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Suspect in shooting of 3 Palestinian students in Vermont said he was waiting for agents to arrest him, police say

Man pleads not guilty to shooting 3 Palestinians
Man pleads not guilty to shooting Palestinian students 02:24

The suspect accused of shooting and wounding three 20-year-old men of Palestinian descent in Burlington, Vermont, opened a door Sunday to find federal agents who were searching for him and told the agents he'd been waiting for them, officials said. Jason Eaton, 48, then told the agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that he'd like an attorney, Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad told reporters Monday.

The ATF agents knocked on the door Sunday afternoon while canvassing the area around the shooting of three college students who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus, Murad said. Eaton lives in an apartment building in front of where the shooting happened, police said in a statement.

"The ATF agents were greeted by a man who stepped out of the door towards them with his palms up at waist height and stated something to the effect of 'I've been waiting for you,'" Murad said.

Eaton then asked for a lawyer. When the agents asked if he had any guns inside the door, he said he had one. He was arrested and has been charged with three counts of attempted murder in the second degree in the shooting.

In court Monday morning, Eaton pleaded not guilty and was ordered held without bail. Wearing an inmate's uniform, Eaton appeared in court remotely on a large television screen set up near the defense table. He said little during the brief court appearance, confirming his name when asked by the judge. The judge said bail would be revisited at a later date.

Eaton had recently purchased a .380-caliber firearm, which was recovered when authorities searched his residence, Murad said. The ATF matched the gun to casings recovered at the scene of the shooting, the police chief said.

"Cops often say that it's better to be lucky than good, but it's really even better to be both, and I believe that's what we have here," Murad said. "We certainly had a lot of incredibly good work, but to go to an address and find that individual in this way too is a little bit more than just good work."

Officials detail investigation, arrest in shooting of 3 Palestinian students in Vermont 16:58

Authorities were investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime. The shooting happened amid the Israel-Hamas war in the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip. Murad said the investigation was ongoing and police were trying to determine the motive behind the shooting.

"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," State's Attorney Sarah George told reporters.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who once served as mayor of Burlington and said he lives two miles from where the shooting occurred, called the incident "incomprehensible."  

"God knows this country has gone through enough with bigotry and racial hatred and everything else," Sanders said in an interview with CBS News on Monday. "And I think what we have got to determine — people can have disagreements on political issues. But we've got to tone down this hatred, we've got to talk to each other, got to work things through. But I am very worried about the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism that we are seeing."

Bernie Sanders discusses Vermont shooting, Israel-Hamas war 06:07

President Biden said in a statement that he and first lady Jill Biden were horrified to learn about the shooting.

"While we are waiting for more facts, we know this: there is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America. Period," Mr. Biden said. "No person should worry about being shot at while going about their daily lives."

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger in a news conference Monday afternoon called the shooting "one of the most shocking and disturbing events in this city's history."

Weinberger said that the charges Eaton faces carry the potential for life sentences. 

"I hope that Burlington's Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities see in yesterday's prompt arrest the City's commitment to justice and keeping all members of our community safe," Weinberger said, standing alongside relatives of the victims.

Kinnan Abdalhamid, Tahseen Ahmad and Hisham Awartani were all shot Saturday night while walking down a street. Two of the men were wearing traditional Arab keffiyeh scarves.

The three men told detectives they were speaking in a mixture of Arabic and English, Murad told reporters. They told police the gunman approached them without making any comments to them.

"He stepped off a porch and produced a firearm and began discharging that firearm," Murad said.

As of Monday night, one of the three students had been released from the hospital. The other two are still in the ICU.

Awartani's uncle, Rich Price, said during Monday's news conference that he had been with the three almost constantly since the shooting.

"These three young men are incredible," Price told reporters. "And that's not a proud uncle speaking, but it's true. ... They have their lives in front of them. They are committed to building incredible lives. They each go to great schools."

Students shot in Burlington, Vermont
From left to right, Tahseen Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani are shown.

According to their families and the schools, Abdalhamid is a student at Haverford College, Ahmad is a student at Trinity College and Awartani is a student at Brown University.

"I can tell you that I've been with them almost constantly since Saturday evening," Price said. "I've been listening to them talk to one another and try to process the events, and I'm blown away by their resilience, by their good humor in the face of these difficult times."

Abdalhamid's uncle, Radi Tamimi, told CBS News he was struggling with the decision to bring his nephew to the U.S. from the West Bank.

"We figured it would be good for him to be here. It would be safe," he said, "We feel shame and betrayal, almost, in the sense that we sent him here with the hope for all that, and something so tragic occurred."

The men all attended Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker-run private nonprofit school in Ramallah in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

"As parents, we are devastated by the horrific news that our children were targeted and shot in Burlington, VT. At this time, our primary concern is their full recovery and that they receive the critical medical support they need to survive. We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our children," their parents said in a joint statement.

Errol Barnett contributed reporting.

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