Atlanta spa workers recount horrors of shooting

Eunji Lee had been napping in the break room at Gold Spa, while her co-worker Eun Ja Kang was waiting for a ride, when she heard a “tick, tick” sound.

She would later discover it was the sound of a gun; a white man had just shot three of their co-workers in complete silence, both survivors said.

“He didn’t say a word. I think that alone shows how premeditated and bent on a motive he was,” Lee exclusively told NBC Asian America.

Lee, 41, and Kang, 48, are the two employees who were on staff at the time who survived the shooting at Gold Spa. Three of their colleagues were killed March 16, along with five others in a string of attacks at three spas in the Atlanta area. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent. The four women killed in the Atlanta spas were Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

“He also tried to shoot me. He just didn’t shoot Eunji because he didn’t see her,” Kang said. “I don’t know if I should be glad. It hurts to be alive and talk about this.”

The remaining victims, who were killed at a spa in Cherokee County, about 25 miles north of the city, were Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in Cherokee County.

Burns Law Group, P.C., based in Canton, Georgia, which is representing Long, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Atlanta Police Department did not provide additional statements on any of the allegations, saying updates on the case would be posted as they become available.

Lee, who said she sleeps and eats at the spa, said she had just dozed off when the gunshots began. Kang heard co-worker Park rush out of the kitchen and ask, “What’s that?” She and Lee heard another colleague, Kim, scream and then fall silent. Kang said she stuck her head out of the break room and saw Park lying flat on the ground in the hallway, before making eye contact with a white man holding a gun.

Kang ducked back into the lounge and brought Lee into hiding with her, with Kang taking cover under a blanket while Lee hid behind a large box once used to store charcoal for their now unused sauna.

Eun Ja Kang.Courtesy of Eun Ja Kang

The shooter took aim into the room and then fired two shots at Kang, who screamed after the second, she said. The bullets missed the two women.

“He also tried to shoot me. He just didn’t shoot Eunji because he didn’t see her,” Kang said. “I don’t know if I should be glad. It hurts to be alive and talk about this.”

Kang believes the shooter didn’t check if they were dead in order to leave and quickly go to Aromatherapy Spa across the street, where he killed Yue.

Both survivors said they found it particularly unsettling how the shooter had carried out the killings without making a sound. Lee said she thought he seemed like a “resolute” killer with a “target” in mind.

Kang said the suspect basically fired shots at “everyone he saw.”

Lee said she had kept her eyes shut in hiding, silently praying for him to leave.

“Two of my three colleagues didn’t even scream before they died,” she said. “There were no cries. That means he shot them as soon as he saw them.”

When the spa became quiet, Kang said she called 911. Even then, she said she still didn’t realize her colleagues had died and thought that a robber was simply “firing blanks.”

After what the survivors said felt like an eternity, the police arrived, banging on the doors. The survivors realized the suspect had locked both the front and back doors of the spa.

“Two of my three colleagues didn’t even scream before they died,” Lee said. “There were no cries. That means he shot them as soon as he saw them.”

Lee said it gave her “goosebumps” seeing how meticulous the suspect was. “We were already so terrified and didn’t understand why the police weren’t just coming in,” she said.

The spa, which is surrounded by other spas, 24-hour businesses, adult entertainment venues and nightclubs, usually leaves its front and back doors open during the day, for visitors, foot traffic and the occasional stray cat to drop by.

A security guard was on duty at the spa from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., according to Kang.

The attacks began around 5 p.m., when four people were killed near Acworth, a suburb north of Atlanta, authorities said. At 5:47 p.m., officers responded to a robbery at Gold Spa, according to APD’s call sheet. At 5:57 p.m., they received a report of shots fired at Aromatherapy Spa across the street.

Lee said she worked an average of 12 hours a day, seven days a week, alongside four other workers, who rotated shifts as they slept, ate and worked at the 24-hour massage parlor where she had been employed for about six years. She took five days off every three weeks.

Eunji Lee.Courtesy of Eunji Lee

Lee, who was mugged at gunpoint a few years before the shooting, pointed out how different the shooter’s behavior was compared to “traditional” robberies, which usually involved a suspect shouting orders for cash or preventing calls to police.

The shooter did not make any requests nor orders, according to both survivors.

“So how is this not a hate crime?” Lee said, stressing how the suspect targeted Asian-run spas.

Lee said she is terrified by the increase in violence toward Asians in America. Hate crimes against the community increased by nearly 150 percent in 2020, mostly in New York and L.A., while they decreased for the general population.

