BURLINGTON, Vt. - Three college students of Palestinian descent who were outside getting some fresh air were seriously injured in Vermont over the weekend after a man approached them and shot them — an attack that is now 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. He was ordered held without bail pending another hearing.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is investigating whether the shooting on Saturday 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.
Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad told reporters that Eaton had moved to Burlington over the summer and had purchased the gun legally. According to a police affidavit, federal agents found the gun in Eaton’s apartment on Sunday. He refused to identify himself but came to the door holding his hands palms up, and told the officers he’d been waiting on them.
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.
"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," Murad said. Two were struck in their torsos, while one was hit in the lower extremities.
Two of the men were in stable condition and the other suffered "much more serious injuries," Murad said.
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."
FILE - Visitors and patients enter the main entrance to the University of Vermont Medical Center on Nov. 17, 2023, in Burlington, Vermont. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
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 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.
Two of the victims are U.S. citizens and the third is in the country with legal permission. Two of the men were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, 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 enhancement, which under Vermont law would have to 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 when discussing whether it was a hate crime.
"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 called it "one of the most shocking and disturbing events in the city’s history."
"The horrific unprovoked attack was a tragic violation of the values and character of this welcoming, inclusive community," he said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden were "horrified" to learn of the shooting. "There is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America," she said Monday. "No person should worry about being targeted while going about their daily lives."
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."
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.
Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington and David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.