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Acworth spa shooter pleads guilty, sentenced to life without parole in prison

The man charged with killing eight people at spas in the metro Atlanta area has been sentenced to multiple life sentences without parole for crimes in Acworth.

Cherokee County Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea sentenced Robert Aaron Long Tuesday to four consecutive life sentences without parole plus 35 years in a state prison.

Long pleaded guilty to four counts of murder and other charges concerning the March 16 shooting at Young’s Asian Massage, which left four people dead and a man critically injured.

The four victims who died in that shooting were 33-year-old Delaina Yaun-Gonzalez, 54-year-old Paul Andre Michels, 40-year-old Xiaojie Tan and 44-year-old Daoyou Feng.

Long, a 22-year-old from Woodstock, is also accused of killing four more people at two Atlanta spas — Gold Spa and Aroma Therapy Spa. He is charged in the deaths of 74-year-old Soon Chung Park, 51-year-old Hyun Jung Grant, 69-year-old Suncha Kim and 63-year-old Yong Yue. Six of the eight victims who died were Asian women.

Authorities say Long has blamed the shootings on a “sex addiction” and saw the spas as an outlet for that addiction. When he was arrested in Crisp County, police and prosecutors say he was headed to Florida to commit similar mass shootings.

Deal removes death penalty

McElyea accepted a negotiated plea between District Attorney Shannon Wallace and Long’s attorneys.

The deal takes the death penalty off the table after prosecutors initially sought the death penalty, Wallace said. Cherokee prosecutors also initially sought hate crimes charges based on gender prejudice, though they did not believe they would be able to prove the shootings were racially motivated in a trial, she said.

Long still faces murder charges in Fulton County, where District Attorney Fani Willis has said she is seeking the death penalty, and also enhanced penalties associated with hate crimes charges.

Long was sentenced for all charges he was indicted on in May: four counts of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, criminal attempt to commit murder, 11 counts of aggravated assault, aggravated battery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and criminal damage to property in the first degree.

In Fulton County, he is formally charged with: four counts each of murder and felony murder and five counts of aggravated assault, domestic terrorism and multiple counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

The judge said she hopes the sentencing would help bring closure to the victims’ families.

“The families will still be struggling and grieving. I don’t expect it’s a wound that will ever fully heal, but I hope time will at least help you learn to live with the wound,” McElyea said.

At Tuesday’s plea and sentencing hearing, Wallace and Long revealed more details about the events leading up to the shooting and the prosecution’s case in Cherokee.

The incident

The morning of March 16, Long was confronted about his pornography use by a roommate who was described as an “accountability partner,” he later told authorities, Wallace said.

He had recently been kicked out of his parents’ home for seeking and receiving sexual services at a massage business in Fulton County. He contemplated killing himself, and bought a handgun and 50 bullets from a Holly Springs store, and from there bought bourbon at a package store and got drunk, he told investigators.

Long traveled to Young’s Asian Massage, a business he had visited before. He sat in his car in the parking lot for about an hour before going inside, surveillance footage showed. There, he changed his mind: he would instead target the workers at the business.

Long later told authorities that he was “seeking vigilante justice in the sex industry,” Wallace said. At Young’s, Long shot and killed the four victims, and shot a fifth person in the face. The man was in critical condition but survived.

The wife of one of the victims, and the man who survived being shot at Young’s, told the court they are still feeling the aftermath of the mass shootings.

Bonnie Michels, Paul Michels’ wife, was visibly upset as she remembered her late husband.

“He loved life and he had so many years left to enjoy it. I can’t hear his voice anymore. I can’t hear him tell me how his day was. I can’t see him smile. I can’t cook for him anymore. I can’t give him hugs and kisses. It’s so hard to accept. A part of me died with him that day. I am shattered,” she told the court. “None of the victims deserved what the defendant did to them.”

Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was shot in the nose and the bullet went into his esophagus, and remained lodged in his body, Wallace said. Ortiz told the court in Spanish, through a translator, that he used to love to sing but could no longer do so.

“(Long) didn’t think in the moment about the families ... leaving children without their mothers, families with empty hearts. It was very hard for my family,” he said. “I only want that justice will be served, please.”

Daran Burns, one of Long’s attorneys, said his client was “ready to accept responsibility” for the Cherokee County mass shooting.

