Suspect arrested in shooting of 3 Palestinian college students in Vermont, police say

By Elizabeth Wolfe and Celina Tebor, CNN

CNN  —  A suspect has been arrested in the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Burlington, Vermont, in a case that has garnered national attention amid concerns about rising levels of hate crimes since the Israel-Hamas war erupted.

Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday afternoon near the scene of the attack, the Burlington Police Department said in a news release. 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.”

Authorities had been investigating whether the shooting may have been a hate crime, officials said. Police did not detail early Monday what charges the suspect is facing. CNN has been unable to determine if Eaton has an attorney.

Eaton is expected to be arraigned in court on Monday. Police are also planning to hold a news conference Monday to discuss the case.

The students, all 20 years old, 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.

Two of the students were in stable condition over the weekend but the third received “much more serious injuries,” police said, noting two were shot in the torso and another in the lower extremities.

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

The victims’ families and several civil rights groups had been urging investigators to carefully examine whether the shooting was a hate crime, as the attack came amid a reported rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias incidents in the US since the ongoing 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,” Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad wrote in an earlier news release.

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 said on “CNN Newsroom” Sunday before the arrest was announced. “It was a targeted shooting and a targeted crime.”

Here’s what we know so far.

Victims were shot while on a walk

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.

All three men were taken to the University of Vermont Medical Center, where they were still being treated Sunday, according to police.

Suspect arrested near shooting scene

Eaton lives in an apartment building next to the scene of the shooting, according to police.

At around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives encountered Eaton as they were canvassing the shooting area and detained the suspect, police said.

Later Sunday night, authorities executed a search warrant on Eaton’s residence, police said. Inside, they found evidence that – combined with other evidence collected during the investigation – gave investigators and prosecutors probable cause to believe he was the shooter, according to police.

Investigators have yet to detail the evidence against Eaton.

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.

Mother trying to leave West Bank to see her seriously injured son

From left, Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani.

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.

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. (I am avoiding the “bullet in his spine” language because there’s a possibility that they have removed it and I’d like to avoid specific medical descriptions from second-hand sources)

“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.”

Shooting strikes at heart of anxieties over Israel-Hamas war

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.” (See this release)

The group is 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. (See alert: #EXTRA: Brown University statement): 3 people shot in Vermont identified as Palestinian college students)

“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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