New details emerge in shooting of students of Palestinian descent; moms speak out

The suspect is charged with three counts of attempted murder.

November 28, 2023, 10:17 AM

As a former Boy Scout leader arrested in the Burlington, Vermont, shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent pleaded not guilty Monday to attempted murder charges, the mothers of two of the victims spoke out in an emotional interview with ABC News.

Elizabeth Price, the mother of Hisham Awartani, the most seriously injured of the three 20-year-old college students, said her son, who attends Brown University in Rhode Island, has a bullet lodged in his spine and that doctors are unsure if he will be able to walk again.

“I'm shaking. I'm hollow inside. I'm aching to be with my son. He's lying immobilized in a bed, but he had very high spirits in the beginning. And I think now it's beginning to sink into him the extent of -- the enormity of -- the challenge that faces him," Price told ABC News. “He may have to be in a wheelchair. … I believe that he'll be able to walk, but his life has been taken away from him as it is, and he's gonna have to recreate this new life."

Price said she is grateful law enforcement is investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime and is "taking this very seriously."

"Justice to me means making sure that the man who shot my son is behind bars,” Price said. "Justice to me is making sure that crimes like this don't happen again. Justice to me is also about my son finding a way to rebuild his life."

Tamara Tamimi, the mother of Kinnan Abdalhamid, told ABC News her son, a pre-med student at Haverford College in Connecticut and a trained emergency medical technician, is expected to be released from the hospital soon.

"He ran away from the scene when the shooting started, hid and called for help. So he thought that his friends had passed away when he was taken by the ambulance," Tamimi said. "This was incredibly difficult for him and painful -- both as a trained EMT who couldn't help his friends as he said, and second, they're not actually just his friends but his brothers in a sense, they've grown up together."

The third student wounded in the shooting, Tahseen Ahmed, is enrolled at Trinity College in Connecticut. He also remains hospitalized in stable condition, police said.

When asked how they make sense of what happened, Tamimi called out what she says is the "dehumanization" of Palestinians in the United States. “To us, it's decades of dehumanizing policy and rhetoric from U.S. leaders towards Palestinians and Arabs, including from the Biden administration, which has caused our children to be in the situation that they're in,” Tamimi said.

The suspect, 48-year-old Jason James Eaton of Burlington, appeared in Vermont Superior Court via web conferencing and only spoke to confirm his name. His attorney entered a not-guilty plea to three counts of attempted murder on his behalf.

Judge A. Gregory Rainville ordered Eaton to be held without bail.

Eaton was arrested Sunday night and charged in the shooting of the students outside a residence in Burlington near the University of Vermont on Saturday.

A preliminary investigation by the Burlington Police Department determined the three students were shot outside the home of one of the victim's relatives that is near Eaton's home, police said in a statement.

PHOTO: Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot near the University of Vermont in Burlington on Nov. 25, 2023.
Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot near the University of Vermont in Burlington on Nov. 25, 2023.
Awartani Family via Reuters

Monday's arraignment came shortly after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland made his first comments on the shooting, saying the Department of Justice is "closely monitoring" the case.

"All of us have also seen a sharp increase in the volume and frequency of threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across our country since October 7," Garland said, referring to the date Hamas terrorists launched a deadly surprise attack against Israel and Israeli forces retaliated with a bombing campaign and ground operation in the Gaza Strip. "There is understandable fear in communities across the country; even as we speak, the ATF and the 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."

Garland said updates from law enforcement officials in Vermont will be coming "soon," and the Department of Justice is prepared to provide any assistance local officials need.

PHOTO: Jason J. Eaton, 48, a suspect who was arrested in the shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent in Burlington, appears at his court arraignment from the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vermont, Nov.27, 2023.
Jason J. Eaton, 48, a suspect who was arrested in the shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent in Burlington, appears at his court arraignment from the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vermont, Nov.27, 2023.
Vermont Judiciary via Reuters

President Joe Biden was also briefed on the triple shooting. White House officials said he will continue to receive updates as law enforcement gathers more information.

"While we are waiting for more facts, we know this: there is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America. Period. No person should worry about being shot at while going about their daily lives. And far too many Americans know a family member injured or killed as a result of gun violence. We cannot and we will not accept that," Biden said.

Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said Monday that agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives encountered Eaton while canvassing the area where the shooting occurred.

Murad said that when the agents knocked on Eaton's door, he stepped into a hallway with his palms up at his sides and "stated something to the effect, 'I've been waiting for you.'" Murad said Eaton immediately asked for a lawyer and was taken into custody.

After he was detained, officials were granted a search warrant, which was executed at his residence at about 9:53 p.m. Sunday, according to police. Ballistic tests showed a handgun seized in the search of Eaton's home matched shell casings recovered at the crime scene.

"We have full probable cause to believe this person committed this horrible, horrible crime," Morad said.

The students were shot after returning from a birthday party for the 8-year-old twin cousins of Awartani, his uncle, Rich Price, said at a news conference Monday. Two of the victims were wearing kaffiyehs, or traditional Palestinian headscarves, when they were attacked, according to police.

A motive for the shooting remains under investigation, but Murad issued a statement Sunday, saying, "In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime."

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger described the triple shooting as "one of the most shocking and disturbing events in this city's history."

The FBI's Albany field office said it is continuing to "actively investigate" the shooting alongside the Burlington Police Department and other agencies.

Eaton is a former assistant scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America, according to online records confirmed by that organization. A personal website appearing to belong to Eaton contains records of leadership training with the Boy Scouts of America under Eaton's name.

"Jason James Eaton was last registered with the BSA in 2021 in Upstate New York as an Assistant Scoutmaster with a local unit. He is not currently a member of the BSA. Upon learning of his arrest he has been banned from registering in Scouting [in] any capacity and will be proactively placed in the Volunteer Screening Database, permanent," the Boy Scouts of America said in a statement to ABC News on Monday.

Eaton's online footprint contains numerous references pointing to an interest in libertarian politics and radical self-reliance, according to a review by ABC News. In a now-deleted March 2022 Substack post, Eaton suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic was a government conspiracy, referring to the COVID vaccines as gene therapy.

Asked by reporters to comment on the possibility of hate crimes being filed against her client, Eaton's attorney, Margaret Jansch, replied, "No, I don't have any thoughts about that at this point. It's premature for us to speculate."

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