Answering questions from the judge, Long corroborated Wallace’s statement and said his initial plan was to enter the spa business before shooting himself. His train of thought was “not remotely logical” when he decided to target the spa employees. He said he did not recognize any of the people at the business.

“It was, in essence, a blame-shifting from myself onto them for my actions,” he said. “Our community has been permanently damaged.”

Fulton County charges

With the Cherokee County case resolved, Long will be transferred to Fulton County authorities to face the charges against him there.

He is scheduled to appear in court in Fulton for a plea and arraignment at 9 a.m. Aug. 23, according to a judge’s order filed last week.

After the sentencing, Wallace told members of the press that family members of the victims in the Cherokee shooting agreed they preferred to see a swift resolution with a life sentence to a possible years-long death penalty case.

“The victims of this unspeakable crime were diverse. There were women and men, and represented numerous ethnicities. There were spouses, parents, siblings and beloved friends,” she said. “They lived here, they worked here, they shopped here and went to church here, until that cold and rainy day in March when the defendant deliberately took it all away, leaving immeasurable pain and suffering to those left behind.”

Wallace said lives were “forever changed,” adding, “our community has been permanently damaged by the horrific assault on our sense of security.”

“The horrendous act has affected so many in our community and beyond, and we’re hopeful that the sentence imposed today will bring some peace and healing to all of those impacted by this tragedy,” she said.

CDC reverses masking guidance, recommends students and teachers wear face coverings even if vaccinated

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidance on wearing masks Tuesday and recommended that K-12 students and teachers wear them even if they are vaccinated.

That guidance comes as the COVID-19 delta variant is spreading quickly, especially in areas of the country where vaccination rates are low.

None of the vaccines are authorized for children under 12, and eligible teens have shown low rates of vaccination.

Both Floyd County Schools and Rome City Schools have said masks will be optional when classes resume on Aug. 5.

However, Rome Superintendent Lou Byars said late Tuesday that the school board will have a called meeting at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, during a previously scheduled back to school event for teachers at Barron Stadium. Board members will discuss the new guidance and announce their decision.

The new guidance also states that even vaccinated people should wear a mask in public indoor settings in states with “substantial and high transmission.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has already weighed in and recommended that students, regardless of vaccination status, should wear face coverings in the classroom to help prevent transmission.

While children are much less likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease, public health officials said the rapid spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated children could lead to infections in more vulnerable populations or the creation of new, harmful variants.

Both local school systems have held teacher and staff vaccination days.

On Friday, Floyd County Schools is making the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines available for their staff and the community from 1 to 3 p.m. at the central office, 600 Riverside Parkway.

Rome City Schools will also be offering free vaccinations, on Aug. 2 during meet the teacher events at each of the schools.

Floyd Medical Center is providing the vaccination services for each of the school systems.

Floyd County has shown an increase in new COVID-19 cases since the beginning of July that public health officials have attributed to the delta variant. There have been 325 new COVID-19 cases in Rome and Floyd County in the past two weeks, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

That’s a substantial increase from declining and low infection rates since April.

At this point those increased infections have resulted in only a slight bump in hospitalizations. The Floyd County Emergency Management Agency reported that there were 13 COVID-19 positive patients in Floyd Medical Center and 6 in Redmond Regional Medical Center on Tuesday. Two additional patients are suspected of having the virus but are not yet confirmed.

While hospitalization numbers have increased in the past two weeks, they are still low compared to the 120-plus COVID-19 patients being treated in local hospitals in December 2020.

Allie Perry, a student at Model Elementary School

Robert Aaron Long

Housing committee meets to nail down implementation of incentives package

A special Committee on Housing in Rome will meet Wednesday to develop an implementation plan for the new construction incentives approved by the City Commission earlier this month.

Commissioner Wendy Davis heads that panel, which includes builders, real estate agents and others in the housing industry.

“We have to have a process for people to apply and we’ve got to talk about what the details are,” Davis said. “Hopefully the city manager has some steps to start getting us down the road ... so people can start getting houses built.”

The incentive package eliminates water and sewer tap fees for new homes that will sell for $250,000 or less. Those fees also will be waived for rental units where the monthly payment is $1,200 or less.

