BURLINGTON, Vt. — They went to high school together in the West Bank and now attend top universities in the United States. As war between Israel and Hamas raged, the three students of Palestinian descent spent Thanksgiving weekend in this city with relatives of one of them, far from the turmoil of Gaza.
After returning from a birthday party at a bowling alley, they were walking down a residential street near the University of Vermont campus at around 6:30 p.m. Saturday, chatting in a mixture of English and Arabic, police said. Two were wearing keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian scarves.
Then, according to police, a man stepped off a porch with a gun and shot each of them, without saying a word.
On Monday, Jason J. Eaton, 48, who lives in an apartment on North Prospect Street where the shooting occurred, pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted second-degree murder. He was ordered held until a hearing in the coming days over whether he should remain jailed while the case is pending.
Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said during a press conference Monday that investigators have not determined a motive for the shootings, but are looking into whether it was a hate crime.
“Whether or not this is a hate crime by the law, it was a hateful act,” Murad said. “It’s one that we abhor, and anybody who steps out from a porch and attacks three random passersby, for whatever reason, is expressing a form of hate.”
The victims were Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, all 20 years old. The men, two of whom are American citizens and the third a legal resident, attend Brown University, Haverford College, and Trinity College, according to the schools.
Awartani was shot in the spine, Ali Ahmad was shot in the chest, and Abdalhamid was shot in the glute area, according to court filings.
At the press briefing, Awartani’s uncle, Rich Price, said all three students remained in intensive care.
“I think Kinnan’s injuries are, though difficult, he will make a full and speedy recovery,” Price said. “Tahseen is in quite a lot of pain. And my nephew Hisham received a spinal injury as a result of the shooting and faces a long recovery.”
Abdalhamid’s uncle, Radi Tamimi, told reporters that the families are stunned by the attack.
“We’re really praying for them, and we’re still in shock over this,” Tamimi said. He said Abdalhamid “grew up in the West Bank and we always thought that could be more of a risk in terms of his safety. And sending him here would be the right decision. We feel somehow betrayed in that decision here. And you know, we’re just trying to come to terms with everything.”
Eaton was arrested shortly after 3:30 p.m. Sunday by federal agents investigating the shootings, police said.
When agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived at his residence, Eaton stepped toward them “with his palms up at waist height and stated something to the effect of ‘I’ve been waiting for you,” Murad said. “ATF agents said ‘Why is that?’ And the gentleman said in sum and substance, ‘I would like a lawyer.’ ”
Investigators searched Eaton’s apartment and found a .380-caliber pistol, the same type of weapon used in the attack, according to an affidavit filed in court. He had bought it legally in April, authorities said.
Investigators also seized computer evidence, ammunition, a Go Pro camera, a Savage model 20-gauge shotgun, a Savage .22 rifle, and an Ithaca model 20-gauge shotgun, the affidavit said.
Sarah George, state’s attorney for Chittenden County, said prosecutors currently don’t have the evidence to “support a hate crime enhancement,” but the investigation is ongoing. Eaton faces up to life in prison if convicted on the attempted murder counts, George said.
“I do want to be clear that there is no question this was a hateful act,” George said. “We currently live in a world of divisiveness and hate, rather than inclusion and love.”
Murad said investigators believe Eaton moved to Burlington over the summer and had previously lived in the Syracuse, N.Y. area. The only previous interaction authorities in Vermont had with Eaton was a traffic stop in 2016, Murad said.
Eaton was a full-time sales assistant for CUSO Financial Services in Williston, Vt., according to his LinkedIn account. He was terminated on Nov. 8 after working there for less than a year, said Elisabeth Rutledge, a company spokeswoman.
“We are horrified by the shooting and are cooperating with law enforcement as they investigate,” she said in a statement.
In an interview from the hospital, Awartani told police he and his two friends hadn’t had any disagreements with anyone during their visit before the shooting, according to the affidavit filed in court. The students were in Burlington visiting Awartani’s relatives over the Thanksgiving holiday.
He said they were speaking a mixture of English and Arabic as they walked down North Prospect Street after returning from a family party at a bowling alley in nearby Colchester. Awartani told investigators the shooter came within about two yards of them and began firing, according to the affidavit.
Abdalhamid told investigators the shooter had been “staring” at the trio before he “stumbled down” the porch steps and headed toward them, the affidavit said. He said he ran as the shooter opened fire and hopped a fence, hiding behind a home for about two minutes.
He then went to another home and “begged” a woman there to call 911. When he sat down he felt pain, saw blood, and realized he’d been shot, the affidavit said.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said during Monday’s briefing that President Biden had called him minutes earlier.
“The Saturday evening shooting of three young Palestinian college students visiting Burlington on their holiday break was one of the most shocking and disturbing events in this city’s history,” Weinberger said.
The president said in a statement released after the briefing that he and Jill Biden were “horrified” by the shootings.
“We join Americans across the country in praying for their full recovery, and we send our deepest condolences to their families,” said Biden. “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. And far too many Americans know a family member injured or killed as a result of gun violence. We cannot and we will not accept that.”
The families of the students issued a statement prior to Eaton’s arrest saying they were “devastated by the horrific news that our children were targeted and shot.”
The US attorney for Vermont, Nikolas Kerest, said the FBI, the ATF, and members of a county gun violence task force are assisting in the investigation, and federal prosecutors will determine whether the shootings were a federal crime.
From 2017 to 2022, Eaton worked as a leader for a Cub Scout troop, according to his LinkedIn page. The Boy Scouts of America said Monday that Eaton had been an assistant scoutmaster in upstate New York and was last registered with the organization in 2021.
Eaton is not currently a member of the organization and has not been registered in scouting in Vermont, the Boy Scouts said.
Scott Armstrong, a spokesperson for the Boy Scouts, said Eaton left the scouts of his own accord and his membership “voluntarily” expired in 2021.
“He was not dismissed and there were no complaints,” Armstrong said.
In Syracuse, the city’s Department of Community Development lauded Eaton for his “dedication and hard work” as a volunteer community liaison between the city and its Eastside neighborhood in 2009.
Brooke Schneider, a city spokesperson, confirmed that Eaton was a volunteer from 2009 to 2011.
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh denounced the Vermont shooting in a statement to the Globe, saying, “We all must join together in rejecting hatred and intolerance in any form and work toward a nation and world of understanding and peaceful coexistence.”
On Monday, the uncles of two of the victims said they were willing to wait for authorities to determine whether the shootings were a hate crime, but suspect they were.
“It’s hard to imagine in this time with everything that is happening that it was just a random act,” said Tamimi, Abdalhamid’s uncle. “It doesn’t feel that way.”
Kevin Cullen, John R. Ellement, and Shannon Larson of the Globe staff contributed this report.