Three Palestinian students were shot at random in Vermont. Will the suspect face hate crime charges?

Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent shot by a gunman in Burlington, Vermont on 25 November.  (REUTERS)
Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent shot by a gunman in Burlington, Vermont on 25 November. (REUTERS)

Three college students of Palestinian descent were ambushed and shot as they walked to a Thanksgiving dinner celebration in Vermont.

The 25 November attack was described by Burlington Chief of Police John Murad as an “unprovoked and terrible” crime at a press conference two days later.

Now, the suspected gunman — 48-year-old Jason Eaton — is in custody and federal officials are investigating whether the shooting was a hate crime, as the three students begin a long recovery journey and their families seek answers.

Here’s what we know about the attack:

The attack

Twenty-year-old college students Hisham Awartani, Tahseen Ali and Kenan Abdulhamid were walking to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Mr Awartani’s grandmother on 25 November.

As the three victims walked to the home of Mr Awartani’s grandmother, police said a white male gunman shot at least four rounds “without speaking” before he fled on foot.

All three victims are of Palestinian descent, and two of them were wearing keffiyehs at the time of the attack, police said in a statement. The three students were speaking to each other in both English and Arabic at the time of the unprovoked attack, Mr Murad said at the press conference.

The gunman struck two of the students in the torso and the third in the lower extremities, police said in a statement. All three victims are being treated in the intensive care unit at a nearby hospital, according to Mr Awartani’s uncle, Rich Price.

The victims’ families speak out

Two of the victims are stable, while the third “sustained much more serious injuries,” police said. Mr Murad told reporters that officers were only able to speak to two of the students following the attack, while the third received medical treatment.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Mr Awartani is the most injured of the three men, as of Monday.

A source close to Mr Awartani’s mother — Elisabeth Price, who lives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank — told CNN the gunman struck him in the spine, leaving him immobilised. Doctors are working to increase blood flow to Mr Awartani’s spine, the source said on Monday.

Mr Price told reporters he’s been with the three victims “almost constantly” since the attack.

“I am blown away by their resilience, by their good humour in the face of these difficult times,” Mr Price said on Monday.

Mr Awartani is a student at Brown University in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, per a statement from the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Meanwhile, Mr Abdalhamid is a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Mr Ahmad is a student at Trinity College in Connecticut.

The victims’ parents released a joint statement through the Institute of Middle East Understanding calling for police to treat the gunman’s actions as a hate crime and asking the public to respect their privacy as they focus on their children.

“We need to ensure that our children are protected, and that this heinous crime is not repeated,” the statement reads.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the ATF are investigating if the shooting was a hate crime.

“Even as we speak, the ATF and FBI are investigating the tragic shooting of three men of Palestinian descent in Vermont. That investigation, including whether this is a hate crime, is ongoing,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said on 27 November.

The suspect

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Mr Eaton while canvasing the day after the shooting.

Authorities first identified Mr Eaton when they knocked on his apartment door and he walked out of the unit with his hands up on 26 November, Mr Murad said.

“Agents were greeted by a man who stepped out of the hall out of the door towards them with his palms up at waist height,” Mr Murad said. “He stated something to the effect of: ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’”

Mr Eaton told officers he had a gun in his apartment and requested a lawyer, per Mr Murad.

He pleaded guilty to all three counts of attempted murder in the second degree, his lawyers said at his arraignment on 27 November. The charges carry the potential of a life sentence. Mr Eaton is being held at the Northwest State Correctional Facility without bail for the time being, the judge said at his arraignment on Monday.

Investigators believe Mr Eaton moved to Vermont over the summer after living in or around Syracuse, New York, Mr Murad said. Mary Reed, Mr Eaton’s mother, told The Daily Beast she was “shocked” by the situation.

“Jason has had a lot of struggles in his life but he is such a kind and loving person,” Ms Reed told the outlet on Monday.

A spokesperson for the Chittenden County Public Defender’s Office declined to comment on the case when contacted by The Independent.