Builders can also qualify for reimbursement of expenses related to water and sewer infrastructure. The starting point is up to $2,500 for a single-family home built on an infill lot in the city. Infill refers to the use of spaces left after an area has been developed. In Rome it’s often a lot where a dilapidated or abandoned structure has been demolished.

A reimbursement of up to $3,500 per unit is approved for cluster or cottage home developments of between one and six houses. A cluster of between seven and 12 homes would qualify for reimbursement up to $4,000 per unit.

Apartments or townhouse style developments would qualify for up to $3,400 per unit in reimbursement and a developer could get up to $6,000 per house for subdivisions with a minimum of 25 homes.

The funding for the reimbursements will come out of a $1 million earmark in the city’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation of more than $11 million. At this point, no one knows exactly how far that $1 million might go.

However, it’s still unclear if the federal money can be spent that way. Mayor Craig McDaniel said he has some concern that use of the funds may be limited to bolstering low-income census tracts.

“There’s just not a substantial margin in those areas for builders,” McDaniel said. “If we do have some latitude (over where the funds can be used), then I think we’ll see a lot of interest.”

Davis said there is no question in her mind that ARPA funds can be used for water and sewer work. The cost of that infrastructure has repeatedly been cited by builders as an impediment to new construction.

“The success of this initial project will determine if there are future projects in this avenue,” Davis said. “I expect it will be very successful and I expect there are other pieces that we haven’t really dug in and talked about yet.”

The “other pieces” could involve down payment assistance programs for buyers, loans or grants for people who are making less than 120% of the median household income, and incentives to rehabilitate existing housing in less affluent census tracts.

The committee meets at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Sam King Room at City Hall, 601 Broad St.

Tallapoosa circuit judge faces formal charges by state commission after investigation

Formal accusations have been filed against Tallapoosa Circuit Chief Judge Meng Lim for willful misconduct and conduct detrimental to the administration of justice.

The state Judicial Qualifications Commission filed the charges on July 22 with the Georgia Supreme Court, accusing Lim of 16 separate violations of the state Code of Judicial Conduct.

These charges stem from accusations related to Lim allegedly having a romantic relationship with a former Polk County Court Clerk’s Office employee, and using his influence and personal relationship with a participant in the Tallapoosa Circuit Drug Court program to get him preferred treatment.

Lim, who began practicing law in 1998, was voted into office as superior court judge in July 2014 and began to serve in January 2015. He is the first elected Asian American superior court judge in the state of Georgia. He was reelected to a second term in 2018.

Proceedings held by the commission, which investigates complaints against judges, are private and not subject to the Georgia Open Records Act until they are officially filed with the high court.

The results of those investigations are only made public if there is action taken against a judge — such as a reprimand or charges filed. Lim has until Aug. 14 to respond to the accusations.

According to the filing with the state Supreme Court, an investigation by the JQC began last year after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigated a report of a domestic violence situation involving Lim’s family in Haralson County.

Lim was arrested on July 2, 2020, and charged with misdemeanor battery under the Family Violence Act, but a Haralson County grand jury failed to indict him on the charges.

The JQC filing states that information discovered during the GBI investigation into the domestic violence allegations led to further investigation of Lim by the commission’s investigative panel.

On March 19, Lim appeared before the JQC investigative panel and reportedly made false and misleading statements, contradicting the account of others in regard to the events in question, leading to the commission filing formal charges.

The panel concluded that Lim had a romantic relationship with Erika Hernandez, who worked for the Polk County Court Clerk’s Office from 2007 to 2018, where she was a Spanish language interpreter.

Lim offered Hernandez a position as his personal court interpreter. At the same time they had a personal relationship, which led to her eventually moving in with him after his wife left him.

Also, Lim was personally acquainted with Darrell Hill and his family but failed to make drug court staff aware of this relationship until after Hill had been accepted into and was an active participant in the drug court program in November 2016.

During his time in the program, Hill mentioned his relationship with Lim during group sessions and doing work for him at his house and a restaurant he owned in Haralson County.

Lim contacted program staff to get Hill out of a required counseling session to allow him to continue work at his restaurant.

He then held a meeting in his chambers with Hill and the drug court staff after Hill failed to show up for a drug screening and two positive drug screens.