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Atlanta spa victims’ families reflect on 1-year anniversary, anti-Asian hate

ABC News

(ATLANTA) -- In the year since a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-based Asian-owned or operated spas, family members who lost a loved one say the pain is still fresh.

Robert Peterson, whose mother, Yong Ae Yue, 63, was the last person killed in the shooting spree while she was working at Aromatherapy Spa told ABC's "Nightline" that he still can't get that day out of his head, but he continues to push through.

"I have no choice but to heal," he said.

Peterson and others in the AAPI community said their anguish has only been compounded with the rise in anti-Asian crimes and rhetoric taking place across the country. Advocates said these incidents are becoming a wake-up call to the community to make a stand against racism.

Watch "Nightline's" full episode on the anniversary of the Atlanta spa shooting Wednesday night at 12:35 a.m. ET on ABC.

On March 16, 2021, Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54, were killed at Young's Asian Massage near the Atlanta suburb of Woodstock in Cherokee County, police said. Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yue were shot and killed a short time later at Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in Fulton County, according to police.

Police arrested Robert Aaron Long shortly after the shootings. He claimed he didn't target his victims based on their race, but instead said he was dealing with sex addiction. Capt. Jay Baker, a spokesperson for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, came under fire after he claimed Long had a "really bad day" during a news conference following his arrest. Baker was soon replaced as the police spokesperson for the case.

Peterson said he was hurt when the authorities downplayed the race of the victims even though six out of the eight people killed were Asian women.

"He got the benefit of the doubt when these victims did not. They were persecuted. They were negatively judged. They were stigmatized," Peterson said.

Randy Park, Grant’s son, told ABC’s “Nightline” that his mother rarely talked about her job at Gold Spa because of the stigma.

Park, 23, said Grant worked long hours to provide for him and his brother Eric, 21, and always made sure that they were safe. Park said he still misses his mother's nightly check-ins.

"Around 9 to midnight rolls around, when we would get those calls," Park told ABC News, "my soul feels just kind of silent, because I know I'm supposed to get that, but I can't anymore."

Long pleaded guilty to the four murders that took place in Cherokee County and will serve life in prison. Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said that their investigation found no evidence of racial bias.

He is awaiting trial in Fulton County on murder charges, which he plead not guilty to in the fall. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said she’d seek the death penalty and hate crime charges against Long.

Even though major cities saw a 261% increase of alleged hate crimes last year, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, very few hate crime charges are handed out by prosecutors. Law enforcement members and prosecutors have said getting key evidence that shows a suspect was motivated by racial bias is difficult.

Peterson said he believes Long has shown bias, and he hopes that prosecutors can find a way to convict him on hate crime charges.

"Before we could end racism, we have to be able to see it. We have to be able to call it out. We have to be able to label it," he said. "If we don't, then we allow the perpetrator to get away, absolving himself of accountability and responsibility."

Peterson isn't alone in this call for action. The spa murders sparked rallies, protests and calls for actions by lawmakers to crack down on anti-Asian crimes and the perpetrators.

Cam Ashling, the co-founder and chairwoman of the Atlanta-based non-profit Asian American Action Fund, told ABC News that the spa shootings were the tipping point of rising anti-Asian attacks, and many in the community began to rethink their initial reluctance to speak out.

"Asian people are not into, 'Let's all shine national media on my tragedy.' We don't want our suffering and our tragedy on video forever," she said. "New immigrants don't want to have attention on them. They feel like they're supposed to hide and kind of let it pass."

She added that Asians are still fighting an uphill battle as more Asian Americans have become targets of assaults and killings.

Last month, Christina Yuna Lee was stabbed to death in her Manhattan apartment after a suspect followed her home, police said. The city has seen other Asian women pushed in subways and assaulted in the street, according to police.

Special agent Jimena Noonan with the FBI's Newark office has been investigating burglary rings that target Asian businesses and homeowners since 2019. She told ABC News that these types of crimes are also on the rise, adding that criminals are going as far as to stake out their victims' businesses and homes, watching to see the homeowner is not home before breaking in.

She advised that concerned Asian business owners need to make sure the doors to their homes, businesses and cars are locked, and they should have security cameras installed on their properties.

"In addition to that, I recommend license plate recognition cameras, which help law enforcement tremendously in obtaining a better description of suspect vehicles that are used by these burglaries," Noonan told ABC News.

In the meantime, elected officials have scrambled to address the rise in anti-Asian harassment and crimes. Last year, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law.

The law directs the Justice Department to designate a point person to assist with expedited review of COVID-19 hate crimes, provided guidance for state and local law enforcement agencies to establish online reporting of hate crimes in multiple languages and expanded "linguistically appropriate" public education campaigns.

Ashling said the political actions are a good start, but she believes it's going to take more work before the Asian American community will feel safe. She urged more people to speak out and call on their lawmakers to enact change.

"If you do not get yourself together and become more outspoken and advocate for yourself, your family [and] your community, we will not have a community," she said.

The Atlanta spa shooting victims' families said at this point, they have no choice but to carry on and honor the memories of their loved ones.

Park, who said he's received messages of support from people around the world, said he feels his mother's spirit is still watching over him and his brother.

"It just feels like she's basically pushing Eric and I along," Park said.

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