ATLANTA — The gunman who killed four people at a Cherokee County spa before allegedly driving to Atlanta and fatally shooting four others pleaded not guilty Tuesday morning in Fulton County court, setting the stage for a lengthy trial in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Robert Aaron Long, 22, has already pleaded guilty to killing four people at a spa near Woodstock and is serving a life sentence. He appeared briefly in court to formally enter his plea on additional charges in Fulton County, which include murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism.
Long was arrested March 16, the same day he is accused of shooting and killing eight people, including six Asian women, at three metro Atlanta spas. According to Cherokee prosecutors, Long began his shooting rampage at Youngs Asian Massage near Woodstock, where he first paid for a service before opening fire. Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Michels, 54, were killed. A fifth victim, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was critically injured.
After those shootings, authorities say Long drove to Atlanta, where he’s accused of killing Yong Ae Yue, 63, Soon Chung Park, 74, Suncha Kim, 69, and Hyun Jung Grant, 51, at two spas along Piedmont Road.
Investigators say Long frequented all three spas, and that he went on the shooting rampage as a way to “eliminate temptation” for his sex addiction.
Within hours of the shootings, Long was captured in South Georgia and charged with four counts of murder in both Cherokee and Fulton counties.
Friends and family members of the Atlanta victims lined the benches of an eighth-floor courtroom Tuesday morning as Long was brought in wearing a suit for his arraignment hearing. The entire proceeding lasted less than five minutes as his attorneys waived the arraignment and formally entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.
Robert Aaron Long enters a Fulton County courtroom Tuesday morning before pleading not guilty.
Because it is a death penalty case, Long is being represented by the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office. His attorneys declined to comment following the court appearance.
BJay Pak, an attorney representing two of the victims’ families, was among those who filed into the courtroom. He said the facts surrounding the deadly shootings in Cherokee County and Atlanta are slightly different, and that the families he represents are pushing for the death penalty.
In the Fulton shootings, Pak said, the families want “the most severe sentence,” even if the death penalty case takes years or decades to resolve.
“As the case goes along, it takes an emotional toll on all the families,” Pak, a former federal prosecutor, said outside the courtroom. “And in a death penalty case, this could last a long, long time. But as it stands now, my clients want to see him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis previously disclosed that Long’s defense team reached out in hopes of making a deal, but has said she will continue to pursue a death sentence in the case, saying her decision was made “with the complete support of the families.” In Fulton, the 22-year-old faces four counts of murder, four counts of felony murder, five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one count of domestic terrorism and five counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
In addition to the death penalty, Long also faces sentencing enhancements under Georgia’s new hate crimes law on the basis of both gender and race. The law was enacted last year following the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot after being pursued by three white men through a Glynn County neighborhood. That murder trial begins next month in Brunswick.
Willis, a veteran prosecutor, said during last year’s campaign that she would not pursue the death penalty. But since the spa shootings, the district attorney said she is confident her team has enough evidence to convict Long of not only murder in the deaths of four Asian women at two Atlanta spas, but also of hate crimes.
In late July, Long pleaded guilty to his charges in Cherokee and was given four consecutive life sentences, plus 35 years, without the possibility of parole. If the case had gone to trial, District Attorney Shannon Wallace said she planned to pursue the death penalty. But the victims’ families and survivors wanted “swift justice,” Wallace said.
Additionally, Cherokee County prosecutors were prepared to argue that Long committed a hate crime when he targeted women. Wallace said investigators found no evidence of racial motivation, however, and that Long told authorities his actions weren’t racially motivated. In addition, Asian Americans who had known Long told prosecutors he had never displayed any racial bias toward them, prosecutors said.
In Cherokee County, Long told the judge he initially planned to kill himself because of the shame he felt over what he called his obsessive addiction to sex and pornography. He changed his mind while sitting in the parking lot of Youngs, Long said in court. The 9 mm handgun used in the shootings had been purchased hours earlier at a Holly Springs gun store near Long’s home.
His next court appearance is scheduled for Nov. 23.