President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris plan to meet with Asian American community leaders in Georgia in the wake of the deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, the White House announced Thursday.
Meanwhile, authorities said the investigation was wide open and could still result in hate crimes charges.
“Our investigation is looking at everything, so nothing is off the table,” Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said during a news conference.
The president and vice president were already scheduled to travel Friday to Atlanta to tout the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but the trip took on new meaning after the shootings that killed eight people, six of them Asian women. A ninth person was also shot but survived.
The visit also comes amid an intense debate over voter rights in Georgia. Harris is the first vice president of Asian descent.
Authorities have charged Robert Aaron Long, 21, with murder in the worst mass killing in the U.S. in almost two years. Investigators believe the suspect had visited two of the spas where four women were killed, Hampton said.
The suspect told police that Tuesday’s attack was not racially motivated. He claimed to have a sex addiction, and authorities said he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation. Police have said they are still working to determine a motive, but the suspect's statements spurred outrage and widespread skepticism in the Asian American community, which has increasingly been targeted for violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cherokee County Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker drew criticism for appearing to promote a T-shirt with racist language about China and the coronavirus on his Facebook page last year. Baker also came under fire for saying the shooting suspect had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.”
Sheriff Frank Reynolds released a statement Thursday acknowledging that some of Baker's comments stirred “much debate and anger” and said the agency regrets any “heartache" caused by his words.
“In as much as his words were taken or construed as insensitive or inappropriate, they were not intended to disrespect any of the victims, the gravity of this tragedy or express empathy or sympathy for the suspect,” Reynolds said in the statement, adding that Baker “had a difficult task before him, and this was one of the hardest in his 28 years in law enforcement.”
Biden and Harris will postpone an evening political event in Georgia for a future date, the White House said. During the trip to Atlanta, they will instead meet with Asian American leaders to discuss the ongoing threats against the community, meet with other local leaders and visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an update on the pandemic.
Also Thursday, Biden directed that flags be flown at half-staff through sunset Monday in honor of the dead.
Georgia Shooting Coverage
Lawyer J. Daran Burns issued a statement Thursday saying he had been appointed to represent the suspect. He offered condolences to victims' families and said he was working on the suspect's behalf "to investigate the facts and circumstances” surrounding the slayings.
The suspect waived his right to an initial hearing in Cherokee County Magistrate Court on his lawyer's advice, the statement said.