Atlanta spa shootings: Victims' families continue to heal, wait for justice 1 year later

A makeshift memorial outside the Gold Spa in Atlanta days after a deadly shooting rampage on March 16, 2021. (Austin McAfee / FOX 5)

A year after a gunman killed eight people at three metro Atlanta massage businesses, the victims' family members and friends are struggling with grief and trying to heal while dealing with the intense public attention focused on the horrific slayings.

The crime, now known as the Atlanta spa shootings, began on the afternoon of March 16, 2021 in Cherokee County. Deputies were called out to Young's Asian Massage parlor located along Georgia Highway 92 near Bells Ferry Road, about a mile west of Woodstock. It was there that 22-year-old Robert Aaron Long shot and killed four people — Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54 — and seriously injured Elcias Hernandez Ortiz. 

Less than an hour later, authorities say Long drove about 30 miles south to Atlanta, where he killed three women — Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51 — at Gold Spa, crossed the street and killed 63-year-old Yong Ae Yue at Aromatherapy Spa.


The killings heightened anger and fear among Asian Americans already experiencing a rise in hostility, which has continued. The shootings brought increased awareness to that trend and galvanized more people, including non-Asians, to get involved in the movement to fight it.

Many Asian Americans and their allies bristled at suggestions that Long, who told investigators he felt ashamed of sexual urges and saw the spas as a source of temptation, wasn’t motivated by racial bias.

Atlanta spa shooting suspect sentenced to life in prison

Long admitted to the Cherokee County shooting by pleading guilty in court. He told investigators that he was drunk and was planning to go to the massage parlor due to a sex addiction before shooting himself.

"My hope is that I would hate myself enough at that point and possess enough self-loathing to end my life," Long told the court. "I was scared of killing myself. I wanted to try to overcome that so I could. So, I went up to the liquor store."

After pleading guilty to 23 charges, Long was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.


Robert Aaron Long (Crisp County Sheriff's Office)

The Cherokee County district attorney, citing the racial diversity of the victims there — two of whom were white and one Hispanic — among other things, said they did not find evidence of racial animus. But Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is pursuing a sentencing enhancement under the state hate crimes law, saying she believes race and gender played a role in the Atlanta killings.

"We are the community that is too busy to hate and there is no tolerance here for people that would target somebody because of their gender or because of their race," Willis said.

Long still faces charges including murder in the Atlanta killings and has pleaded not guilty. Willis is seeking the death penalty in addition to a hate crime sentencing enhancement.

Family and friends remember Atlanta spa shooting victims

Over the weekend, some of the family and friends of the eight victims joined more than 100 people at a Brookhaven park to remember their lives.

Robert Peterson misses spending Sundays with his mother, cooking and running errands. Dana Toole plays a video of her sister over and over just to hear her voice. Michael Webb has started speaking out about gun control since his ex-wife’s fatal shooting.

"Our whole world just changed. It blew up in that moment," said Peterson, the son of Yong Ae Yue. "It was a bit overwhelming. We didn’t ask to be here. It was weird to have people so interested."

Webb — who was still very close to Tan, his ex-wife — said the shootings opened his eyes to anti-Asian violence and made him worry for his two daughters, who are both of Asian descent.

Noting that Long bought his gun the day of the shootings, Webb speculated that if there had been a waiting period, "there’s at least a reasonable likelihood (Tan) would still be alive."

A gun owner for decades, Webb said he’s long had moderate views on gun control. Background checks, mandatory safety classes and waiting periods make sense to him and, since the shootings, he’s spoken out about that publicly.

Toole, Yaun’s half sister, said she was terrified to leave her house after the shootings and is considering getting a gun. A newlywed with an infant daughter and teenage son, Yaun was at the Cherokee County spa with her husband, who survived. If she’d had a gun, maybe she’d be alive, Toole said.

"She had no way of defending herself," said Toole, who fears leaving her own children without a mother.

Webb said he and his daughter, Jami — Tan’s daughter whom he adopted after they married — favored the death penalty for Long. But after the district attorney explained the lengthy process for a death penalty case, they quickly came around to the idea of locking him up for life and putting it behind them.

"We really felt a relief it was over," he said.

Peterson said he and other victims’ family members agreed the death penalty was appropriate, but it’s more important to him to have the killings labeled a hate crime. As the son of a Korean mother and a Black father, he said he’s conflicted because he doesn’t generally support the death penalty and its disproportionate use on people of color.

With a background in sociology and social justice, Peterson wants to start an organization in his mother’s honor to fight discrimination and promote social equity.


It’s the small things about his mother — her laughter, her cooking and the way she loved hearing about her sons’ lives — that Peterson misses. He’d get annoyed when she’d call and ask him to drive from Atlanta to her home in the suburbs to change a smoke detector battery or update her computer. But now he lives in his mother’s house and doing the same little tasks for his widowed neighbor "fills me with joy," he said, tears welling in his eyes.

"Being and feeling wanted and needed, feeling safe — that’s what I miss most," Peterson said.

Toole hasn’t visited her sister’s grave since her funeral because she doesn’t want to believe she’s gone. She breaks down when she drives past the cemetery or the spa. On Toole’s 30th birthday, seven weeks after the shooting, she stayed in because her sister wasn’t there to celebrate as planned.

The close pair loved going to Six Flags amusement park and had water fights at family parties. Toole even recalls Yaun’s faults with affection: "She was always late, but it didn’t matter because she always showed up."

Though Webb and Tan divorced roughly a decade ago, they spoke regularly. Tan, who owned the Cherokee County spa, worked constantly and saved most of her earnings, planning to retire in her early 50s to travel and spend time with her family.

"The sadness really comes from the fact that her life was cut short before she could fulfill her dream," Webb said. "She was healthy and strong. It’s just so, so sad."

Georgia's leaders remember the Atlanta spa shooting

Ahead of today's anniversary, Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff sent out a video message showing his support.

"Today, above all, we honor and remember those who lost their lives; we mourn them alongside their families, whom we lift up with love, care, and compassion. And all of us, no matter our race, faith, or origin, stand steadfastly with the Asian-American community in Georgia in mutual defense and united against bigotry and hatred," Ossoff said. "We are all of us human beings, and united we grieve alongside the loved ones, colleagues, friends, and neighbors of those who were killed."

Sen. Raphael Warnock, Rep. Nikema Williams, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will commemorate the anniversary on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to remember the lives of all eight Georgians.

Warnock, along with Georgia Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath have introduced a resolution that reaffirms the House of Representative's commitment to combating anti-Asian hate.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.