A 48-year-old Vermont man was charged on Monday with three counts of attempted second-degree murder in the weekend shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent on a Burlington street, a violent episode that stunned the small city.
As investigators sought to determine whether the shooting could be classified as a hate crime, local officials called the attack on the three men — college students who were visiting for Thanksgiving — one of the most shocking events in Burlington’s history, and a grave setback for a city that strives to be welcoming.
“Whether or not it was a hate crime by the law, there is no question it was a hateful act,” Chief Jon Murad of the Burlington police said at a news conference on Monday afternoon.
The suspect, Jason J. Eaton, pleaded not guilty on Monday and was being held without bail. He appeared in court through a remote video link from jail, and did not speak during the brief hearing except to thank the judge. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
The three young men, all 20, had been staying at the home of an uncle of one of them, and had gone out for a walk around 6:30 p.m. Saturday, according to the Burlington police. The police said Mr. Eaton approached the three friends outside the apartment building where he lives on North Prospect Street, and without speaking, pulled out a handgun and started shooting from about two yards away.
According to an affidavit, the three men are Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University; Tahseen Ali Ahmad, a student at Trinity College; and Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College. Friends since childhood, two of the men are United States citizens and one is a legal resident.
The affidavit said Mr. Awartani was shot in the spine; Mr. Ali Ahmad was struck in the chest; and Mr. Abdalhamid was struck in the backside.
The young men told relatives that they were talking in a mixture of English and Arabic before the gunman shot them, according to a family spokeswoman. Two of the men were wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs, a traditional headdress.
Relatives said they feared that the young men were targeted for being Arab Americans.
“It’s hard to imagine, in this time, with everything that’s happening, that this was just a random act,” said Radi Tamini, an uncle of Mr. Abdalhamid, at the news conference.
Later on Monday, the families of the three victims issued a statement that said in part, “We believe a full investigation is likely to show our sons were targeted and violently attacked simply for being Palestinian.”
Mr. Eaton was taken into custody just after 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Chief Murad said, after agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives knocked on his door during a unit-by-unit canvas of the apartment building. The suspect answered the door, “stepped toward them with his palms up,” Mr. Murad said, and told the agents, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
When the agents asked him why, Mr. Eaton requested a lawyer.
The police searched Mr. Eaton’s apartment and found a .38-caliber handgun and a loaded magazine containing five rounds of distinctive red-tipped ammunition in a drawer in his bedroom. The rounds were of the same type as some that were found at the scene of the shooting, according to the affidavit, and ballistics tests soon confirmed the connection, Chief Murad said.
The gun had been purchased recently and legally, the chief added.
A public defender assigned as co-counsel for Mr. Eaton, Margaret Jansch, declined to comment on the details of the case.
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. Ms. Reed, who lives in Salisbury, Vt., 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. Chief Murad described Mr. Eaton as a “very recent arrival” to Burlington who had previously lived in Syracuse, N.Y.
Sarah George, the state’s attorney for the county that includes Burlington, said prosecutors would have to prove with specific evidence that the shootings were motivated by hate. Doing so would not change the potential sentence for each charge — 20 years to life — but a judge could consider such a motive as an aggravating factor at sentencing, she said.
Among the items found in Mr. Eaton’s apartment by the police and taken for examination is a computer, whose contents will be scrutinized for evidence of a motive, officials said.
The shootings came at a time of rising violence and growing concern about crime in Vermont, a sparsely populated state long known for its quiet, natural beauty and safety. The state has seen more than 20 homicides this year; the 25 homicides reported there in 2022, including five in Burlington, were the most Vermont had seen in nearly three decades.
Rich Price, Mr. Awartani’s uncle and the weekend host of the three young men, said the crime “speaks to the hatred that exists in our country, and a sickness of gun violence.”
He said he was amazed by the resilience and good humor shown by the three injured friends, who shortly before the attack were celebrating the birthday of Mr. Price’s twin children.
“These three young men are incredible,” he said, “and they are committed to building incredible lives.”
Anna Betts contributed reporting from New York, and Siobhan Neela-Stock from Salisbury, Vt. Kitty Bennett contributed research.