an hour later and 30 miles away, two spas on the same Atlanta street—Gold Spa and one in Aroma Therapy Spa—were targeted by gunfire, and four Asian women were killed.
Officers had just arrived at one of the spas to find the victims when they were summoned to the second.
“While at [the first location] we received another call across the street of shots fired, and responded to find another individual shot at that location,” Atlanta Police Chief Rodney N. Bryant told reporters.
While no details about the Acworth victims were given, Bryant said that “it appears that all the [Atlanta] victims are female” and “it appears that they may be Asian.”
Two men who live just across from Gold Massage Spa who refused to give their names said their neighbors started asking them about the incident around 6:15 p.m. They said the area was very diverse, but that the spa was known to be an Asian-owned business.
“This is the worst shooting since ‘99 I think,” one of the men told The Daily Beast. “There was a shooting then where a guy went through his office and killed a bunch of people and he killed his family. That was 12 people I think, so this is the worst one since I’ve been here.”
Bryant has declined to say whether police believe the shootings in Georgia Tuesday amounted to a hate crime, saying, “We can’t make that determination just yet.”
Cherokee County Sheriff ’s Capt. Jay Baker told reporters: “Nothing is going to be ruled out. Wherever the investigation leads us, that’s where we are going to go.” Atlanta police said video surveillance of Long’s car at all three massage parlors captured Tuesday night made it “extremely likely” he was the main suspect in all three shootings.
Baker said that Long was arrested by Crisp County Sheriff’s officers who performed a PIT maneuver, or a pursuit intervention technique, in which police force another car to plow sideways and stop.
Long’s family did not respond to calls for comment. His youth pastor at the Crabapple First Baptist Church confirmed he was the suspect and said elders would be releasing a statement.
A 2018 video on the Crabapple Facebook page features Long discussing his Christian journey toward baptism.
“As many of you may remember, when I was 8 years old I thought I was becoming a Christian, and got baptized during that time. And I remember a lot of the reason for that is a lot of my friends in my Sunday school class were doing that,” Long says in the clip.
“And after that time, there wasn’t any fruit from the root that is our salvation.”
He goes on to say that when he was in seventh grade he attended a youth group and a speaker was discussing the biblical story of the prodigal son.
“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. 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 FBI joined the investigation late Tuesday, and President Biden was also briefed on the massacres. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in South Korea, mentioned the killings before a meeting with officials said.
“We are horrified by this violence which has no place in America or anywhere,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
President Joe Biden recently condemned the surge in crimes of hate, which have included a brazen, deadly assault on an 84-year-old from Thailand who was killed on a morning stroll in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said it was “horrified” by news of the shooting “at a time when we’re already seeing a spike in anti-Asian violence.”
The legal advocacy nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Atlanta released a statement saying the group was “shaken” by the shootings. “Now is the time to hold the victims and their families in our hearts and with light.”
— Jose Pagliery and Will Bredderman contributed reporting