ATLANTA — He checked himself into a rehab clinic for a self-described sexual addiction. He was so intent on avoiding pornography that he blocked websites from his computer and only used a flip phone. He worried to a roommate about falling “out of God’s grace.”
Months before Robert Aaron Long was charged with carrying out a bloody rampage at three massage parlors that horrified the nation and stoked a furious outcry over anti-Asian violence, the 21-year-old suspect who had grown up in a conservative Baptist church appeared fixated on guilt and lust.
As investigators on Thursday pieced together whether and how racism and sexism might have motivated Tuesday’s attacks, people who knew Long offered new details about a dangerous collision of sexual loathing and what a former roommate described as “religious mania” that marked his life in the years before the shooting spree.
Long, whose church strictly prohibited sex outside of marriage, was distraught by his failed attempts to curb his sexual urges, said Tyler Bayless, a former roommate who lived with Long at a halfway house near Atlanta for about five months beginning in August 2019.
Nearly once a month, Long would admit he had again relapsed by visiting a massage parlor for sex, Bayless said, and he once asked Bayless to take his computer away from him.
Atlanta police said Thursday that Long had been a customer at two spas in the city that were targeted in the attacks that killed eight people overall, including six women of Asian descent. They did not specify whether he had sought anything more than a massage at the two businesses, Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa.
When Long was arrested, he said he was on his way to Florida to carry out another attack on a business tied to the pornography industry, police said. He has been charged with eight counts of murder.
It is unclear what led Long to seek treatment for sexual addiction at the halfway house, where others were working through drug and alcohol addictions. Bayless, the former roommate, said Long always discussed his visits to massage businesses for sex in the context of his relationship with God and his parents.
In early 2020, Long moved from the halfway house for more intensive treatment at HopeQuest, a Christian addiction center, and the two men fell out of touch, Bayless said.
“I think he just felt like he could not be trusted out there alone,” Bayless added, referring to Long’s inability to stop visiting the spas.
On Friday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Asian American leaders in Atlanta to discuss attacks and threats against the community. At an extraordinary hearing in Washington, several Asian American lawmakers shared deeply personal stories of bigotry and warned that the violence had reached a “crisis point.”
Five Asian American legislators in Georgia also held an emotional news conference in which they decried the violence, as well as characterizations of the victims as “a problem that needed to be eliminated.” Law enforcement officials have said the suspect told detectives he carried out the attack as a way of getting rid of temptation.
State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, said the killings highlighted “the vulnerability, the invisibility and the isolation of working-class Asian women in our country. And we know that vulnerability makes them targets.”
Activists, Asian American community leaders and experts in violence and gender said the shooting rampage laid bare how intertwined forces of sexism and racism were fueling a surge in anti-Asian violence and bigotry. Some have called on authorities to prosecute the shootings as a hate crime. On Thursday, Deputy Chief Charles Hampton Jr. of the Atlanta Police Department said investigators had not made any such decisions.
“Our investigation is looking at everything,” Hampton said. “Nothing is off the table.”
Growing up in the culturally conservative exurbs of Cherokee County, north of Atlanta, Long “brought his Bible to school every day,” said Darin Peppers, 51, the city director for First Priority of Metro Atlanta, a high school evangelical group. He played a box drum during morning praise meetings of his Christian youth group at Sequoyah High School, Peppers said.
According to one school yearbook, Long led a weekly gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I really feel like God is wanting me to be a leader in the church so I felt like this would be a really good opportunity to exercise some of those principles,” the yearbook quoted him saying, “and also just reach out to our campus with the gospel.”
In recent years, Long and his family were active members at Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia. He was baptized there as an adult in 2018, according to a now-deleted Facebook post by the church.
The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and put itself on a list of churches that are “friendly” to the mission of Founders Ministries, a group within the denomination that has criticized what it characterizes as a leftward drift within evangelicalism.
Crabapple’s bylaws include a lengthy passage on marriage and sexuality that condemns “adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, polygamy, pedophilia, pornography, or any attempt to change one’s sex.”
The church’s lead pastor, Jerry Dockery, preached a sermon about gender roles in September, drawing on a passage in 1 Timothy that instructs women to dress modestly and to “learn in quietness and full submission.”
Long attended the University of North Georgia’s campus in Cumming from the fall of 2017 through the fall of 2018, a spokesperson said, but he did not earn any degree and was not enrolled after that. In January 2019, his parents told police that he had visited a girlfriend in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and sent them a text message saying he was not coming back and wanted a “fresh start,” but police said he did not meet the criteria of a missing person.
Long had told his roommates that his parents knew about his addiction and also suggested that he had lost a girlfriend because he did not stop visiting the massage parlors.
Once, after Long had relapsed in the fall of 2019, Bayless recalled that Long had called him into his room and asked him to take a knife from him, saying that he was worried he would hurt himself.
“I’ll never forget him looking at me and saying, ‘I’m falling out of God’s grace,’” Bayless said.
Bayless, 35, said he did not want to rationalize the killings in any way, but said he was describing his recollections of Long to give people more clarity about what he described as Long’s “religious mania.”
HopeQuest, the Christian recovery ministry that Long attended, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. It was not clear on which of its campuses he sought treatment. One of its locations sits on a wooded lot in Acworth, less than a half-mile drive from Young’s Asian Massage, the site of the first shooting.