With a suspect in custody for March 16 mass killings at massage parlors in Atlanta and Acworth, police say, there is no sign of further danger to similar businesses in the metro area. In response to hate-crime concerns after six of the eight people shot to death were described by police as Asians, authorities report that the suspect says he had no racial motive, but they continue to investigate.

The shooting attacks happened at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth and Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, which are across the street from each other on Piedmont Road in northeast Atlanta just outside Buckhead. In Acworth, four people died and one was wounded, and a total of four died in the Atlanta shootings. 

Authorities say six of those killed were Asian women, and the others were a White woman and a White male. The victim who survived in Acworth is a Hispanic male, authorities say. At a March 17 press conference, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) said authorities would not at this point say whether any of the victims were employees or customers or any other purpose they had for being at the locations.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, center, speaks at a March 17 press conference about the massage parlor shootings, joined by Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant, left, and Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, right.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested by the Georgia State Patrol in Crisp County in south Georgia a few hours after the shootings and remains in custody, authorities say.

At the press conference, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and officials from the Atlanta Police Department and CCSO that Long had described himself as having a “sexual addiction” and that he sought to “eliminate” the businesses, which he may have patronized, due to blaming them for his condition. Long reportedly was on the way to Florida, where he may have intended to attack a sexually oriented business, according to Bottoms and CCSO Capt. Jay Baker. 

The identification of most of the victims as Asian and an assumption that they were employees of the massage parlors led to early online speculation that the shootings were racist hate crimes. “The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fueled by white supremacy and systemic racism,” said the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta in a press release, citing scapegoating of Asian people for the COVID-19 pandemic and general discrimination against immigrants.

Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said at the press conference that authorities had directly asked Long whether the shootings were motivated by race “and that did not appear to be the motive.” Citing the sexual-addiction explanation, Reynolds said, “It may be targets of opportunity. Again, we believe he frequented these places in the past and may have been lashing out….” However, Reynolds and APD Chief Rodney Bryant said the investigation is still in an early stage and hate crimes are not ruled out as a motive.

Bottoms said that Atlanta has not seen an increase in formal complaints of hate crimes. The police department in the neighboring city of Brookhaven, which includes the diverse immigrant community of Buford Highway, says it has not received any reports of hate crimes targeting Asians or Asian Americans in the past 12 months. Brookhaven police also say they have received no threats targeting massage parlors but are “actively monitoring.”

Sandy Springs Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Salvador Ortega said that, while it appears the shootings were committed by one suspect, “we have directed our officers to conduct business checks and make contact … with spa businesses within our city.” He said SSPD has not received any reports of hate crimes targeting Asian people in the past 12 months.

The Dunwoody Police Department said March 18 that it, too, is increasing patrols around “similar business” and has no hate-crime reports relating to Asian or Asian American people in recent months.

Hate crimes of all types are known to be underreported to police, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Crimes may have more than one motive, and any motive may be difficult to pin down. For example, a 2018 mass shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, was later deduced by authorities to be motivated in part by the killer’s hatred of women.

“Whether it’s senseless violence we’ve seen play out in our streets or more targeted violence like we saw yesterday, a crime against any community is a crime against us all.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

“Whether it’s senseless violence we’ve seen play out in our streets or more targeted violence like we saw yesterday, a crime against any community is a crime against us all,” said Bottoms at the press conference. 

While airing the claim that the killer may have been motivated by anger at his sexual behavior, Bottoms and police authorities emphasized they are not excusing the crimes. They said there was no immediate evidence that any of the massage parlors offered sexual services or broke any laws. 

“We are not about to get into victim-blaming, [or] victim-shaming, here,” said Bottoms. 

She said the Atlanta massage parlors were operating legally and were “not on the radar of APD.” Without specifying a timeframe, she said there were no 911 calls related to either location aside from one about a theft of keys. 

Debbie Skopczynski, the chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit F, a city advisory group in the area that often hears reports about local business licensing and policing, said the massage parlors were not on her group’s radar, either. “I am not aware of any concerns or issues with these businesses,” she said in an email.

The metro Atlanta massage parlor industry as a whole is often targeted by local governments as a front for illicit sexual business. A 2014 study by the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., made a pioneering attempt to quantify metro Atlanta’s underground sex trade and related human trafficking. That study reported that Atlanta massage parlors where clients can have sex with women were largely run by Korean immigrants in a highly organized national network. In recent years, the city of Dunwoody attempted to zone massage parlors out of town, though it later loosened the rules; Sandy Springs sought the ability to shut them down as “public nuisances.” 

The massage parlors targeted in the March 16 shootings are in Atlanta’s Cheshire Bridge Road corridor, which long has been known for nightclubs, businesses supporting the LGBTQ community, and sexually oriented businesses. The area is undergoing controversial gentrification, partly due to city rezoning. 

The area also has a history as a target for hate crimes. Next door to Gold Spa is an office building that previously was the site of the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian nightclub that was bombed in 1997 by terrorist Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympics bomber, as a homophobic hate crime.

–Collin Kelly contributed

Update: This story has been updated with information from the police departments in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.