The Georgia man accused of killing eight people at three Atlanta-area spas was, on the surface, like legions of other young men spread out across the South — involved in his church, devoted to his family, and a hunter.
It wasn’t until after Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested Wednesday that a secret he considered shameful came spilling out.
“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction,” Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said.
The spas that Long allegedly targeted — and the mostly-Asian women who worked there and were killed there — were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” Baker said.
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday that Long, who has been charged with eight counts of murder, “may have frequented some of these places in the past.”
In an interview later with CNBC’s Shepard Smith, Reynolds said it doesn’t appear Long had any prior brushes with the law and they’re not aware if he’s ever been treated for sex addiction.
“I know he’s gone through a mental health evaluation here at the jail, that’s just standard protocol, but anything prior to that is still part of the investigation and, quite frankly, I don’t know,” he said.
So far, investigators have downplayed suggestions the shootings were also motivated by racial hatred. But at a time of rising anti-Asian American violence, which critics say former President Donald Trump fanned by insisting on calling Covid-19 the “China virus,” few were buying that assertion. Officials said that based on what Long told investigators, the attacks Tuesday did not appear to be motivated by race.
“It’s clear to me that his targets were no accident,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said Thursday on MSBNC.
Baker himself is now under fire for promoting T-shirts with anti-Asian themes in the past. Reynolds defended Baker and said Thursday in a statement, “his personal ties to the Asian community and his unwavering support and commitments to the citizens of Cherokee County are well known to many.”
The tragic chain of events started around 5 p.m. Tuesday when four people were killed near Acworth in Cherokee County, authorities said. Less than an hour later, four women were killed in two shootings in Atlanta in Fulton County.
Long was arrested after his parents saw a photo of him released by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office as a suspect and notified the authorities.
His arrest stunned the tight-knit congregation at the Crabapple First Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, which the suspect attended and where his father is an important lay leader, according to The Washington Post.
“We are grieved to hear the tragic news about the multiple deaths in the Atlanta area,” said a statement signed by the “elders of the Crabapple First Baptist Church.” It said, “We are heartbroken for all involved. We grieve for the victims and their families, and we continue to pray for them. Moreover, we are distraught for the Long family and continue to pray for them as well.”
NBC News has reached out for further comment to elder Jerry Dockery and other church leaders. So far, there has been no response.
Long, who went by his middle name Aaron and is from Woodstock, Georgia, was described on the church website as a member of the Student Ministry Team.
His former youth minister, Brett Cottrell, told The Washington Post that Long was part of a high school group that met for Bible study once a week and that he helped run a backyard Bible club with songs and games for children.
Cottrell, who has not led the youth ministry since 2017, said he’s not sure how involved Long has been with the church now. But he said the Long family regularly attended Sunday services. He said the congregation was mostly white, but there were a few Asian American and Black members.
“There’s nothing that I’m aware of at Crabapple that would give approval to this,” Cottrell told the Post of the shootings. “I’m assuming it’s as shocking and numbing to them as it has been to me.”
Long’s former classmate at Sequoyah High School in Canton recalled that he brought a Bible to school every day and would walk around holding it in his hands.
He was “super nice, super Christian, very quiet,” Nico Straughan, 21, told The Associated Press. “He went from one of the nicest kids I ever knew in high school to being on the news yesterday.”
In a Facebook post that was seen by The Daily Beast and has since been taken down, Long described how he came to Jesus in the seventh grade after hearing the biblical story about the prodigal son at a Christian youth group meeting. And in an Instagram post that has also been taken down, Long described his world this way:
“Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God,” it said on the tagline, The Daily Beast reported. “This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life.”
But Long also had an interest in bow hunting and a photograph of him posing with a freshly killed deer was posted on the website of Backwoods Bowstrings, an archery business located in Woodstock.
Business owner Shannon Gott, 54, said Long came into the store about once a year to buy arrows and other gear. He said that his photo wound up on the site last year because they encourage customers to send them shots of successful bow hunts.
“I don’t want to be associated with this idiot in any way, nor my people associated with him,” Gott told NBC News.
Gott, who later removed the photo from the site, said he intends to post an apology on Facebook “to the families that this affected.”
“We have now taken it down and we will post nothing else from this person,” he said.
The apology went up Thursday.
“Backwoods Bowstrings sincerely regrets the loss associated with one of our previous customer’s actions, and apologizes for any grievance had from having this deer harvest photo in our social media galleries,” the statement, in part, read.