A year later, spa shooting victims’ families grieve and heal

Mar 16, 2022, 5:41 AM | Updated: 5:56 am
Robert Peterson holds a photo of his late mother, Yong Ae Yue, on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atla...

Robert Peterson holds a photo of his late mother, Yong Ae Yue, on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. Yue was one of eight people shot and killed at various massage businesses on March 16, 2021, in the Atlanta area. Many family members and friends of the victims have been struggling with grief, trying to heal and making sure their loved ones aren't forgotten. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

(AP Photo/Ron Harris)

ATLANTA (AP) — Robert Peterson misses spending Sundays with his mother, cooking and running errands. Dana Toole plays a video of her sister over and over just to hear her voice. Michael Webb has started speaking out about gun control since his ex-wife’s fatal shooting.

A year after a gunman killed eight people at three Georgia massage businesses, their family members and friends are struggling with grief and trying to heal while dealing with the intense public attention focused on the horrific slayings.

“Our whole world just changed. It blew up in that moment,” said Peterson, whose mother, Yong Ae Yue, was among the dead. “It was a bit overwhelming. We didn’t ask to be here. It was weird to have people so interested.”

Robert Aaron Long, 22, shot and killed four people — Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54 — and seriously injured a fifth person at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County on March 16, 2021. Authorities say he then drove about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south to Atlanta, where he killed three women — Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51 — at Gold Spa, crossed the street and killed Yue, 63, at Aromatherapy Spa.

Two of the Cherokee County victims and all of the Atlanta victims were women of Asian descent. The killings heightened anger and fear among Asian Americans already experiencing a rise in hostility, which has continued. The shootings brought increased awareness to that trend and galvanized more people, including non-Asians, to get involved in the movement to fight it.

Many Asian Americans and their allies bristled at suggestions that Long, who told investigators he felt ashamed of sexual urges and saw the spas as a source of temptation, wasn’t motivated by racial bias.

The Cherokee County district attorney, citing the racial diversity of the victims there — two of whom were white and one Hispanic — among other things, did not find evidence of racial animus. But the Fulton County district attorney is pursuing a sentencing enhancement under the state hate crimes law, saying she believes race and gender played a role in the Atlanta killings.

Webb — who was still very close to Tan, his ex-wife — said the shootings opened his eyes to anti-Asian violence and made him worry for his two daughters, who are both of Asian descent.

Noting that Long bought his gun the day of the shootings, Webb speculated that if there had been a waiting period, “there’s at least a reasonable likelihood (Tan) would still be alive.”

A gun owner for decades, Webb said he’s long had moderate views on gun control. Background checks, mandatory safety classes and waiting periods make sense to him and, since the shootings, he’s spoken out about that publicly.

Toole, Yaun’s half sister, said she was terrified to leave her house after the shootings and is considering getting a gun. A newlywed with an infant daughter and teenage son, Yaun was at the Cherokee County spa with her husband, who survived. If she’d had a gun, maybe she’d be alive, Toole said.

“She had no way of defending herself,” said Toole, who fears leaving her own children without a mother.

Long pleaded guilty in July to murder and other charges in the Cherokee County shooting. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Toole said she felt angry watching him in court because she didn’t see any remorse. But she agreed with the district attorney’s decision not to seek the death penalty.

“Just because he took other people’s lives that day, to me it didn’t give us the right to take his,” she said.

Webb said he and his daughter, Jami — Tan’s daughter whom he adopted after they married — favored the death penalty for Long. But after the district attorney explained the lengthy process for a death penalty case, they quickly came around to the idea of locking him up for life and putting it behind them.

“We really felt a relief it was over,” he said.

Long still faces charges including murder in the Atlanta killings and has pleaded not guilty. The Fulton County district attorney is seeking the death penalty in addition to a hate crime sentencing enhancement.

Peterson said he and other victims’ family members agreed the death penalty was appropriate, but it’s more important to him to have the killings labeled a hate crime. As the son of a Korean mother and a Black father, he said he’s conflicted because he doesn’t generally support the death penalty and its disproportionate use on people of color.

