Details emerge after Vermont shooting of men of Palestinian descent
When a federal agent knocked on the door of apartment No. 6 at 69 N. Prospect St. in Burlington, Vt., a skinny, white man stepped out into the hallway with his hands by his waist, palms up. Inside, the television was on.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Jason Eaton told the officers, according to court documents released Monday. He appeared nervous.
“Why’s that?” a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives asked. Other federal agents and local police were canvassing the area and the building.
Eaton requested a lawyer.
Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday afternoon in connection with the shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent the night before, leaving at least one of the men in serious condition. Eaton pleaded not guilty Monday morning to three counts of attempted murder.
Police have not yet declared a motive, but the case is being investigated as a possible hate crime, according to Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad.
“There is more investigation to be done, and that includes trying to determine motive,” Murad said Monday morning. “We still do not know as much as we want to know.”
“Although we don’t 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,” said Sarah George, the state’s attorney for Chittenden County.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger called the shooting “one of the most shocking and disturbing events in this city’s history.”
“This horrific unprovoked attack was a tragic violation of the values and character of this welcoming, inclusive community,” Weinberger said.
Though the investigation is in its early stages, an affidavit provided by the Burlington Police Department and released by the Vermont judiciary outlined events that led to the shooting of the three students and the search for a suspect.
Kinnan Abdalhamid, Tahseen Ali Ahmad and Hisham Awartani, all 20, had gone bowling earlier in the day and had been in Burlington since the day before Thanksgiving, they told police in interviews after the shooting.
They were staying at Awartani’s grandmother’s house on North Prospect Street and went for a walk on Saturday, smoking cigarettes and chatting in a mixture of English and Arabic, according to the affidavit. Ali Ahmad and Awartani were wearing keffiyeh, traditional Palestinian headscarves.
They were walking by a white house when Awartani said a man walked up to them. When he was about 6 feet from the trio, the man pulled a handgun and started shooting, according to the affidavit. Awartani and Ali Ahmad fell to the ground, and Awartani called 911, according to the documents. Ali Ahmad was shot in the chest, and Awartani was hit in the spine.
Abdalhamid said the gunman had been staring at them before opening fire, according to the affidavit. The man had stumbled down the stairs of the white house in a way that Abdalhamid described to police as “wonky.”
Unlike the other two students, Abdalhamid was able to run away and only realized he had been shot through his backside after he jumped a fence and hid behind a home, the document says.
Police and federal agents from the ATF and FBI converged on the crime scene and immediately began searching, according to the affidavit.
Armed officers swept the apartment building Saturday but at the time didn’t have the legal authority to enter any units, Murad said at Monday’s news conference. Additionally, at least one witness said the shooter fled the scene.
When agents returned Sunday, Eaton refused to talk further after telling them he had been waiting, though he did admit that he had a shotgun in the apartment, according to the affidavit. He requested a lawyer repeatedly and would not identify himself, according to the affidavit.
Instead, ATF agents called the landlord of the building, who identified Eaton.
They applied for and secured a search warrant and found a Ruger .380 LCP pistol in the apartment loaded with rounds that matched an intact bullet found at the scene of the shooting, according to the affidavit. They also found a Savage 20-gauge shotgun and a Savage .22-caliber rifle as well as ammunition for the guns, the affidavit said.
“Evidence collected during that search warrant, and additional evidence developed during the course of this investigation, gave investigators and prosecutors probable cause to believe that Mr. Eaton perpetrated the shooting,” the Burlington Police Department said in a news release.
Eaton is being held without bail at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, about 35 miles north of Burlington. A bail hearing is pending.
At the news conference Monday, Murad said Eaton had only recently arrived in Burlington and came from the Syracuse area. Eaton had one local traffic violation, and authorities were working to see whether he has previous records in other locations, Murad said.
Eaton acquired the gun legally months before the shooting from a federally licensed dealer in Vermont, Murad said, adding that there were no flags on the purchase.
The police said they did not have any information on Eaton’s religious background.
Mary Reed, Eaton’s mother, told the the Daily Beast that Eaton suffered from depression and mental health struggles in the past but seemed happy on Thanksgiving.
“I just don’t understand,” she said. “I can’t believe he would do something like this.”
Eaton’s sister declined to comment on the situation to The Times.
Times staff writers David Zahniser, Emily Alpert Reyes and Daniel Miller contributed to this report.
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