WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Eight people were shot to death at three massage parlours in the Atlanta area on Tuesday evening (March 16), the authorities said, raising fears that the crimes may have targeted people of Asian descent.
Six of the people killed were Asian, and two were white, according to law enforcement officials. All but one were women.
A suspect, identified as Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, was captured in Crisp County, about 241km south of Atlanta, after a manhunt, said the authorities, who had earlier released a surveillance image of a suspect near a Hyundai Tucson outside one of the massage parlours.
The motive for the killings was unclear, although the Atlanta police initially characterised the shooting at one of the parlours in the city as a robbery in progress. Officials did not say what type of gun had been used in the shootings.
The suspect in custody is white, and it was not clear whether there was a racial motivation in the shootings.
Even so, Stop AAPI Hate, formed to prevent anti-Asian discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic, called the shootings “an unspeakable tragedy” for both the victims’ families and an Asian-American community that has “been reeling from high levels of racist attacks”.
Four people died in the first shooting, at Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth, a north-west suburb of Atlanta, said Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. That shooting, in which a Hispanic man was injured, was reported at around 5pm local time.
At 5.47pm, Atlanta police said, officers responded to a robbery at Gold Spa in the north-east part of the city, where they found the bodies of three women with gunshot wounds.
While the officers were at the scene, police said, they received a report of shots fired at the Aromatherapy Spa across the street, where they found the body of another woman.
Neighbourhood residents Debra and Gregory Welch said it was usually quiet and peaceful, although they referred to the stretch where the shootings took place as the community’s “red-light district”.
“It’s for sure disturbing,” Mr Welch said of the shootings, “but even more so if it’s related to an anti-Asian factor from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
There have been nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents targeting Asian Americans nationwide since last March, according to Stop AAPI Hate.
The group said the shootings on Tuesday “will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure”.
The New York Police Department’s counter-terrorism unit said on Twitter that it would “be deploying assets to our great Asian communities across the city out of an abundance of caution”.
Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia said on Twitter that his heart was broken by the violence: “Once again we see that hate is deadly.”
Atlanta officials did not ask other massage parlours in the area to shut down as a precautionary measure, police chief Rodney Bryant said at a news conference.
But fear was palpable among some who work in the massage industry there. A woman who answered the phone at Healing Massage Spa and identified herself as a manager said that after the shootings were reported on the news, her boss told her to close for the night.
About a 30-minute drive north-west of the Atlanta spas, Young’s Asian Massage is tucked within a modest strip mall, with a beauty salon on one side and a boutique on the other. Like much of suburban Georgia, it is a diverse place, with panaderias and Latin businesses and American-style chain restaurants.
On Tuesday night, the blue lights of police vehicles cast an eerie glow as detectives worked inside the spa.
Ms Rita Barron, 47, owner of Gabby’s Boutique next door, was with a group of onlookers standing near a used car lot. She said she had been with a customer when she heard noises through the wall that sounded like claps – and then women screaming.
She called 911 and soon saw victims being taken out of the spa by police officers.
Nearby, a wail of anguish went up from another cluster of people waiting for news. Three dropped to the pavement, two of them embracing and shaking as they cried.