Atlanta spa shooting victims' families grieve, heal year after 8 killed

In the year since, violent assaults and harassment have left Asian Americans across the country afraid and physically hurt.
ATLANTA -- Robert Peterson struggled for months to stop thinking about the day his mother and seven other people, mostly Asian women, were shot and killed last year at Atlanta-area spas.

He's found some comfort living at the Norcross, Georgia, home his mother Yong Ae Yue worked hard to own and in the memories of the many nights they played poker together, but Peterson says he can't let others forget that his family and the Asian American community see the March 16, 2021 killings as hate crimes.

The gunman may have not said any racial slurs out loud during the shooting spree, but his actions "are the proxy of his misogyny, of his racism," Peterson, 39, said.

Since the mass shooting, the gunman has pleaded guilty to four of the killings in Cherokee County and was sentenced to life in prison. But he still faces an additional 19 charges in nearby Fulton County, where prosecutors have said they will be pursuing the death penalty for hate crimes targeting the sex and race of the victims.

Ignoring this racial aspect and the longstanding objectification of Asian women has only intensified the trauma of losing his mother and fuels his fight for justice, Peterson told CNN.

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The spa killings forced a debate about racism toward the Asian community in the United States, but reports of Asian people being assaulted and harassed had already been increasing since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year later, not much has changed in America, according to advocates, survivors of the violence and their family members. The alleged gunman in the Atlanta attacks has not been tried in a state or federal court for a hate crime, anti-Asian racism is still continuously being reported, and challenges of proving bias against the Asian American community persist.

"We see swastikas or Nazi symbols and salutes. In the Asian American community there's not something that unifying that everybody understands as something that's geared towards, intimidating or trying to hurt the AAPI community," said Byung "BJay" Pak, a former US attorney in Atlanta who represents Peterson.

First test of the hate crimes law in Georgia


Yue, 63, and the other seven victims, Daoyou Feng, 44; Paul Michels, 54; Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Delaina Yaun, 33; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51, were killed at three spas across the Atlanta area.

Robert Aaron Long, the then-21-year-old suspect in the shootings, told authorities he was distraught due to what he described as an addiction to sex. His claim sparked a debate over the motive behind the attack as well as numerous calls in support of a hate crime designation - a trend that continues today.

"We have to tell and reckon with the whole truth of why they're not here with us today: systemic racism, White supremacy, gender-based violence, the enduring impact of war, both here and in Asia," Phi Nguyen, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Atlanta, said about the victims during a Saturday memorial event in Brookhaven, an Atlanta suburb.

The Fulton County District Attorney's Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment but a pretrial hearing is set for April 19 in Long's case.

The case is expected to be the first test of the hate crimes law passed by the Georgia Legislature after the deadly shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. The law allows prosecutors to classify existing charges as a hate crime before trial. A jury would first have to determine guilt, and then consider whether it's a hate crime.

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Pak, who also represents the family of Suncha Kim, said Long's case won't change Long's potential life in prison or death penalty sentence but it would be symbolically important.

"My wish for our clients is that they have their day in court and they get an answer for a situation that's just incomprehensible to try to bring some logic to it and to see justice done," Pak said.

So far, federal authorities have not filed hate crimes against Long. A Justice Department spokesperson told CNN the federal investigation of the Atlanta spa shootings remains open as officials continue monitoring the state cases.

Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus who previously was concerned that Long would not be charged with a hate crime, told CNN she was encouraged by the response of state and federal officials. Fulton County prosecutors are treating the case as a hate crime and the Justice Department "committed to examining the evidence to see if it meets the criteria for a federal hate crime," Chu said.

"There is no question to me that these murders were deliberate acts of hate," Chu said in a statement.

'I miss the small things'


As Peterson and his family await a trial, he tries not to feel the loss of his mother at every corner of their home, especially in the kitchen, where he proudly keeps the ceramic bowls and pots that his mother used to teach him how to cook his favorite dish, Kimchi-jigae, a type of traditional stew.

"I miss the small things. I miss her needing me to change the light bulb, update her computer, go to the store to pick up cat litter, or carry a 24-case of water," Peterson said. "You know, those are the things that I wish she could ask me today."

Yue was a traditional Korean woman, a mother who taught her biracial sons to fully embrace their Asian heritage and do good work, he says. She understood the outrage and pain after the killings of Black men and women by police, Peterson says, just as she was frightened by the rise in anti-Asian attacks at the beginning of the pandemic.

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"She loved America, she loves Georgia but it was not lost on her, as most (Asian) women in America feel today, the threat of violence. It's a constant thing that is a hovering over their lives in their daily activities," he said.

If he could talk to her today, Peterson said his mother would be proud that he's willing to speak up for her and the other victims.

More Asian Americans are under attack


In the year since the Atlanta spa shootings, violent assaults and harassment have left Asian Americans across the country afraid and physically hurt.

One of them is Hoa Nguyen, a 68-year-old grandmother in Brooklyn who was punched in the face by a stranger on January 19 while she was on her way to the market.

"I turned my head to the right and he punched me two more time behind my ear on the left side. Then he went back to walk the way he had come," Nguyen said.

While Nguyen, who is Vietnamese, did not suffer major injuries, she no longer feels safe walking on the streets as much as she did before, or even taking the bus or the train to visit her daughter in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood.

"We've never had to look over my shoulders walking around the city and now, every time I walk outside, I'm looking over my shoulder," said Nguyen's son, 42-year-old Khanh Nguyen.

The suspect, Mercel Jackson, 51, was arrested and has been charged with assault, harassment and hate crime charges, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office. He told police he "doesn't like how Chinese people look," he thinks "Chinese people look like measles," and "doesn't like Chinese people looking at him," according to court documents.

The attack led neighbors and several nonprofit organizations around New York to offer the Nguyen family their emotional and legal support, Khanh Nguyen said. Unfortunately, it sparked another type of anti-Asian hate toward the family.

"No one goes up to the streets and yells things at us but despite the sadness of these stories, you still have people going online and spewing hate towards us," he said.

Just in New York, there were 131 incidents confirmed to have an anti-Asian bias motivation last year, according to data from the NYPD. That's a significant increase from 27 incidents reported in 2020 and one in 2019.

The full scope of the violence across the nation is unclear. Statistics from advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate collected after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic suggest there have been more than 10,000 anti-Asian hate incidents in the US but the organization's data is crowdsourced, self-reported and not independently verified.

But even when those incidents are reported, reaching a hate crime conviction is challenging, said Jennifer Wu, an attorney representing the Nguyens and the family of GuiYing Ma, a 61-year-old woman who was attacked in Queens by a man with a rock and who died last month.

In New York, which has a hate crime penalty-enhancement law like in Georgia, the statute requires the bias to be the "whole or substantial factor" motivating an attack.

That's a high standard, Wu says, because it "requires you to get into the mind of the perpetrator" and there could be more than one contributing factor, Wu says.

"The way the law has treated hate crimes is to force people to choose one reason why the hate crime is committed," Wu said. The law is not structured in a way that acknowledges the reality that the reason we love and hate people is for a multitude of reasons and not a single exclusive reason."

For Peterson, who lost his mother in the Atlanta spa shootings, there was not just one reason why the victims were targeted. His mother was not just at the wrong place, at the wrong time, he said. Peterson believes the suspect had in mind their racial identity, their gender, their workplace, and what that represented to him.

"She wasn't just Asian, and she wasn't just a woman. These two are inextricably linked. She is both of these things simultaneously, and you can't separate one from the other," Peterson said.