The suspect in the shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent in Vermont over the weekend pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted second-degree murder on Monday and was ordered by a judge to be held without bond.
The suspect, Jason J. Eaton, 48, appeared at an arraignment at the Chittenden County Criminal Court in Burlington via a remote video feed from the county jail, where he has been held since his arrest on Sunday.
The attack is under investigation by local and federal authorities as a suspected hate-motivated crime. At the time of the shooting, two of the victims were wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional black-and-white checkered head scarf commonly worn in the Middle East, police said.
Police say Eaton used a pistol to shoot them on the street near the University of Vermont in Burlington on Saturday evening and then ran away.
All three remained under medical care on Monday, two with gunshot wounds in their torsos and one shot in the lower extremities. Two were in stable condition, while one has sustained much more serious injuries, police said.
“Although we do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement, I do want to be clear that there is no question that this was a hateful act,” said Sarah Fair George, state’s attorney for Chittenden County, during a briefing on Monday.
The shooting came amid a rise in anti-Islamic and antisemitic incidents reported around the United States since a bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted on Oct. 7.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit at the three-minute hearing, Eaton responded “yes, sir” when asked by the judge if he understood the charges against him.
Police said the suspect had legally acquired the gun used in the shooting a few months ago.
The victims were reported to have been speaking Arabic when attacked, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit pro-Palestinian advocacy organization. It also said the assailant opened fire on the three men after he began to shout at and harass them. Police say he fired four shots without saying a word.
‘Elevated global threat environment’
The US Department of Justice is assisting local authorities in the investigation, US Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Monday.
“No person and no community in this country should have to live in fear of lethal violence,” Garland said ahead of a separate meeting at the department’s Southern District of New York office.
Garland cited the ongoing “elevated global threat environment” and the “sharp increase in the volume and frequency of threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across our country since October 7” for the understandable fear in communities across the country.
The White House said President Joe Biden was horrified by the shooting. “There is absolutely, absolutely no place for violence or hate in America,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a news briefing.
The families identified the victims as Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University in Rhode Island; Kinnan Abdel Hamid, a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Tahseen Ahmed, who attends Trinity College in Connecticut.
All of the victims are 20 years old; two are US citizens and the third is a legal US resident, police said.
They are graduates of the Ramallah Friends School, a private Quaker secondary school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the families said.
Two of the students were visiting the home of the third student’s family in Burlington for the Thanksgiving holiday.