Handout booking photo released by authorities shows 21-year-old shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long. Photo: AFP / Crisp County Sheriff's Office

A 21-year-old gunman with a “sex addiction” has taken responsibility for killing eight people in spas around the US city of Atlanta, but denied a racial motive to the attacks that have shaken the country’s Asian community, police said Wednesday.

Six of the victims of Tuesday night’s killings were of Asian origin, exacerbating concerns over a surge in violence targeting the community during the pandemic.

Authorities however stressed they had not determined the motive of the shooter, identified as Robert Aaron Long, a white man who is believed to have acted alone.

“The suspect did take responsibility for the shootings,” Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office told a news conference.

“This is still early, but he does claim it was not racially motivated,” Baker added. 

“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as … a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

Authorities arrested Long after tracking his phone following a brief pursuit about 150 miles (240 kilometers) from Atlanta, officials said.

After he was detained, “he made a comment … that he was headed to Florida and that he was going to do similar acts in that state,” Baker said, adding that Long wanted to target “some type of porn industry.”

A short manhunt

Surveillance footage released by police shows Long, wearing glasses and a red and navy blue hoodie, getting into a Hyundai Tucson car near one of the crime scenes.

One of the shooting sites. Photo: VOA

Long was apprehended about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Atlanta several hours after the shootings. 

When he was caught Long was on his way to Florida, perhaps to carry out more shootings targeting “some type of porn industry,” Baker said.

It was Long’s parents who contacted police after his photo was released Tuesday announcing he was a suspect and they helped identify him.  

Authorities have charged Long with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in the first of the three shootings, which took place in a suburb north of Atlanta, US media reported.

Additionally, Atlanta police said they have charged Long with four counts of murder in the subsequent attacks at two spas in the city.

Long was set to be arraigned Thursday morning.

Pizza, guns and God

“Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life,” read the tagline on an Instagram account that appeared to belong to Long, The Daily Beast reported. The account has since been deleted.

A student who graduated from the same high school as Long in 2017 told The Daily Beast that Long was “a hunter.”

In a photo released by the authorities, Long is seen wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Matthews Archery” — a company that specializes in crossbows.

Photo: AFP / Cherokee Sheriff’s Office

‘I was saved’  

“He was very innocent seeming and wouldn’t even cuss. He was sorta nerdy and didn’t seem violent from what I remember,” the former classmate told The Daily Beast.

Long’s father was a youth minister or pastor, and Long was “big into religion,” this person said.

Long was deeply involved with Crabapple First Baptist Church, which he attended with his parents and younger sister, according to the news website Heavy.

In a 2018 Facebook post that has since been deleted, Long described how he was baptized for a second time that year. 

He said he was first christened in grade school but strayed from his faith and re-embraced it when he studied the biblical story of the prodigal son.

“So that’s when I was saved,” Long wrote.

Violence in the US

Tuesday’s rampage began with an attack at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, an Atlanta suburb, where four of the victims were killed and a man was wounded.

Police said four women were subsequently killed in attacks on two neighboring spas in the northeast of Atlanta.

In the inital attack, the sheriff’s department has charged Long with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault, US media reported.

Officials did not immediately announce charges related to the attacks at the two spas.

Vice President Kamala Harris said the latest mass shootings spoke “to a larger issue which is violence in our country.”

Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Acworth, a normally quiet commuter community, had experienced few murders and Tuesday’s violence was “a shock to all of us.”

Anti-Asian violence trend

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported the country’s foreign ministry had confirmed that four of the victims were of Korean descent.

The shootings come as reports of attacks against Asian-Americans, primarily elders, have spiked in recent months – fueled during the Covid-19 pandemic, activists believe, by talk of the “Chinese virus” by former president Donald Trump and others.

“It shocks the conscience,” Sam Park, a local representative of the Asian-American community, told AFP in Atlanta.

“We have lost so many lives this past year. We have seen racism and discrimination and a surge of violence against Asian-Americans who are scapegoated because of the pandemic.”

President Joe Biden said violence against Asian-Americans is “very troublesome.”

“I know that Asian Americans are very concerned,” Biden said, though he stressed any motive had “yet to be determined.”

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the shootings as “a vicious and vile act that compounds the fear and pain that Asian-Americans face each day.”

Former president Barack Obama said on Twitter that while the shooter’s motive was not yet clear, “the identity of the victims underscores an alarming rise in anti-Asian violence that must end.”

‘Marginalized minorities’

News of the shootings came just hours after the release of a report by the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate suggested a marked increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans – with women disproportionately affected. 

In a tally of incidents reported to the group between March 2020 and February this year, almost 70 percent of Asian-American survey respondents said they had faced verbal harassment and just over one in 10 said they had experienced physical assault.

The state of Georgia, which has Atlanta as its capital, is home to nearly 500,000 people of Asian origin, or just over four percent of its population, according to the Asian American Advocacy Fund.

Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock condemned the violence in a tweet late Tuesday.

“My heart is broken tonight after the tragic violence in Atlanta that took eight lives,” he said.

“Praying for the families of the victims and for peace for the community.”