By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Georgia authorities charged a man with the fatal shootings of eight people, including six Asian women, at Atlanta-area spas, and the violence heightened fears among Asian Americans already rattled by a rise in hate crimes directed at them since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The 21-year-old suspect, Robert Aaron Long, told investigators that a sex addiction drove him to commit Tuesday's killings and indicated he frequented spas in the area, law enforcement officials said.
However, authorities did not discount the possibility that the attacks were inspired at least in part by an anti-immigrant or anti-Asian sentiment, or some personal grievance.
"The suspect did take responsibility for the shooting," Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department told a news conference.
"These locations, he sees them as an outlet for him, something that he shouldn't be doing," Baker said. "It's a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate."
Long was charged on Wednesday with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault, according to officials in Atlanta and in Cherokee County, about 40 miles (64 km) north of the state capital. Long was being held in Cherokee County, where he resided and where the shootings began.
Long was headed for Florida when he was apprehended, perhaps to carry out further shootings, authorities said. A 9mm firearm was found in his car.
Although officials said Long indicated he may have patronized the establishments where Tuesday's violence occurred, they could not immediately confirm whether he had actually been a customer of those businesses.
And it was not clear whether the suspect may have visited spas for sex.
"This is still an ongoing investigation, and at this time we cannot answer any questions pertaining to the businesses, nor services that any of these locations were offering during or before this incident took place," Officer C.J. Johnson of the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement.
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was briefed by the U.S. attorney general and FBI director on the shootings.
"The question of motivation is still to be determined," Biden told reporters at the White House. "But whatever the motivation here I know that Asian Americans are very concerned."
A report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism this month showed that hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 major U.S. cities rose by 149% from 2019 to 2020, a period when overall hate crimes dropped 7%.
Civil rights advocates have said the rise seemed related to Asians and Asian Americans being blamed for the pandemic, which originated in China. Former President Donald Trump called the novel coronavirus the "China virus," the "China plague" and even the "kung flu."
"It's very difficult to ignore that the Asian community has once again been targeted, and it's happening across the country," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN.
Nonetheless, authorities said nothing that Long told them in interviews indicated he was motivated by racial animosity, though they stressed the investigation was in its early stages.
The bloodshed began Tuesday evening when four people were killed and another was wounded at Young's Asian Massage in Cherokee County, Baker said. Two Asian women were among the dead there, along with a white woman and a white man, Baker said. The surviving victim was a Hispanic man.
In Atlanta, police officers responding to a robbery report an hour later arrived at the Gold Spa beauty salon to find three women shot dead, Police Chief Rodney Bryant told reporters.
The officers were then called to a separate spa across the street where another woman was found fatally shot, Bryant said. All four women killed in Atlanta were Asian.
South Korea on Wednesday said its consulate-general in Atlanta confirmed that the dead included four women of Korean descent but was verifying their nationalities.
Long was spotted driving later in southern Georgia, far from the crime scenes, and was arrested without incident after a highway pursuit, authorities said.
His first court appearance was set for Thursday, then postponed without explanation.
Long's quick apprehension was aided by his family's cooperation with investigators and by video footage from security cameras at the crime scenes, police said.
Little about Long's personal life emerged the day after the shootings; he graduated from an Atlanta-area high school in 2017 and attended a nearby Baptist church.
An inactive Instagram account that appeared to have been his bore the tagline: "Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life," according to The Daily Beast.
The killings marked the latest in a string of deadly mass shootings at schools, movie theaters, medical clinics and other public places in the United States in recent years.
Long purchased the gun found in his car legally at Big Woods Goods in Holly Springs, Georgia, CNN reported, citing an attorney for the company.
Gun control is a divisive issue in the United States, which enshrines the right to bear arms in the Constitution. The U.S. House of Representatives last week approved a pair of gun control bills as Democrats looked to a shifting political landscape they hoped would improve chances for enacting new laws after years of failed attempts.
"We are witnessing the results of what happens when racist and misogynistic ideologies collide in a society where there is also easy access to guns," Amnesty International USA said in a statement.
(Reporting by Rich MacKay in Atlanta, Susan Heavey in Washington and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Daniel Trotta in Vista, Calif., Jan Wolfe, Andrea Shalal, Steve Holland, Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Writing by Maria Caspani and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller, Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman)