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Church of suspect condemns Atlanta spa killings in ‘strongest possible terms’

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The church attended by the suspect in Tuesday’s killings of eight people — including six Asian women — at Atlanta-area spas released a statement Friday condemning the killings “in the strongest possible terms” and saying “no blame can be placed upon the victims.”

The statement from Crabapple First Baptist Church in northern Fulton County came as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta on Friday, in part to discuss the shootings with Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders in Georgia.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, is being held in connection with the shootings at a massage spa in Georgia’s Cherokee County and two in Atlanta.

Live updates: Asian American communities on edge after shootings

Long claimed responsibility for the shootings, according to the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County, where he faces four counts of murder with malice, one count of attempted murder, one count of aggravated assault and five counts of using a firearm while committing a felony. He also has been charged with four counts of murder in Atlanta, police there said.

The suspect, arrested Tuesday night in a traffic stop 150 miles south of Atlanta, told police he believed he had a sex addiction and that he saw the spas as “a temptation … that he wanted to eliminate,” said Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office.

But Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant has said it is still too early to know a motive, and Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said the investigation is ongoing and appropriate charges will be brought.

In its statement Friday, Crabapple First Baptist Church confirmed Long’s family were members, and said the killings were the “result of a sinful heart and depraved mind.” It said the violence also “directly contradict his own confession of faith” and were “antithetical to everything that we believe and teach as a church.”

Meanwhile, some public officials say they’re pressing investigators to consider hate crime charges.

During Biden and Harris’s visit Atlanta on Friday, community leaders will urge that the shootings be considered a hate crime against Asians and not dismissed as the suspect having a “bad day,” Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen said.

“It looked like a hate crime to me,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on “Anderson Cooper 360” on Thursday. “This was targeted at Asian spas. Six of the women who were killed were Asian so it’s difficult to see it as anything but that.”

While FBI Director Christopher Wray said the attacks don’t appear to be racially motivated, advocacy groups have argued that it is too soon to make that determination. And shootings don’t have to be racially motivated to constitute a hate crime in Georgia.

“Sex” is a hate crime category under Georgia law. If Long was targeting women out of hatred for them or scapegoating them for his own problems, it could potentially be a hate crime.

Long had previously frequented the two Atlanta spas, and he bought the gun used in the shooting the day of the incident, Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said Thursday.

Communities and nation grapple with fear and grief

Flowers have lined the businesses that were the scenes of the violence, but with the rise in animosity and hate directed at Asians and Asian Americans, the emotional toll has been felt across the nation.

Anti-Asian hate crimes have more than doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

The violence has surged amid racist rhetoric during the pandemic — some popularized by former President Donald Trump. Many Asian Americans have been subjected to vitriol about the “China virus” or the “kung flu” — even those who have never been to Asia.

“Such vicious, unconscionable acts of violence cut at the very core of our country and the values on which it was founded,” former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Thursday. “As we await the findings of a thorough investigation, the critical work to combat the haunting rise of hatred against the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community must intensify with the immediacy this latest tragedy commands.”

Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds visited a candlelight vigil Thursday outside the site of the first shootings — Youngs Asian Spa near the city of Woodstock. Reynolds told reporters he attended to let the Asian American community know that “we have them in our hearts and our prayers and we’re so sorry for the loss of life.”

A vigil was also held Thursday outside of one of the other shooting sites, Gold Massage Spa in Atlanta.

Biden ordered flags at the White House and other federal grounds to be flown at half-staff Thursday to honor the shooting victims. The US Embassy in Seoul also lowered flags, Charg√© d’Affaires ad interim Rob Rapson said on Twitter.

“Our hearts go out to the loved ones of those we lost and our nation mourns with you,” he said.

Victim’s husband says he heard gunfire from a separate room

The names of all eight people slain have been released.

Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44, were fatally shot at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County.

Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, of Acworth, was also shot but survived.

Yaun’s husband, Mario Gonzalez, told the Mundo Hispanico newspaper that he and his wife were at the spa to get massages, and she was in a separate room when the shooting started.

“About an hour in … I heard the shots. I didn’t see anything, only I started to think it was in the room where my wife was,” he told the newspaper.

“(The shooter) took the most valuable thing I had in my life,” Gonzalez said. “He left me with only pain.”

Gonzalez said he was detained by authorities following the shooting and didn’t know his wife was killed until later.

When law enforcement arrived, he was put in the back of a vehicle, Gonzalez told the Spanish-language newspaper. “They had me in a patrol car the whole time until the investigation led them to the suspect and to what happened.”

“When they found out I was the husband, they told me she was dead. I wanted to know before,” Gonzalez said.

It is not clear how long he was detained by authorities. Attempts to reach Gonzalez have been unsuccessful. CNN has reached out to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office for comment but has not yet heard back.

Victim’s son mourns his ‘strongest influence’

About 30 miles away and within an hour of the first shooting, four Asian women were killed in Atlanta — three at the Gold Massage Spa, and one at the Aroma Therapy Spa across the street, authorities said.

The four Atlanta victims were: Soon C. Park, 74; Hyun J. Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong A. Yue, 63, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Of those four, three died of gunshot wounds to the head, and one died of a gunshot wound to the chest, the medical examiner’s office said.

Grant was a “single mother who dedicated her whole life to providing for my brother and I,” her son Randy Park wrote on a GoFundMe page.

“She was one of my best friends and the strongest influence on who we are today,” Park wrote.

The GoFundMe page, set up for Grant’s two sons, had raised $550,000 from about 14,000 donors as of Friday morning. GoFundMe told CNN the page is verified; Park did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

The page says the donated money will pay for food, rent and other monthly bills. It says the brothers now only have each other in the US, with every other relative in South Korea.

“Losing her has put a new lens on my eyes on the amount of hate that exists in our world” Park wrote.

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