A man pleaded not guilty to attempted murder Monday in connection with the weekend shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent in Vermont — an attack that is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday, a day after the shooting outside his apartment building near the University of Vermont campus. He appeared in court by video from jail, speaking only to confirm his identity. His attorney entered pleas of not guilty on his behalf, and a judge ordered him held without bail pending a hearing that likely will be held in the next few days.
Investigation into Possible Hate Crime
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is investigating whether the shooting was a hate crime. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting Vermont authorities in the investigation.
There has been a sharp increase in threats directed against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities across the U.S. since the Israel-Hamas war began, he said. “There is understandable fear in communities across the country,” Garland said.
The three men, all age 20, who were spending their Thanksgiving break in Burlington, were walking during a visit to the home of one of the victims’ relatives when they were confronted by a white man with a handgun, police said.
“Without speaking, he discharged at least four rounds from the pistol and is believed to have fled,” Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said. “All three victims were struck, two in their torsos and one in the lower extremities.”
Two of the men were in stable condition and the other suffered “much more serious injuries,” Murad said in a statement Sunday.
Two of the victims are U.S. citizens and the third is in the country with legal permission. Two of the men were wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, Murad said.
According to a police affidavit, federal agents found a shotgun in Eaton’s apartment. He refused to identify himself but told the officers he had been waiting for them.
The Institute for Middle East Understanding, in a statement from victims’ families on X, formerly known as Twitter, identified the men as Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad.
“We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our children,” the statement said. “We call on law enforcement to conduct a thorough investigation, including treating this as a hate crime. We will not be comfortable until the shooter is brought to justice.”
The three men had been staying at Awartani’s grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, Awartani told police. They had gone bowling earlier Saturday and were returning when a man walked up to them, pulled out a gun and started shooting, he said.
A second victim told police he saw a man staring at them from the porch of a white house. Abdalhamid told police that the man stumbled down the stairs and pulled out a pistol.
Rich Price, Awartani’s uncle, said the gunman “shot them without saying any words” and all three are now in the ICU.
Response and Reactions
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is expected to join Murad at a press conference Monday to discuss the investigation. Murad, who expressed sympathies for the victims and their families, said there is no additional information to suggest a motive.
“In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime. And I have already been in touch with federal investigatory and prosecutorial partners to prepare for that if it’s proven,” he said.
“The fact is that we don’t yet know as much as we want to right now,” Murad added. “But I urge the public to avoid making conclusions based on statements from uninvolved parties who know even less.”
The White House said President Joe Biden was briefed on the shooting and would continue to receive law enforcement updates.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or conviction of the person or people responsible for the shootings.
Ramallah Friends School posted a statement on Facebook saying the three young men were graduates of the private school, in the West Bank.
“While we are relieved to know that they are alive, we remain uncertain about their condition and hold them in the light,” the school said. “We stand united in hope and support for their well-being during this challenging time.”
In response to the shooting, U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries encouraged people to “unequivocally denounce the startling rise of anti-Arab hate and Islamophobia in America.”
“No one should ever be targeted for their ethnicity or religious affiliation in our country,” the New York Democrat said in the statement posted on X. “We will not let hatred win.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, also denounced the shooting.
“It is shocking and deeply upsetting that three young Palestinians were shot here in Burlington, VT. Hate has no place here, or anywhere. I look forward to a full investigation,” Sanders said in a statement.
Gov. Phil Scott called the shooting a tragedy, calling on the state’s residents to unite and “not let this incident incite more hate or divisiveness.”
The Vermont-New Hampshire chapter of Jewish Voice For Peace, which has urged an end to the Israel-Hamas war, released a statement saying it was “appalled by the shooting.”
“We are in solidarity with the students, their families and all those affected by this clear act of hate,” the organization said Sunday. “We are in solidarity with all Palestinian people in occupied Palestine, around the world, and here in Vermont — and we are committed to creating a Vermont that is safe and welcoming for all.”
The American Jewish Committee, an advocacy organization for Jewish people worldwide, also said via X it was “horrified” by the attack and urged “law enforcement to investigate this act as a possible hate crime.”
Last month, an Illinois landlord was charged with a hate crime after being accused of fatally stabbing a 6-year-old Muslim boy and seriously wounding his mother in suburban Chicago. Police and relatives said he singled out the victims because of their faith.
Demonstrations have been widespread and tensions in the U.S. have escalated as the death toll rises in the Israel-Hamas war. A fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the militants freed more hostages and Israel released 39 Palestinian prisoners. It was the third exchange under a four-day truce deal.