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Some officials call for hate crime charges in the Atlanta-area spa shootings that left 8 dead

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As investigators piece together the movements and the motive of the suspect in this week’s deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, fierce debate is underway over whether he should face hate crime charges for the attacks that left eight people dead, including six Asian women.

“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.”

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

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are expected to visit Atlanta on Friday, in part to discuss the events with leaders in the state. They are expected to meet with Bottoms, as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders, according to Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen.

Live updates: Asian American communities on edge after shootings

Long claimed responsibility for the shootings, according to sheriff’s office in Cherokee County, where he faces four counts of murder and a charge of aggravated assault. 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,” Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said.

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.

When asked whether Long could face hate crime charges, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Thursday that investigators will follow the evidence.

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.

The communities and the nation grapple with fear and grief

Flowers have lined the businesses that were the scenes of the violence, but as increased hate impacts 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.”

Reynolds, the Cherokee County sheriff, visited a candlelight vigil Thursday outside the site of the first shootings — Young’s 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.

When Biden and Harris visit Atlanta on Friday, community leaders will urge the shootings be considered a hate crime against Asians and not dismissed as the suspect having a “bad day,” Nguyen said.

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, Chargé 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 Young’s 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.”

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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