Federal and local law enforcement investigators have yet to find concrete evidence that would be enough to build a federal hate crime case against the man accused of killing eight people at three Atlanta area spas, several law enforcement officials told NBC News.
The suspect was charged Wednesday with eight counts of murder. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. The suspect is white.
The lack of evidence was first reported by the Associated Press.
The first step in assessing a potential hate crime is for the local U.S. Attorney to direct the Atlanta office of the FBI to open a preliminary investigation into the matter, the officials said.
So far, no directive has been given, the officials said, because after probing electronic devices and conducting interviews, investigators have seen no evidence leading in that direction. Hate crime charges could be filed later if evidence supporting a prosecution is found.
State and local law enforcement agencies are leading the probe, with the FBI providing support and assistance with manpower and evidence analysis.
In a statement, Kevin Rowson, a spokesman for the Atlanta’s FBI office, said the agency is “coordinating closely with those local authorities. If, in the course of the local investigations, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate.”
Georgia officials have previously stated that state hate crime charges are still possible, which would be separate from a federal case.
The suspect allegedly told investigators that he had a “sexual addiction” and saw the businesses that he targeted as a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” The official who repeated those claims from the suspect, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, also said Long had a “really bad day” and “this is what he did.”
Amid outrage over the comments, Baker was removed from the case and the sheriff’s office said he hadn’t “intended to disrespect any of the victims.”
Experts told NBC News that law enforcement investigators shouldn’t rule out a potential racial motive based on what a suspect says.
"That's not how we determine whether something is or isn't a hate crime," Elaine Gross, president of the New York-based civil rights organization ERASE Racism.
"We all know hate when we see it," Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., told NBC's "Meet the Press," adding, "It is tragic that we've been visited by this kind of violence yet again."
Speaking in Atlanta last week, President Joe Biden said many Asian Americans have "been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed" in recent months, adding, "silence is complicity."