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Suspect in shooting of 3 Palestinian college students in Vermont pleads not guilty – CNN

Published November 27, 2023 By admin


Investigators are “working hard” to determine the motive behind a shooting that left three Palestinian college students wounded in Vermont, Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said Monday.

“We still do not know as much as we want to know,” Murad said at a press conference two days after the shooting. “But I would urge the public and you in the media to avoid making conclusions based on statements from people who know even less than we currently do. We are working hard to find out this information.”

Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday and charged with three counts of attempted murder in the second degree. He pleaded not guilty Monday and is being held without bond.

“Although we do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement, I do want to be clear that there is no question, this was a hateful act,” prosecutor State Attorney Sarah George said Monday.

The three students remain hospitalized in an intensive care unit, said Rich Price, who is the uncle of one of the shooting victims and was hosting the students for Thanksgiving.

The shooting victims are Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University in Rhode Island; Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, a student at Trinity College in Connecticut, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, which provided statements on behalf of the victims’ families.

Two of the students were in stable condition over the weekend, but the third received “much more serious injuries,” police said.

The victims’ family members and several civil rights groups had been urging investigators to carefully examine whether the shooting was motivated by hate, as the attack came amid a reported rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias incidents in the US since the war between Israel and Hamas ignited last month.

“In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime,” the police chief said in a news release over the weekend.

An attorney for the victims’ families, Abed Ayoub, said he believes the students were targeted in part because two of them were wearing keffiyehs – traditional Palestinian scarves.

“The suspect walked up to them and shot them. They weren’t robbed, they weren’t mugged,” Ayoub told CNN on Sunday, before the arrest was announced. “It was a targeted shooting and a targeted crime.”

Eaton was arrested Sunday afternoon near the scene of the attack, about a day after he allegedly shot the trio of 20-year-old victims, the Burlington Police Department said. At Monday’s arraignment hearing, the judge ordered Eaton – who appeared virtually wearing an orange jumpsuit – to be held without bond.

The case has garnered national attention amid rising reports of hate crimes since the Israel-Hamas war erupted.

Authorities said Eaton lives in an apartment building in front of the shooting scene and a search of his home uncovered evidence that gave investigators “probable cause to believe that Mr. Eaton perpetrated the shooting.”

During the search of the suspect’s home, authorities recovered a .380 semi-automatic Ruger pistol, a law enforcement source said. The weapon was taken to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ballistics lab, where experts are firing a comparison bullet to examine it against the bullets recovered from the victims and shell casings recovered at the scene.

If convicted on the attempted murder charges, Eaton faces up to life in prison. The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont and other authorities are also investigating whether the shooting may have been a hate crime, officials said.

Following Monday’s hearing, Margaret Jansch, an attorney for Eaton, said it was “premature to speculate” about a possible hate crime motivation.

Asked by reporters what the suspect said to his lawyers, Jansch said that information was privileged, adding, “Anything he may have said to us we cannot disclose.”

The students were walking along the street Saturday night when they were confronted by a man with a handgun, who opened fire and shot each of them “without speaking” before fleeing, according to the police department.

The three students were in Burlington to visit Hisham Awartani’s grandmother for the Thanksgiving holiday and were going on a walk before dinner when they were shot, according to Marwan Awartani, a former Palestinian education minister, who is speaking on behalf of the victims’ families.

Investigators determined the trio was walking on Prospect Street when they were confronted by the suspect, described as a White man, who was “on foot in the area,” police said prior to Eaton’s arrest.

“Without speaking, (the suspect) discharged at least four rounds from the pistol and is believed to have fled on foot,” police said in a release.

Around 6:30 p.m. ET, police officers responding to reports of a shooting found two of the victims injured at the scene, police said. The third victim was found a short distance away.

At around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, ATF agents encountered Eaton as they were canvassing the shooting area and detained the suspect, police said.

When ATF agents approached Eaton, the suspect allegedly told them, “I’ve been waiting for you,” according to a probable cause affidavit.

Eaton told investigators there was a shotgun in his apartment, the affidavit says. But he would not identify himself or say whether there were other firearms in his home, the court document states.

A search warrant shows he had a Ruger .380 LCP pistol, along with a loaded magazine with five rounds inside his top dresser drawer.

As the investigation was unfolding, police said they were conducting witness interviews, returning to canvas the area and analyzing ballistic evidence recovered from the scene.

The FBI also assisted in the investigation and provided resources including victim services and computer and cell phone analysis, police said.

Before police announced the arrest of a suspect, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said investigators were considering whether the attack may have been motivated by hate.

“That there is an indication this shooting could have been motivated by hate is chilling, and this possibility is being prioritized in the investigation,” Weinberger said in a statement.

Before coming to the US for college, the three men attended school together at the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker-run private nonprofit school in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to the head of the school, Rania Maayeh.

In a statement Monday, the school welcomed the news of Eaton’s arrest and urged authorities to consider the possibility that the shooting was “motivated by hate.”

“Tragically, this incident is yet another example of the diminished regard for the lives, suffering, and inherent humanity of Palestinians. Let this incident be a stark reminder of the urgent need to challenge and change the discourse that deems us as anything less than fully human; people who are deserving of empathy, compassion, rights, life, freedom, and happiness,” the statement read.

One of the victims, Awartani, was shot in the spine but is stable, according to Maayeh, who visited his mother in Ramallah. His mother, Elisabeth Price, is trying to leave Ramallah and travel to the US to see her son, Maayeh said.

Awartani is immobilized as doctors work to increase blood flow to his spine, according to a source close to Price.

“We are praying that he can walk,” Maayeh said.

“These are very bright students, they are close friends from first grade,” Maayeh said.

In their statement, the victims’ families said they are “extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our children.”

“At this time, our primary concern is their full recovery and that they receive the critical medical support they need to survive,” the statement said. It added, “No family should ever have to endure this pain and agony. Our children are dedicated students who deserve to be able to focus on their studies and building their futures.”

Amid their calls for justice, the victims’ families and civil rights groups have reiterated that the shooting occurred amid near-constant anxieties among some Muslim and Arab communities in the US who report fearing for their safety since the war in the Middle East began.

“We will not be comfortable until the shooter is brought to justice,” the families’ statement said. “We need to ensure that our children are protected, and this heinous crime is not repeated.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, said the attack comes “as Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians across the country report a surge in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate since the escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel last month.”

The group said it was offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the shooting.

CAIR said earlier this month that it documented a more than 200% increase (compared to the same period last year) in requests for help and reported anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias incidents in the month since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

At Brown University, where Awartani attends college, the president acknowledged that many on campus have expressed “deep anxiety and fear about rising tensions and violence locally, globally and around the world.”

“I know that this heinous and despicable act of violence — this latest evidence of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian discrimination and hate spiraling across this country and around the world — will leave many in our community deeply shaken,” Brown president Christina H. Paxson said in a statement.

“We know it will heighten concerns about personal safety and security for Palestinian and Arab members of our community,” she added.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

CNN’s Dianne Gallagher, Joe Sutton, Zenebou Sylla, Eva McKend, Khalil Abdallah, Zoe Sottile and Michelle Watson contributed to this report.



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