BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Three college students of Palestinian descent out for a walk in Vermont were seriously injured over the weekend when a man shot them at close range on a city street — an attack being investigated as a possible hate crime, authorities said Monday.
Jason J. Eaton, 48, made his initial court appearance by video from jail on three counts of attempted murder, and a plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf on Monday. He was ordered held without bail.
The U.S. Department of Justice, along with Vermont authorities, were investigating whether Saturday’s shooting was a hate crime amid an increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across the U.S. since the Israel-Hamas war began, Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “There is understandable fear in communities across the country,” he said.
The three men, all age 20, were spending their Thanksgiving break in Burlington, and were out for a walk while visiting one of the victims’ relatives when they were confronted by a white man with a handgun, police said.
“They stated that the person had not made any comments to them and had merely approached them while they were walking down the street, essentially minding their own business,” Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad told reporters.
Two of the young men were struck in their torsos, while one was hit in the lower extremities, Murad said. All three were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said.
“I’ve been with them almost constantly since Saturday evening. I’ve been listening to them talk to one another and try to process the events, and I’m blown away by their resilience, by their good humor in the face of these difficult times,” said Rich Price, the uncle of one of the students.
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 shooting victims have been friends since first grade at Ramallah Friends School, a private school in the West Bank, and all are “remarkable, distinguished students,” said Rania Ma’ayeh, head of the school.
Awartani is studying mathematics and archaeology at Brown University in Rhode Island; Abdalhamid is a pre-med student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Ali Ahmad is studying mathematics and IT at Trinity College in Connecticut, Ma’ayeh said. Awartani and Abdalhamid are U.S. citizens while Ali Ahmad is studying on a student visa, Ma’ayeh said.
“Our students are not safe in their own country because of the occupation. They’re studying abroad and have a bright future ahead of them, and look at what happens,” she said. “This has deeply shaken us.”
Abdalhamid’s uncle Radi Tamimi, who flew from California and spoke Monday at the press conference, shared a similar sentiment.
“Kinnan grew up in the West Bank and we always thought that that could be more of a risk in terms of his safety and sending him here would be a right decision,” the uncle said. “We feel somehow betrayed in that decision here and we’re just trying to come to terms with everything.”
Eaton moved to Burlington over the summer from Syracuse, New York, and legally purchased the gun used in the shooting, Murad told reporters. According to a police affidavit, federal agents found the gun in Eaton’s apartment on Sunday. Eaton came to the door holding his hands, palms up, and told the officers he’d been waiting for them.
Syracuse police said Eaton’s name appeared in 37 police reports from 2007 until 2021, but never as a suspect. The cases ranged from domestic violence to larceny, and Eaton was listed as either a complainant or victim in 21 reports, according to Lt. Matthew Malinowski, the department’s public information officer.
Price, Awartani’s uncle, said the gunman “shot them without saying any words” and that the family suspects they were targets of a hate crime.
“The family’s fear is that this was motivated by hate, that these young men were targeted because they were Arabs,” Price said.
The victims were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves when they were shot, Murad said.
Speaking at a news conference, Sarah George, state’s attorney, said law enforcement officials do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime charge, which under Vermont law must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But, she said, “I do want to be clear that there is no question that this was a hateful act.”
Murad echoed George’s language.
“Whether or not this is a hate crime by the law, it was a hateful act. It’s one that we abhor,” he said. “And anybody who steps out from a porch and attacks three random passersby for whatever reason, he’s expressing a form of hate.”
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who called it “one of the most shocking and disturbing events in the city’s history,” said he spoke to President Joe Biden on Monday.
Biden said he and his wife were horrified by the shooting and were praying that the students make a full recovery.
“While we are waiting for more facts, we know this: there is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America. Period. No person should worry about being shot at while going about their daily lives,” Biden said in a statement.
Burlington has gone from a city that typically saw two shootings per year to one that experienced 26 in 2022, said Murad, who created a task force last year to address the increase.
U.S. 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, Vermont. Hate has no place here, or anywhere. I look forward to a full investigation,” Sanders said in a statement.
Gov. Phil Scott said the shooting was a tragedy, and called on the state’s residents to unite and “not let this incident incite more hate or divisiveness.”
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 set to continue for two more days past Monday as 11 more hostages were handed over to the Red Cross in Gaza under what was originally a four-day truce deal.
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.
University of Vermont graduate student Jacob Friz-Trillo, who lives down the street from where the weekend shootings took place, said he believes “New England itself has sort of a different type of racism than the rest of the United States,” but that the violence was out of character in a city regarded as “super liberal.”
Ma’ayeh said the most recent attack shows safety must improve. “This incident is a reminder of the urgency to change the discourse, which has dehumanized Palestinians. They are people who are deserving of empathy, compassion, rights, freedom, happiness and life,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Kinnan Abdalhamid’s uncle’s last name. It is Tamimi, not Tamini.
Associated Press writers Lisa Rathke, Holly Ramer, Lindsay Whitehurst and David Sharp contributed to this report.