The suspect behind shooting attacks that killed eight people in Atlanta was charged with eight counts of murder on Wednesday, with officials saying he may have planned further attacks.
Police and city leaders also indicated they believe Robert Aaron Long, 21, who did not resist arrest when he was apprehended, was on his way to Florida after Tuesday evening’s attack, where they suspect he may have planned to “carry out additional shootings”.
They said it was too early to determine whether the attacks, in which six of the victims were women of Asian descent, was a racially motivated hate crime.
The attacks sent terror through an Asian American community that has increasingly been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic. Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, said that regardless of the shooter’s motivation, “it is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop”.
Frank Reynolds, the Cherokee county sheriff, said: “We were able to interview him with the Atlanta police department and the FBI. He made indicators that he has some issues, potentially sexual addiction, and may have frequented some of these places in the past.”
Jay Baker, Cherokee county sheriff’s captain, said the parlors were a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate”, indicating a clash with his strong Christian faith.
Police said the suspect, who is understood to have acted alone, admitted to the shootings, and a 9mm firearm was found in his vehicle. His image had been captured on security cameras at the premises where he went on the shooting attack.
Long was charged with eight counts of murder, one count of aggravated assault and kept in custody. He was expected to make his first court appearance on Thursday.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia”, the state representative Bee Nguyen said, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia house of representatives and a frequent advocate for women and communities of color.
Authorities on Wednesday afternoon released some of the names of the victims.
The Cherokee county sheriff’s office identified the victims who died there, in the first shooting, at Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth, as: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Yan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44.
The sheriff’s office identified an injured person as 30-year-old Elcias R Hernandez-Ortiz.
That shooting was reported at about 5pm local time.
Then, at 5.37pm, police responded to a robbery at Gold Spa and found the bodies of three women with gunshot wounds. They then received a report of shots fired across the street at Aromatherapy Spa where they found another woman’s body.
Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, who is white, was arrested after a manhunt about 150 miles south of Atlanta in Crisp county after police released surveillance footage from outside one of the massage parlors that was identified by his family. He was then tracked on his mobile phone.
Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor, said: “As tragic as this was … this could have been a significantly worse.”
She praised police coordination, saying if the suspect had not been quickly apprehended “it is very likely that there would have been more victims”.
Police did not provide a motive for the shootings and declined to comment on whether the attack was racially driven following widespread fears that it was.
Rodney Bryant, Atlanta’s police chief, said investigators were not ready to say whether the shootings were a hate crime, saying: “We are still early in this investigation, so we cannot make that determination at this moment.”
Regardless of motivation, Bottoms said: “We know that many of the victims, the majority of the victims, were Asian. We also know that this is an issue that’s happening across the country. It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop.”
Investigators believe the suspect in the Atlanta spa shootings bought the gun used in the attack this week, CNN reported. According to the news channel, law enforcement sources said nothing in Long’s background would have prevented that purchase.
Joe Biden said on Wednesday that violence against Asian Americans was “very, very troubling” but that he was “making no connection at this moment of the motivation of the killer”.
The president added: “I am waiting for an answer from, as the investigation proceeds, from the FBI and from the justice department. So I’ll have more to say when the investigation is completed.”
Biden has asked Susan Rice, domestic policy adviser, and Cedric Richmond, public engagement director and senior adviser, to put on community listening sessions following the shooting to “determine how that should impact policies moving forward”, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said.
Kamala Harris condemned the “tragic” shooting, which she said “speaks to a larger issue, which is the issue of violence in our country”.
Addressing Asian Americans, the vice-president said: “We stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people. But knowing the increasing level of hate crime against our Asian American brothers and sisters, we also want to speak out in solidarity with them and acknowledge that none of us should ever be silent in the face of any form of hate.”
Barack Obama said the incident is a “tragic reminder” that America has neglected the “epidemic of gun violence”. Although the shooter’s motive is not yet clear, the identity of the victims underscores an alarming rise in anti-Asian violence that must end,” the former president tweeted.
The first lady, Jill Biden, addressed the victims’ families during a visit to a school in Concord, New Hampshire, saying: “My heart is with you. And I hope that all Americans will join me in praying for everyone touched by this senseless tragedy.”