A man accused of killing eight people, mostly women of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area massage businesses pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday in four of the killings and was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Robert Aaron Long, 22, still faces the death penalty in the other deaths, which are being prosecuted in another county. The string of shootings in three businesses in March ignited outrage and fueled fear among Asian Americans, who already faced increased hostility linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Many were particularly upset when authorities suggested Long’s crimes weren’t racially motivated but were born of a sex addiction, which isn’t recognized as an official disorder.
Cherokee County prosecutors had planned to seek the death penalty but decided a plea deal would bring swift justice and avoid any lengthy appeals. That’s what the victims and their families who they were able to contact wanted, District Attorney Shannon Wallace said.
Bonnie Michels’ husband of 24 years, Paul, was the first person killed.
“A part of me died with him that day,” she told the judge. “I am shattered.”
Elcias Hernandez Ortiz, who was shot in the face, also addressed the court, saying it’s been very hard for his family.
“Honestly, this man, why didn’t he think before killing so many people? I only want justice,” he said through a Spanish translator.
On March 16, Long shot and killed four people, three of them women and two of Asian descent, at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County. A fifth person was wounded. Long then drove to Atlanta, where he shot and killed three women at Gold Spa before crossing the street to Aromatherapy Spa and killing another woman, police said. All of the Atlanta victims were of Asian descent.
In Atlanta, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said she intends to seek the death penalty. There, Long faces charges of aggravated assault and domestic terrorism in addition to murder.
Wallace reiterated Tuesday that Cherokee County investigators saw no evidence of racial bias. Long walked through the first spa “shooting anyone and everyone he saw” and told detectives he was motivated by a sex addiction.
“This was not any kind of hate crime,” Wallace said during the hearing.
Investigators interviewed people who knew Long for years, including three of Asian descent, who said they’d never heard him make racist comments, she said. Her team also considered the diversity of the people shot in Cherokee County. They included a Hispanic man and a white man and woman.
Long signed a plea agreement admitting to all charges in Cherokee County, including malice murder, felony murder, attempt to commit murder and aggravated assault. Cherokee County Superior Court Chief Judge Ellen McElyea then handed him four sentences of life without parole plus an additional 35 years.
Long said he planned to kill himself that day and went to the massage businesses thinking that paying for sex — which he considered shameful — would push him to do it. But while sitting in his car outside the first spa, he decided to kill the people inside.
After he was caught in south Georgia, Long told detectives he struggled with pornography and sex. He believed he was an addict and felt tremendous guilt when he viewed porn or engaged in sexual acts at massage businesses, Wallace said.
(With AP inputs)