Advocates are pushing the Justice Department to pursue hate crime charges in the shootings. Authorities said Long told investigators he was motivated by “sexual addiction,” and while police said the suspect denied having racial motivations, critics say race must be considered, given the historical hypersexualization of Asian women.

There has been an outcry online that mainstream media is ignoring reports of allegations published in Korean-language media, which state that a local taxi driver told reporters he heard from nearby workers that the shooter said, “I will kill all Asians,” before committing the crime.

The taxi driver repeated this account to NBC Asian America, but NBC was not able to independently verify these reports with the business managers.

Both survivors said they did not hear the shooter say anti-Asian statements at their spa.

“He was silent,” Kang said. “He didn’t ask for anything. He simply came to kill. He came to murder in cold blood those who held nothing against him.”

“He was silent,” Kang said. “He didn’t ask for anything. He simply came to kill. He came to murder in cold blood those who held nothing against him.”

Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Long “may have frequented some of these places in the past.” Both survivors said they did not recognize him.

Kang said she still assumed the incident was a robbery until she saw blood near colleague Park’s mouth once the police arrived.

Based on the victims’ wounds, Lee said she believes the suspect seemed to have aimed for the victims’ heads, and not their limbs.

She saw blood in the back of Grant’s head as she tried shaking her awake. But even then, she said she didn’t realize her co-workers were dead.

She had urged the police to call the ambulance to escort her colleagues to the hospital. They ignored her pleas for help and only steered her away from the scene, Lee said. “The police officers didn’t even inform us that our colleagues died,” Lee said.

James Na, the chair of the Asian Community Advisory Committee of Gwinnett County, appointed by the district attorney, helped organize Lee’s GoFundMe page. He said Lee told him she struggles with bouts of insomnia each night, envisioning the footsteps of the suspect as she shut her eyes in hiding.

Na said he’s known Lee’s longtime friend for years and she had reached out to him for help.

Kang lives with her husband and daughter, who has recently set up a GoFundMe page for her mom. Kang, who was the only surviving victim at Gold Spa who witnessed the suspect attempt to shoot her, said she’s still haunted by making eye contact with him. The slightest noise startles her, and the sound of honking cars evokes memories of the shooting.

Fundraising profits for both victims will go to professional mental health counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, they said.

“I am alive, but why are they dead? Nothing I say would bring my friends back to life. I lost my close friends. The children lost their mothers,” Kang said.

“This is a living hell that nobody should go through,” Kang said. “It’s hurting so many people.”

Kang said Grant was her “cherished” friend for 14 years. Her daughter and Grant’s youngest son are the same age.

Randy Park, 23, her oldest son, said his single mother lived a life of work to support the three of them. “She didn’t have time to think about what she wanted to do. Even when she saved up, it was for me and my brother to settle down with what we wanted to do,” he said. Grant, who lived 30 miles away in Duluth, would often sleep through the night at the spa. “She was rarely at home, working days and nights.”

“It definitely shouldn’t have been the case,” he said. “No one needs to work that much just to live.” She worked tirelessly but also found time to unwind with late nights, disco music, Korean dramas, horror films and cooking for her two sons.

Hyun Jung Grant worked at Gold Spa in Atlanta.via GoFundMe

“Everyone says their mom’s cooking is the best, but there isn’t a better kimchi jjigae out there than my mom’s,” said Park, who would easily finish three big bowls of his mother’s kimchi stew when it was around.

“She was like a teenager,” Park said. “She just never really had the time to do things for fun.”

Grant spent her very last days working. Kang recalled her moaning about another day of work before entering a room inside the salon to begin her shift. Kang’s last words to her were to “work hard.” It would be the last time they would.

Asked what he would tell his mom today, Park said: “You did a good job. You’ve done enough and finally get some sleep and rest.”

The day of the shooting, Kang and Lee’s colleague Park wanted to head home for the day and had asked Kang to call her husband, Gwangho Lee.

He previously told NBC Asian America he arrived on the scene after receiving texts from Kang, who said the store was getting robbed. Gwangho Lee remembered his wife’s upbeat spirit.

Park had worked several jobs at delis, restaurants, a farm to help earn citizenship and a jewelry business, before Gold Spa.

She would return home after long hours with sore, swollen wrists but always checked in to see if he hadn’t skipped his meal.

“My wife had told me how hard it was for her to make it in the U.S.,” Gwangho Lee said.

Kang and Eunji Lee said they replay the last moments with their co-workers at the spa and they’re devastated for their families and community.

“I was just speaking with all my colleagues a few minutes ago, before it all happened,” Kang said. “I am alive, but why are they dead? Nothing I say would bring my friends back to life. I lost my close friends. The children lost their mothers. I don’t wish for this to happen ever again to anyone.”

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