With a background in sociology and social justice, Peterson wants to start an organization in his mother’s honor to fight discrimination and promote social equity.

It’s the small things about his mother — her laughter, her cooking and the way she loved hearing about her sons’ lives — that Peterson misses. He’d get annoyed when she’d call and ask him to drive from Atlanta to her home in the suburbs to change a smoke detector battery or update her computer. But now he lives in his mother’s house and doing the same little tasks for his widowed neighbor “fills me with joy,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

“Being and feeling wanted and needed, feeling safe — that’s what I miss most,” Peterson said.

Toole hasn’t visited her sister’s grave since her funeral because she doesn’t want to believe she’s gone. She breaks down when she drives past the cemetery or the spa. On Toole’s 30th birthday, seven weeks after the shooting, she stayed in because her sister wasn’t there to celebrate as planned.

The close pair loved going to Six Flags amusement park and had water fights at family parties. Toole even recalls Yaun’s faults with affection: “She was always late, but it didn’t matter because she always showed up.”

Though Webb and Tan divorced roughly a decade ago, they spoke regularly. Tan, who owned the Cherokee County spa, worked constantly and saved most of her earnings, planning to retire in her early 50s to travel and spend time with her family.

“The sadness really comes from the fact that her life was cut short before she could fulfill her dream,” Webb said. “She was healthy and strong. It’s just so, so sad.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Gabriel Madling loads sandbags onto his kayak so he can fortify his house on a submerged street in ...
Associated Press

Ian is long gone but water keeps rising in central Florida

GENEVA, Fla. (AP) — Residents in central Florida donned fishing waders, boots and bug spray and canoed or kayaked to their homes on streets where floodwaters continued rising Sunday despite it being four days since Hurricane Ian tore through the state. The waters flooded homes and streets that had been passable just a day or […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

3 die when plane hits Minnesota home, but 2 in house unhurt

HERMANTOWN, Minn. (AP) — Three people aboard a small airplane died when it crashed into a house near a northern Minnesota airport, but the two people sleeping inside the home — and their cat — were unhurt. Hermantown Police said the Cessna 172 plane crashed into the second floor of the home just south of […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Fire damages Mark Wahlberg’s childhood home in Boston

BOSTON (AP) — A home where entertainers Mark and Donnie Wahlberg’s family once lived was damaged by fire Sunday in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, the fire department said. The blaze in a nearby home at around 10 a.m., but spread to another three buildings because of strong winds, Fire Commissioner Paul Burke said. Two firefighters suffered […]
15 hours ago
A military parade displaying Houthi forces and weapons moves through a main street of Sanaa, Yemen,...
Associated Press

Yemen’s warring sides fail to extend UN-backed truce

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen’s warring sides have failed to reach an agreement to extend a nationwide cease-fire, the U.N. said Sunday, endangering the longest lull in fighting since the country’s bloody civil war began. In a statement, the U.N.’s envoy to Yemen called on all sides to refrain from acts of provocation as the […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Chesapeake Bay lighthouse auctioned, with strings attached

HOOPERSVILLE, Md. (AP) — The federal government has sold off a rather inhospitable lighthouse in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay for a six-figure sum after a bidding war at auction. The Hooper Island Lighthouse, located west of Middle Hooper Island in Maryland’s Dorchester County, at first drew little interest, The Washington Post reported. But […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

FBI: Jetliner evacuated in Albuquerque after security threat

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An American Airlines flight from Texas to New Mexico was evacuated Sunday after landing at the Albuquerque airport because of a security threat, authorities said. All 179 people aboard Flight 928 from Dallas-Fort Worth were taken off the jet in the morning at Albuquerque International Sunport and were bused to the […]
15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
...
Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Why your student-athlete’s physical should be conducted by a sports medicine specialist

Dr. Anastasi from Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Tempe answers some of the most common questions.
...
Dr. Richard Carmona

Great news: Children under 5 can now get COVID-19 vaccine

After more than two years of battle with an invisible killer, we can now vaccinate the youngest among us against COVID-19. This is great news.
A year later, spa shooting victims’ families grieve and heal