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Kelly Garrity

Police arrest suspect in the shooting of 3 men of Palestinian descent near the University of Vermont

A sign on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington is pictured on March 11, 2020. | Charles Krupa/AP
UPDATED: 27 NOV 2023 03:58 PM EST

The suspect accused of shooting three young men of Palestinian descent pleaded not guilty to attempted murder Monday, after he was arrested Sunday in connection with the incident, which is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Jason J. Eaton, 48, while conducting a search of the shooting area in Burlington at 3:38 p.m. Sunday, the Burlington Police Department said in a statement.

Authorities collected evidence during a search of Eaton’s apartment in a building in front of the shooting location.

The three men, all 20 years old, were shot near the University of Vermont campus around 6:25 p.m. Saturday evening in an attack that may have been a hate crime, Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said on Sunday. Two of the victims were in stable condition as of Sunday afternoon, while another had “more serious injuries,” according to police.

The group was staying with the family of one of the victims for the Thanksgiving holiday, according to a news release from Murad on Sunday afternoon. Two of the victims were wearing keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian headdresses, and all three were walking down the street when a white male with a handgun confronted them and fired at least four rounds, without speaking.

“In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime,” Murad said in his statement, cautioning people against jumping to conclusions.

“The fact is that we don’t yet know as much as we want to right now,” he said. “But I urge the public to avoid making conclusions based on statements from uninvolved parties who know even less.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden were "horrified" by the incident, and were praying for the three victims' full recovery.

"While we're waiting for more facts, we know this: there is absolutely, absolutely no place for violence or hate in America," Jean-Pierre said.

In a statement on Monday, Biden said he had spoken to Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and offered his support.

“No person should worry about being shot at while going about their daily lives,” Biden said. “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 shooting comes amid anuptick in anti-Muslim and antisemitic hate crimes as Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas remain locked in a brutal conflict. The current fighting began after Hamas launched an attack into Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 200 more people hostage. Israeli attacks have since leveled entire neighborhoods in Gaza, killing more than 13,300 Palestinians anddisplacing over 1.7 million others.

Weinberger said in a statement: “Violence of any kind against any person in our community is totally unacceptable and we will do everything in our power to find the perpetrator and hold them fully accountable. That there is an indication this shooting could have been motivated by hate is chilling, and this possibility is being prioritized in the BPD’s investigation.”

Police did not identify the victims on Sunday. In a post on Facebook, a Palestinian school lamented the shooting of three of its graduates — Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed — who, according to the post, were shot in Burlington on Saturday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), once the mayor of the Vermont city where the shooting occurred, called the episode “shocking and deeply upsetting,” in a statement on Sunday afternoon.

“Hate has no place here, or anywhere. I look forward to a full investigation. My thoughts are with them and their families,” Sanders said.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) similarly condemned the shootings.

“I’m heartbroken by yesterday’s senseless shooting of three Palestinian-American students visiting Burlington,” Welch wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “We do not tolerate hate or Islamophobia in Vermont. I expect law enforcement to quickly identify the shooter and their motive, & will continue to monitor the situation.”

On Sunday morning, the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced that it would offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter, and called on state and federal officials to investigate “a possible bias motive” for the shooting.

Before police sent a news release about the episode, the families of the victims issued a statement urging police to investigate the shootings as a hate crime.

“As parents, we are devastated by the horrific news that our children were targeted and shot in Burlington, VT,” they said in a statement issued by the Institute for Middle East Understanding. “At this time, our primary concern is their full recovery and that they receive the critical medical support they need to survive. We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our children.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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