A spokesman for a Georgia Sheriff's Office investigating a string of massage parlor shootings near Atlanta was removed from the case Thursday after social media posts went viral showing him promoting a T-shirt with controversial language about China and the coronavirus.
Cherokee County Communications Director Erika Neldner announced in a statement that she would be handling media inquiries related to Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into Tuesday’s slayings.
The statement did not give details about the status of Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker. He has been the target of widespread criticism for Facebook posts promoting the T-shirts and also for saying during a news conference Wednesday that murder suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, had “a really bad day” and “this is what he did.”
The discovery of the Facebook post came amid concerns from some Asian Americans that authorities are not treating the killings, which mainly targeted women of Asian descent, as hate crimes.
A hate crime? Georgia attacks that killed mostly Asian women raise questions of bias, motiveThe post Baker urged his friends to "place your order while they last" along with a photo of the T-shirt calling COVID-19 an "imported virus from CHY-NA."
The post went viral shortly after Baker drew criticism for both seeming to distance the case from being a hate crime while also telling reporters that Long had a “bad day.”
“He was pretty much fed up and kind of end of his rope and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did,” Baker said during a news conference after Long's arrest.
Long has not been charged with a hate crime, which has very specific focus and requirements in order to be prosecuted. Authorities must prove a crime was committed on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
As criticism continued to mount, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds released a statement Thursday afternoon defending Baker while apologizing for "any heartache" Baker's words may have caused. The statement did not address Baker's Facebook posts.
"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, noting Baker's remarks launched "much debate and anger."
He defended Baker's work and noted this case was "one of the hardest in his 28 years in law enforcement."
Hours later, he was removed from handling media inquiries in the case.
Asian American activists said Baker’s comments and the Facebook post undermine public confidence that investigators are adequately addressing Tuesday’s atrocity.
“To see this post is both disturbing and outrageous. It speaks to the structural racism that we’re all up against,” said Vincent Pan, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights organization working to address anti-Asian hate crimes. “Coupled with the comments coming out of the news conference, it does not give community members confidence that our experiences and the pain and the suffering that we’re feeling are being taken seriously, at least by this particular person.”
At least one prominent Democrat, Rep. Ted Lieu of California, called for the investigation to be handled by the FBI due to all the controversy, saying he wouldn't "have confidence in the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office to conduct a fair investigation that respected the Asian victims."
Baker's adopted brother, Tony Baker, is a Vietnamese immigrant who was raised with him from a young age. Tony Baker serves as a Superior Court judge in Cherokee County.
Judge Baker declined to comment for this story.
Six of the eight victims of Tuesday’s attacks were of Asian descent, including two of the four victims who were killed in Cherokee County.
Baker did not respond to voicemails and an email requesting comment on the Facebook post. The sheriff’s office also did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Contributing: Erin Mansfield, USA TODAY; Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta shooting 'bad day': Georgia Capt. Jay Baker removed from case