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With motive still disputed, some point to shooting suspect's religion, shame

Robert Aaron Long's arrest stunned his church, where he was part of the student ministry.
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The Baptist church that admitted Georgia spa murderer Robert Aaron Long belonged to condemned "his evil actions" on Friday and said it didn't preach hatred against Asian Americans or women.

"We watched Aaron grow up and accepted him into church membership when he made his own profession of faith in Jesus Christ," the Crabapple First Baptist Church said in a statement. "These unthinkable and egregious murders directly contradict his own confession of faith in Jesus and the gospel. We want to be clear that this extreme and wicked act is nothing less than rebellion against our Holy God and His Word."

The lengthy statement from the embattled church came after Long, 21, who is charged with eight counts of murder, told investigators he had a sex addiction and targeted the Atlanta-area spas and the mostly-Asian women who worked there on Tuesday because there were a "temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate."

"No blame can be placed upon the victims," the church statement said. "He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires."

While investigators have downplayed suggestions that the murders were motivated by racial hatred, six of the victims were of Asian descent and the killings happened at a time when violence against Asian Americans, particularly Asian American women, has been on the rise.

In its statement, the church addressed this concern directly. "We deeply regret the fear and pain Asian Americans are experiencing as a result of Aaron’s inexcusable actions," the church said.

Later, in the Q & A portion of its statement, the church added: "We repudiate any and all forms of misogyny and racism. We categorically reject the idea that violence is appropriate, regardless of one’s issues or motivations."

The tragic chain of events that ended with eight deaths and Long in custody started around 5 p.m. Tuesday when four people were killed near Acworth in Cherokee County, authorities said. Less than an hour later, four women were killed in two shootings in Atlanta in Fulton County.

Long was arrested as he was driving south to Florida after his parents saw a photo of him released by the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office as a suspect and notified the authorities.

His arrest stunned the tight-knit congregation he belongs to in Alpharetta, Georgia, and where his father is an important lay leader.

The elders at Crabapple First Baptist quickly released a statement of condolence. But as questions swirled about the practices and teachings of the mostly-white, socially-conservative church, the elders released an expanded statement that specifically addressed some of the issues that have been raised.

Among other things, the church was asked whether it taught that "women are responsible for men’s sexual sin against them?"

"We categorically reject this idea," the church answered. "Each person is responsible for his or her own sin. In this case, the shooter is solely responsible for his heinous actions, not the victims who were targeted."

Prior to Tuesday, Long seemed on the surface be like legions of other young men spread out across the South — involved in his church, devoted to his family, and a hunter. The secret he considered shameful came spilling out after he was arrested.

In an interview with CNBC's Shepard Smith, Reynolds said it doesn't appear Long had any prior brushes with the law and they're not aware if he's ever been treated for sex addiction.

"I know he’s gone through a mental health evaluation here at the jail, that’s just standard protocol, but anything prior to that is still part of the investigation and, quite frankly, I don’t know," he said.

But it was the investigators' early assertion that Long was not motivated by racial hatred that drew harsh criticism from leading members of the Asian-American community, many of whom say former President Donald Trump fanned the hatred by insisting on calling Covid-19 the “China virus.”

“It’s clear to me that his targets were no accident,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said Thursday on MSBNC.

Baker himself came under fire for promoting T-shirts with anti-Asian themes in the past. And on Friday the responsibility for keeping the public informed about developments in the case was taken from Baker and handed over to Cherokee County spokeswoman Erika Neldner.

Long, who went by his middle name Aaron and is from Woodstock, Georgia, was described on the church website as a member of the Student Ministry Team.

His former youth minister, Brett Cottrell, told The Washington Post that Long was part of a high school group that met for Bible study once a week and that he helped run a backyard Bible club with songs and games for children.

Cottrell, who has not led the youth ministry since 2017, said he's not sure how involved Long has been with the church of late.

Long's former classmate at Sequoyah High School in Canton recalled that he brought a Bible to school every day and would walk around holding it in his hands.

He was “super nice, super Christian, very quiet,” Nico Straughan, 21, told The Associated Press. “He went from one of the nicest kids I ever knew in high school to being on the news yesterday.”

In a Facebook post that was seen by The Daily Beast and has since been taken down, Long described how he came to Jesus in the seventh grade after hearing the biblical story about the prodigal son at a Christian youth group meeting. And in an Instagram post that has also been taken down, Long described his world this way:

“Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God,” it said on the tagline, The Daily Beast reported. “This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life.”

But Long also had an interest in bow hunting and a photograph of him posing with a freshly killed deer was posted on the website of Backwoods Bowstrings, an archery business located in Woodstock.

Business owner Shannon Gott, 54, said Long came into the store about once a year to buy arrows and other gear. He said that his photo wound up on the site last year because they encourage customers to send them shots of successful bow hunts.

“I don’t want to be associated with this idiot in any way, nor my people associated with him,” Gott said.

Gott, who later removed the photo from the site, said he intends to post an apology on Facebook “to the families that this affected.”

“We have now taken it down and we will post nothing else from this person,” he said.

The apology went up Thursday.

“Backwoods Bowstrings sincerely regrets the loss associated with one of our previous customer's actions, and apologizes for any grievance had from having this deer harvest photo in our social media galleries,” the statement, in part, read.