A Vermont resident, Jason J. Eaton, aged 48, has been indicted with three counts of attempted second-degree murder following the shooting of three Palestinian-descended college students. The incident occurred on a Burlington street over the weekend, causing shockwaves through the small city.
The local authorities are investigating whether the incident can be classified as a hate crime. The assault on the three students, who were visiting for Thanksgiving, has been described as one of the most shocking events in Burlington’s history, and a significant setback for a city that prides itself on its welcoming nature.
Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad, during a press conference on Monday afternoon, stated, “Regardless of whether it meets the legal definition of a hate crime, there is no doubt that it was a hateful act.”
Eaton pleaded not guilty on Monday and is currently being held without bail. He made his court appearance via a remote video link from jail, and aside from expressing gratitude to the judge, he remained silent throughout the brief hearing. If convicted, Eaton could potentially face a life sentence.
The victims, all aged 20, had been residing at the home of one of their uncles. They had embarked on a walk around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday when Eaton allegedly approached them outside his apartment building on North Prospect Street. Without uttering a word, he is said to have drawn a handgun and begun shooting from a distance of approximately two yards.
The victims have been identified as Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University; Tahseen Ali Ahmad, a student at Trinity College; and Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College. The three men, friends since childhood, include two U.S. citizens and one legal resident.
According to an affidavit, Awartani was shot in the spine, Ali Ahmad was hit in the chest, and Abdalhamid was struck in the backside. The victims informed their relatives that they were conversing in a mix of English and Arabic prior to the shooting. Two of the victims were wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs, a traditional headdress, leading relatives to fear that they were targeted due to their Arab American heritage.
Radi Tamini, an uncle of Abdalhamid, expressed at the news conference, “Given the current climate, it’s difficult to believe that this was a random act.” The families of the victims later issued a statement asserting their belief that a thorough investigation would likely reveal that their sons were targeted and violently attacked for being Palestinian.
Eaton was apprehended just after 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, according to Chief Murad, when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives knocked on his door during a canvas of the apartment building. Eaton reportedly answered the door with his palms up, telling the agents, “I’ve been waiting for you.” When asked why, Eaton requested legal representation.
A search of Eaton’s apartment led to the discovery of a .38-caliber handgun and a loaded magazine containing five rounds of distinctive red-tipped ammunition in a drawer in his bedroom. The rounds matched some of those found at the shooting scene, and subsequent ballistics tests confirmed the connection, as stated by Chief Murad.
The firearm involved in the incident was acquired recently and in accordance with the law, as confirmed by the Chief of Police.
Margaret Jansch, a public defender assigned as co-counsel for the accused, Mr. Eaton, refrained from discussing the specifics of the case.
Mary Reed, the mother of the suspect, disclosed to The Daily Beast that her son had been battling depression, but appeared to be in high spirits during their Thanksgiving encounter. Ms. Reed, a resident of Salisbury, Vermont, approximately 45 miles south of Burlington, characterized her son as a compassionate, devout individual.
A website seemingly registered under the name of Jason Eaton made mention of his previous enrollment in forestry and outdoor science programs at the University of Idaho. Chief Murad portrayed Mr. Eaton as a recent transplant to Burlington, having previously resided in Syracuse, New York.
Sarah George, the State’s Attorney for the county encompassing Burlington, stated that prosecutors would need to substantiate with concrete evidence that the shootings were hate-motivated. While such proof would not alter the potential sentence for each charge — a term of 20 years to life — it could be considered an aggravating factor at sentencing, she explained.
Among the items retrieved from Mr. Eaton’s apartment for examination by the police was a computer, the contents of which will be thoroughly analyzed for any indication of a motive, according to officials.
The shootings occurred amidst an escalating wave of violence and mounting apprehension about crime in Vermont, a state renowned for its tranquil natural beauty, sparse population, and safety. The state has witnessed over 20 homicides this year; the 25 homicides reported in 2022, including five in Burlington, marked the highest number Vermont had experienced in close to three decades.
Rich Price, the uncle of Mr. Awartani and the host of the three young men over the weekend, expressed that the crime is indicative of the prevalent hatred and epidemic of gun violence in our country.
He expressed admiration for the resilience and positive attitude demonstrated by the three injured friends, who were celebrating the birthday of Mr. Price’s twin children just prior to the attack.
He commended the three young men, stating, “These three young men are remarkable, and they are dedicated to leading extraordinary lives.”