Atlanta spa shootings: Illicit reviews raise red flags that shooter targeted vulnerable women

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Atlanta spa shootings: Suspect claims sex addiction as motive

The suspect says sex addiction drove him to commit drives, according to police. Eight people are reported to have been killed in the shootings.

Staff video, USA TODAY

The suspect in the fatal shootings at three Georgia spas has told authorities he blamed the massage businesses for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex.

Robert Aaron Long viewed the spas as “a temptation that he wanted to eliminate,” according to a Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the spas were not on police’s radar: “As far as we know in Atlanta, these are legally operating businesses.”

Yet, early signs indicate the businesses may not have been entirely above-board, leaving the women working there particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence.  

All three spas are listed on Rubmaps, an erotic review site that allows users to search for and review illicit massage parlors. The site is the most popular of its kind, where buyers who call themselves “hobbyists” or “mongers” looking for sex go to find and share information, according to a study by Polaris, a nonprofit group that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, both in Atlanta, have around 100 reviews, many recent. A review for Gold Spa on March 9 indicated that it was “full service,” as did a similar review from five days prior. A review for Aromatherapy Spa on March 2 also indicated sex was on the service list. Youngs Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia, has 39 reviews on Rubmaps, the latest posted in February.

One of the eight victims, Xiaojie Tan, was listed as the owner of a limited liability corporation associated with Young’s Asian Massage. The LLC also owns Wang’s Feet & Body Massage, a spa in neighboring Kennesaw also listed on Rubmaps.

Atlanta-area spa shootings: Suspect officially charged after 8 people killed at 3 spas; most victims were Asian

The Rubmap reviews, coupled with advertising for 24-hour services, are red flags, said Elizabeth Kim, the chief operating officer of Restore NYC, a nonprofit that works to provide housing and economic solutions for survivors of trafficking. 

“In New York, for instance, a lot of the illicit massage businesses are open super late, or you can’t just enter like a normal business – you have to be buzzed in,” Kim said. “They’re screening for whether it’s a customer or law enforcement or something like that.”

Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa are among several neighborhood businesses frequented during late nights, according to neighboring business owners; their customers and services remain discreet behind blacked out windows and parking lots behind buildings. 

Gold Spa has a blacked-out glass door that prevents visibility from the outside. The windows are concealed by shutters that appear rusted. At least one set of window covers appear to be held together with duct tape. The only thing visible inside is an ATM near the front entrance.

The establishment has an LED sign out front that says the business is open 24/7. The parking areas are empty.

Two buildings to the right of Aromatherapy Spa is Craig Barnes’ G Salon, a day spa that opened in this Piedmont Heights neighborhood in 1999. Its services include traditional salon offerings such as haircuts, hair coloring and perms, as well as waxing, microdermabrasion, eyelash extensions and aromatherapy massage. 

The spas and strip clubs that share this Atlanta thoroughfare with G Salon were here when Barnes arrived more than two decades ago. The immediate area includes a Mexican restaurant and pizzeria, auto repair shops, medical offices, a psychic and apartment lofts. 

“Twenty-one years, no issues,” Barnes said. “I’ve never met anyone, never seen anyone there (at the site of Tuesday’s shooting) in 21 years. They’re quiet. They don’t do business at the same time I do.”  

As Barnes shuts his doors to customers at 7 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on Saturdays, the 24-hour spas are preparing for a rush of late-night customers. 

When Tuesday’s shooting occurred during evening rush hour in Atlanta, Barnes was at his salon. One of his customers called from across the street to cancel an appointment. Barnes told her not to worry, his team members would wait for her – not realizing the streets were blocked off.

“No, you don’t understand,” the customer told Barnes. “Look out your door.”  

Though it is still too early to know for certain that the spas were illicit, Kim said illicit parlors are inherently violent.

“Over the last 12 years we’ve served over 1,000 Asian women who have worked in or been exploited in illicit massage business,” Kim said. “We estimate that approximately 50% of those Asian clients who we’ve worked with have worked in illicit massage businesses that did meet the criteria for trafficking.”

Asian Americans fear: Atlanta spa shootings increase fear in Asian communities amid hate incidents

Georgia law enforcement has indicated the crime was motivated by sex, not race. But advocates balked at such determinations at this time.

“It’s not an either-or proposition. The racism and the misogyny and the violence are very much intertwined,” Kim said. “I wouldn’t say we should pivot to say it is a crime only in sexual nature and not of a racial nature and vice-verse. I don’t think it’s fair right now to say it was one versus the other.” 

Catherine Chen, the chief executive officer of Polaris, points to the long history of exploitation of Asian women in the U.S., noting that the term “Asian massage parlor,” often used to describe illicit massage businesses, can be anti-Asian.

“This entire idea that you can reduce Asian women down to their sexuality that can be purchased, that is what’s behind the idea of an Asian massage parlor,” Chen said.

“We use the term ‘illicit massage business’ because what we’re trying to get at is that, in so many cases, ultimately this is someone who is profiting off of the exploitation of women. And they run them as legitimate businesses.”

Chen says it’s important to recognize the dignity of the women, who may or may not have known the full extent of the businesses where they worked.

“They’re mothers and wives and sisters and aunties,” Chen said. “They’re real full people, and their families may or may not have known they were in this situation. To recognize their dignity even though this is a tragedy that they ended up in.”

Mallory Rahman and her 4-year old daughter, Zara, left flowers Wednesday on the steps of Gold Spa in Atlanta to pay respects to the women killed there. 

“I told her that some people were hurt here that should not have been hurt. Some people were hurt by a bad person,” Rahman said. “I know she’s young, but I also want to teach her from a young age.”

Contributing: Miguel Legoas, Dinah V. Pulver, Brenna Smith, Katie Wedell

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