A white gunman has been charged with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlours in an attack that sent terror through the Asian American community.
Investigators are trying to work out what may have compelled 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long to commit the worst mass killing in the US in almost two years.
Long told police that Tuesday’s attack was not racially motivated, and he claimed to have a “sex addiction”.
Authorities said he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation, but those statements spurred outrage and widespread scepticism given the locations and that six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” state Representative Bee Nguyen said, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House and a frequent advocate for women and communities of colour.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that regardless of the shooter’s motivation, “it is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop”.
Authorities said they did not know if Long ever went to the massage parlours where the shootings occurred but that he was heading to Florida to attack “some type of porn industry”.
Cherokee County sheriff’s Captain Jay Baker told reporters: “He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
Captain Baker drew criticism for saying Long had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did”.
A Facebook page appearing to belong to Baker promoted a Covid-19 T-shirt with racist language about China last year.
The Facebook account featured numerous photos of Capt Baker going back months, including one of him in uniform outside the sheriff’s office.
The account was deleted Wednesday night, and Capt Baker did not immediately respond to voicemails and an email seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Frank Reynolds said it was too early to tell if the attack was racially motivated — “but the indicators right now are it may not be”.
The attack was the sixth mass killing this year in the US, and the deadliest since the August 2019 Dayton, Ohio, shooting that left nine people dead.
The killings horrified the Asian American community, which saw the shootings as an attack on them, given a recent wave of assaults that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus across the United States.
Covid-19 was first identified in China, and then-President Donald Trump and others have used racially charged terms to describe it.
The attacks began when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlour near Woodstock, about 30 miles north of Atlanta, authorities said.
Those who died were 33-year-old Delaina Ashley Yaun, 54-year-old Paul Andre Michels, 44-year-old Daoyou Feng and 49-year-old Xiaojie Tan, who owned the business.
Ms Yaun and her husband came to the spa on a date, her mother, Margaret Rushing, told WAGA-TV. She leaves behind a 13-year-old son and eight-month-old daughter.
The manager of a boutique next door to the spa said her husband watched surveillance video after the shooting and the suspect was sitting in his car for as long as an hour before going inside.
They heard screaming and women running from the business, said Rita Barron, manager of Gabby’s Boutique.
The same car was then spotted about 30 miles away in Atlanta, where a call came in about a robbery at Gold Spa and three women were shot to death. Another woman was fatally shot at the Aromatherapy Spa across the street.
Long was arrested hours later by Crisp County deputies and state troopers.
He refused to stop on a highway and officers bumped the back of his car, causing him to crash, Sheriff Billy Hancock said.
US President Joe Biden called the attack “very, very troublesome”.
“We don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight. The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop,” he tweeted.