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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Suspect in Vermont shootings arraigned on charges of attempted murder

Medics attended to the victims as police officers secured the scene of the shooting in Burlington. The police were investigating the attack as a possible hate crime.

By Jenna Russell and Tik Root

A 48-year-old Vermont man was charged on Monday with three counts of attempted second-degree murder in the weekend shootings of three young men of Palestinian descent on a Burlington street, a violent episode that stunned the small city. He pleaded not guilty.

The suspect, Jason J. Eaton, was held without bail pending a bail hearing. He appeared in court through a remote video link from jail, wearing a red prison shirt. He did not speak during the brief hearing, except to thank the judge.

Prosecutors did not offer details of their investigation at the hearing Monday.

According to an affidavit of probable cause filed by the Burlington police, Eaton encountered the three young men, all students, just before 6:30 p.m. on Saturday outside the apartment building where he lives on North Prospect Street, near the University of Vermont campus. The affidavit said that the students were approaching a house when the gunman walked up, pulled out a handgun and started shooting at them from about two yards away.

According to the court documents, Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University, was shot in the spine; Tahseen Ahmed, a student at Trinity College, was struck in the chest, and Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College, was struck in the backside. All three men are 20 years old.

They were walking to the house of Awartani’s grandmother for dinner, according to Marwan Awartani, a great-uncle and a former education minister of the Palestinian Authority.

The young men told family members they were speaking a hybrid of English and Arabic before the man shot at them four times without saying anything, according to a family spokesperson. Two of the victims were wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs, a traditional headdress.

The police searched Eaton’s apartment, the affidavit said, and found a pistol and a loaded magazine containing five rounds of ammunition in a drawer in his bedroom. The rounds were the same brand as some that were found at the scene of the shooting, according to the affidavit.

It also noted that when an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “made contact” with Eaton on Sunday, the suspect “made a statement to the effect of, ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’”

A public defender assigned as co-counsel for Eaton, Margaret Jansch, declined to comment on the details of the case. “First of all, we hope that the victims who were shot recover quickly and completely,” she said.

The suspect’s mother, Mary Reed, told the Daily Beast that her son had suffered from depression but seemed to be in a good mood when she saw him on Thanksgiving. Reed, who lives in Salisbury, Vermont, about 45 miles south of Burlington, described him as “kind and loving” as well as a “very religious person.”

A website that appeared to be registered to the same Jason Eaton included references to his past enrollment in forestry and outdoor science programs at the University of Idaho.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in Manhattan on Monday that the FBI and the ATF were investigating the shooting of the three students, including the question of whether it was a hate crime.

“No person and no community in this country should have to live with the fear of hate-fueled violence,” Garland said.

The shootings came at a time of rising violence and growing concern about crime in Vermont, a sparsely populated state once known for its safety. The state has seen more than 20 homicides this year; the 25 homicides reported there in 2022 were the most Vermont had seen in nearly three decades.

Will Downey, 31, a Burlington resident who was walking his dog on Monday near the scene of the shooting, said the episode had left him uneasy.

“We walk every day, which makes it disturbing,” he said.

Matt Sasaki, 30, a resident of the same apartment building as the suspect, said the experience had been unnerving.

“It’s a quiet house for the most part,” he said. “The whole thing has been pretty surreal.”

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