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

The suspect in the fatal shootings at three Georgia massage parlors has told authorities he blamed the massage parlors 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.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the spas in Atlanta 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.ch, 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.  

Shootings at two massage parlors in Atlanta and one in the suburbs Tuesday evening left eight people dead, many of them women of Asian descent, authorities said. A 21-year-old man was taken into custody in southwest Georgia. (March 17)

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One of the victims, Xiaojie Tan, was listed as the owner of Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) associated with Young’s Asian Massage. The LLC also owns Wang’s Feet & Body Massage, another 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, they’re screening for whether it’s a customer or law enforcement or something like that,” Kim said.  

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

March 16, 2021: Law enforcement personnel are seen outside a massage parlor where a person was shot and killed in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight people were killed in shootings at three different spas in the US state of Georgia on March 16 and a 21-year-old male suspect was in custody, police and local media reported, though it was unclear if the attacks were related. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage, AFP via Getty Images)

Two buildings to the right of Aromatherapy Spa, is Craig Barnes’s G Salon, a day spa that opened in this Piedmont Heights neighborhood in 1999. Its services include traditional hair 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 Barnes were here when he 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 who have worked in illicit massage businesses that did meet the criteria for trafficking, meaning they meet the federal definition for trafficking.”

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

Georgia law enforcement has indicated the crime was motivated by sex, not race motivated. But Kim said such determinations are premature. 

“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.” 

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