The man accused of killing eight people at Atlanta-area spas in March will serve four life sentences after pleading guilty to four of the murders.
Cherokee County Superior Court Chief Judge Ellen McElyea handed down the sentence for Robert Aaron Long on Tuesday, more than four months after the March 16 rampage inside Youngs Asian Massage. Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Tan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44, were killed. That same day, Long is accused of fatally shooting four others at two spas in Atlanta.
The guilty plea and the sentence were part of a deal announced during the proceeding.
“It has been Mr. Long’s desire to accept responsibility for his actions on March 16 from the time that he interviewed with police after his arrest," Long's attorney Zachary Smith said in a statement.
"The Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace worked with us to negotiate this case to achieve today’s result bringing finality in Cherokee County. It is our hope that the Fulton County District Attorney follows D.A. Wallace’s example and agrees to a similar resolution in that county,” Smith continued.
Long was indicted on 23 charges related to the Cherokee County shootings including malicious murder, felony murder and aggravated assault. Although the state said several of the charges will either merge or be vacated by the law, he pleaded guilty to every charge as part of an agreement.
Prosecutors recommended four life sentences without the possibility of parole, plus 35 years. McElyea agreed with the recommendation.
Wallace said that the surviving victims and the families of those killed did not want to pursue the death penalty.
"The defendant was merciless in his actions but the surviving victims and the families of the murdered victims chose to request mercy," she said at a press conference, "preferring that this defendant spend every remaining day of his life in prison faced with the memories of his own monstrosity."
Evidence shows that Long entered Youngs Asian Massage and paid for a service, prosecutors said. He had a handgun with 17 bullets in his pocket that he had purchased earlier that day along with a box of 50 bullets, Wallace said. His service ended around 4:45 p.m.
Prosecutors said Long then went into a back bathroom. After he came out, he fatally shot Michels who had been leaning over a counter looking at his cellphone.
“According to the defendant’s statement, he pulled the 9mm handgun out, raised it toward Mr. Michels, and shot one time, executing him," Wallace said.
Long then walked toward the front of the spa, "shooting anyone and everyone he saw," according to her.
Feng, who had been employed with the spa for only a few months, was in a room with a customer when gunfire erupted. Prosecutors said Feng was shot when she poked her head out of the room to see what was going on. The customer in the room survived.
As gunshots continued to ring out, employees and customers ran into rooms to hide.
Tan was hiding in a room when she was shot once in the head, according to prosecutors. After killing her, Long went into another room where a customer was crouching behind a massage table.
Long shot the customer once in the face but the man survived. Prosecutors told the courtroom that the bullet was "still lodged in his body" and the man was present in the courtroom for the hearing.
Yaun was at the spa with her husband, Mario Gonzalez, for a couple's massage. The two were in separate rooms when the shooting began. Prosecutors said Yaun was killed as she crouched in the corner. The bullet went through her body and into a neighboring business.
According to the state, six employees and customers survived the attack, including Gonzalez. Prosecutors said they were either hiding in rooms where someone else was shot or were in rooms Long did not enter.
The entire shooting spree at the spa lasted less than 10 minutes. Prosecutors said evidence shows Long left the business at around 4:50 p.m. and drove to Atlanta, where he is accused of carrying out the two other shootings. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
Long told authorities that the shooting was motivated by "sexual addiction," a claim that has drawn criticism from experts who say such dangerous sexist tropes targeting Asian women and racist rationale have been previously used in attempts to exonerate white men.
Experts also said the explanation discounts the racial dynamics and can “cause harm” in the way the public understands these issues.
Long, dressed in a white button-down shirt and gray pants with shackles around his waist and wrists, told the courtroom that on the morning of the shootings, his roommate had overheard him watching pornography. He said he felt ashamed and went out to purchase a handgun because he wanted to kill himself.
He told the judge that he bought the weapon, went to purchase alcohol, and then drove to Youngs Asian Massage.
He said as he sat in the parking lot getting drunk, he started “thinking about killing the people inside there."
Long said after paying for a service and using the bathroom, he began shooting the employees and customers.
According to prosecutors, Long planned on traveling to Florida to carry out a similar crime. He was arrested after his parents contacted authorities when they saw him in a photo released by police. Prosecutors said that Long's parents used a tracker app they had put on his phone to help law enforcement find him.
Long is scheduled to appear in Fulton County Court next month for the Atlanta charges. While the agreement in Cherokee County spares him a death sentence, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said she will seek the death penalty, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
CORRECTION (July 30, 2021, 2:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article mischaracterized a quote from Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace. She said that it was the defense's claim that this was not a hate crime, not that her investigation revealed it was not a hate crime.