1 of 3 Palestinian college students shot in VT released from hospital; suspect pleads not guilty

The identity of the released student is not being shared at this time because of concerns for his safety, the source said

ByPolo Sandoval, Elizabeth Wolfe, John Miller, Dakin Andone and Steve Almasy, CNN, CNNWire
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Delaware County college student among 3 Palestinians shot in Vermont
Delaware County college student among 3 Palestinians shot in Vermont in possible hate crime

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- One of the three 20-year-old Palestinian college students who were shot Saturday night in Vermont has been released from a hospital, a source close to the families of the victims told CNN on Monday night.

The identity of the released student is not being shared at this time because of concerns for the young man's safety, the source said.

The two other students remain hospitalized, one with a spinal injury that will require long-term care, officials said.

The news comes hours after the suspected shooter pleaded not guilty to attempted second-degree murder charges in a Burlington court and authorities said at a news conference they're still working to determine a motive for the shooting.

The shooting victims are Hisham Awartani, a student at Brown University in Rhode Island; Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, a student at Trinity College in Connecticut, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

"We still do not know as much as we want to know," Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad told reporters at a news conference two days after the shooting. "But I would urge the public and you in the media to avoid making conclusions based on statements from people who know even less than we currently do. We are working hard to find out this information."

Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday and on Monday pleaded not guilty at his arraignment to three counts of attempted second-degree murder. He is being held without bail.

The suspected Vermont shooter, Jason Eaton, pleaded not guilty to attempted second-degree murder charges.

"Although we do not 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," Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said Monday.

The police chief told CNN's Erin Burnett one victim has a spinal injury with long-term implications, one was struck in the upper torso but has a good prognosis and the other was hit in the lower extremities and was close to being discharged.

"Their lives have been changed forever," Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said at the news conference. "One in particular faces a tremendous struggle and recovery, with injuries that may be lifelong."

The three students were in Burlington to visit Hisham Awartani's grandmother for Thanksgiving and were going on a walk before dinner when they were shot, said Marwan Awartani, a former Palestinian education minister who is speaking on behalf of the victims' families.

The families expressed relief the suspect had been arrested, saying in a Monday statement, "This was a crime fueled by hate."

"We believe a full investigation is likely to show our sons were targeted and violently attacked simply for being Palestinian," the families said.

Several civil rights groups have also urged investigators to carefully examine whether the shooting was motivated by hate. The attack came amid a reported rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias incidents in the United States since the war between Israel and Hamas ignited last month.

But Murad said they still haven't found the evidence to meet the legal standard and distinction between a hateful act and a hate crime.

Some of the victims have been interviewed by detectives, he said at the news conference.

"They stated that the (suspect) had not made any comments to them and had merely approached them while they were walking down the street, essentially minding their own business. And they were speaking in a mixture of English and Arabic," Murad said.

"They had no knowledge of this individual, had not encountered him before. He stepped off a porch" and shot at them, he added.

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 told CNN on Sunday, before the arrest was announced. "It was a targeted shooting and a targeted crime."

What investigators found

Eaton was arrested Sunday afternoon near the scene of the attack, Burlington police said.

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 he was the shooter.

Authorities found a .380 semiautomatic Ruger pistol during the apartment search, a law enforcement source said. The gun was taken to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) ballistics lab.

The chief said at the news conference that tests showed the gun and casings found at the scene are connected.

After Monday's hearing, Eaton's attorney, Margaret Jansch, said it was "premature to speculate" about a possible hate crime motivation.

Asked by reporters what the suspect said to his lawyers, Jansch said that information was privileged. "Anything he may have said to us we cannot disclose," Jansch said.

Eaton has not spoken to detectives since he was arrested, other than to ask for an attorney, Murad told CNN.

Eaton showed no emotion when police told him what charges he faced. "He was affectless in his response in a way that was certainly notable to detectives," Murad added.

If convicted on the attempted murder charges, Eaton faces up to life in prison. Federal prosecutors in Vermont are also investigating whether the shooting may have been a hate crime, officials said.

Eaton worked at CUSO Financial Services for the past 11 months and was a part-time farmer, according to his LinkedIn and social media accounts.

He was terminated in early November, according to a spokesperson for the company, which serves financial institutions.

His sister, Amy Rubright, told CNN the family is not giving any comment at this time.

'I've been waiting for you'

At around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, ATF agents who were canvassing the shooting area encountered Eaton and detained him, police said.

When ATF agents approached Eaton, the suspect allegedly told them, "I've been waiting for you," according to a probable cause affidavit.

Eaton told investigators there was a shotgun in his apartment, the affidavit says. But he would not identify himself or say whether there were other firearms in his home, the court document states.

A search warrant shows he had a Ruger .380 LCP pistol, along with a loaded magazine with five rounds inside his top dresser drawer.

Eaton has not been a Vermont resident for long, the Burlington police chief said Monday. Investigators believe he arrived in the summer from the Syracuse, New York, area. Burlington authorities' only previous interaction with Eaton was a 2016 traffic stop, Murad said.

Victim's family thought the US would be safer than the West Bank

Before coming to the United States 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.

In a statement Monday, the school welcomed the news of Eaton's arrest and urged authorities to consider the possibility that the shooting was "motivated by hate."

"Tragically, this incident is yet another example of the diminished regard for the lives, suffering, and inherent humanity of Palestinians. Let this incident be a stark reminder of the urgent need to challenge and change the discourse that deems us as anything less than fully human; people who are deserving of empathy, compassion, rights, life, freedom, and happiness," the statement read.

One of the victims, Awartani, was shot in the spine but is stable, according to Maayeh, who visited his mother in Ramallah. His mother, Elizabeth Price, is trying to leave Ramallah and travel to the US to see her son, Maayeh said.

Awartani is immobilized as doctors work to increase blood flow to his spine, according to a source close to Price.

"We are praying that he can walk," Maayeh said.

"I would want anyone who shot him to be behind bars so that there's no chance that could happen again," Price told CNN in a phone interview. "But I also want to focus on making sure that my son heals ... psychologically and physically."

At Monday's news conference in Burlington, the uncle of Kinnan Abdalhamid also expressed frustration that his nephew would be shot in America, despite his family's belief that it would be safer than Ramallah.

"Kinnan grew up in the West Bank, and we always thought that that could be more of a risk in terms of his safety, and sending him here would be the right decision," Radi Tamimi said. "I feel somehow betrayed in that decision here, and we're just trying to come to terms with everything."

Rich Price, Awartani's uncle, echoed that sentiment, saying the shooting reflected a "level of civic vitriol" and "hatred that exists in some corners of this country." It also "speaks to a sickness of gun violence that exists in this country," he said.

While the families fear the shooting was motivated by hate, both Rich Price and Tamimi said they believe in due process and the presumption of innocence.

"We are absolutely willing to wait to find out and let due process take its course," Tamimi said.

Shooting strikes at heart of anxieties over Israel-Hamas war

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."

The group said it was 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.

"We know it will heighten concerns about personal safety and security for Palestinian and Arab members of our community," she added.

(The-CNN-Wire & 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.)