By Rich McKay and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) -The man accused of shooting and wounding three college students of Palestinian descent in Burlington, Vermont, over the weekend pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges on Monday and was ordered by a judge to remain held without bond.
Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arraigned in Chittenden County Criminal Court in Burlington, appearing via a video feed from the county jail where he has been detained since his arrest on Sunday, the day after the attack.
Police have said investigators were treating Saturday evening’s gun violence in the heart of Vermont’s largest city as a suspected hate-motivated crime.
Two of the three men who were shot recounted they were wearing black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, and one said they were conversing in a mix of English and Arabic when the gunman confronted them, according to charging documents filed in court.
The three friends – identified in court documents as Hisham Awartani, Tahseen Aliahmad and Kinnan Abdalhamid, all aged 20 – remained under medical care on Monday with gunshot wounds to the spine, chest and buttocks, respectively, authorities said.
The victims told police they were shot while strolling near the University of Vermont, about a block from the house of Awartani’s grandmother, following an afternoon at a bowling alley, according to a police affidavit filed in support of the charges.
All three men are undergraduate students at colleges in other cities but were staying with Awartani and his relatives in Burlington for the Thanksgiving holiday.
According to police, Easton approached the three men right outside his apartment, drew his pistol and wordlessly opened fire from a few steps away, then vanished from the scene. Investigators said he fired four shots in all.
‘I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU’
The shooting sparked an intense manhunt by local, state and federal law enforcement, including the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Eaton was taken into custody the following day after an ATF agent knocked on his door while canvassing the neighborhood and was greeted by the suspect, who held his hands out with palms upturned and said to the officer, “I’ve been waiting for you,” according to the police affidavit.
A search of the apartment later turned up a handgun, ammunition matching the rounds found at the crime scene, a .22-caliber rifle and two shotguns, police said.
He was charged with three counts of attempted second-degree murder, a felony punishable by a prison sentence of 20 years to life if convicted.
“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 surge in anti-Islamic, anti-Arab and antisemitic incidents and threats reported around the United States since a bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas erupted on Oct. 7.
“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 said in a statement on Sunday.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit at his three-minute arraignment, 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 U.S. Department of Justice is assisting local authorities in the investigation, U.S. 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.
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.
According to the victims’ families, Awartani is a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, Abdalhamid is enrolled at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and Aliahmad attends Trinity College in Connecticut.
Police said all three are of Palestinian descent – two of them U.S. citizens and the third a legal U.S. resident.
They are graduates of the Ramallah Friends School, a private Quaker secondary school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the families said.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Luc Cohen, Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu and Katharine JacksonAdditional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los AngelesEditing by Frank McGurty, Bill Berkrot and Matthew Lewis)