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The Southern Baptist church attended by the alleged Atlanta mass shooter has responded to the tragedy by attempting to disappear from the internet.
After news broke Tuesday that Robert Aaron Long, 21, stood accused of killing eight people, including six Asian women, at massage parlors in the Atlanta area, the Crabapple First Baptist Church’s online presence went dark. Its website went private, and its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts were shuttered.
The church issued a brief statement to media outlets on Wednesday describing its leadership as “heartbroken” for everyone involved.
“We grieve for the victims and their families, and we continue to pray for them,” the statement attributed to elders of Crabapple First Baptist Church read. “Moreover, we are distraught for the Long family and continue to pray for them as well.”
The church didn’t respond to follow-up questions from VICE News about why the web pages had been taken down. Individual elders of the church didn’t answer emailed requests for comment.
Yet the church is unlikely to recede from the spotlight anytime soon, after being thrust into a crisis following Long’s arrest and indictment on eight counts of murder.
Police say Long described himself as a sex addict, and explained his own motivations in terminology that echoed traditional Christian moral prohibitions around sex and temptation.
“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County sheriff’s department said Wednesday.
Comments by police suggesting the incident was all about sex were criticized by some observers for appearing to shift blame to the victims, and for taking the suspect’s claim that the killing spree wasn’t racially motivated at face value. Police have said they don’t have enough evidence yet to classify the incident as a hate crime, even though most of Long’s victims were Asian women.
He’s believed to have frequented the massage parlors he attacked, police said.
In a cached post dating to Monday, March 15, on its now-inaccessible website, the church offered an interpretation of the Seventh Commandment (which states “Thou shalt not commit adultery”).
That edict means God requires “that we abstain from sexual immorality and live purely and faithfully, whether in marriage or in single life, avoiding all impure actions, looks, words, thoughts, or desires, and whatever might lead to them,” the post reads.
People who know Long described him to VICE News as quiet and intensely religious, and a person who kept to his own group of friends.
He helped lead the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a worship and sermon group at his high school, one former classmate said.
“He was a real big bookworm; every time I seen him in class or lunch, he was reading.”
“He was a real big bookworm; every time I seen him in class or lunch, he was reading,” the person, who was in Long’s graduating class and spoke to him occasionally, told VICE News.
Another former classmate described him as intelligent and bookish.
“Nothing ever seemed irrational about him,” the person said. “I never noticed any crazy tendencies or smart comments that would make me believe he would do something like this.”
Long is one of 11 members of the Youth Ministry Team listed in the minutes from a church meeting in 2018.
Nico Straughan, 21, who went to school with the alleged shooter, told the Associated Press that Long was “super nice, super Christian, very quiet.”
Straughan said Long brought a Bible to school every day and carried it in his hands when he walked in the halls.
“He went from one of the nicest kids I ever knew in high school to being on the news yesterday,” Straughan said.
Long’s church posted a video to its Facebook page in 2018, in a since-removed post, that read: “We had the joy of witnessing the baptism of Aaron Long yesterday!”
In the video, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast before it was taken down, Long reportedly went on to describe his personal religious journey as one of sin and redemption. He recalled hearing the story of the prodigal son in his youth.
“The son goes off and squanders all that he has and lives completely for himself and then, when he finds he’s wanting to eat pig food, he realized there’s something wrong and he goes back to his father and his father runs back to him and embraces him,” Long reportedly said.
“And by the grace of God, I was able to draw the connection there and realize this is a story between what happened with me and God. I ran away living completely for myself, and he still wants me, and so that’s when I was saved,” he continued.
A spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Department declined to comment on whether investigators have spoken with representatives of the church.
The department “cannot provide additional information regarding religious institutions or organizations Robert Long is reported to be associated with at this time,” a spokesperson wrote in an email on Wednesday afternoon.