Vermont gunman fired as investment adviser weeks before arrest in Palestinian student shooting

Key Points
  • Jason Eaton is charged with attempted murder in connection with the shooting and wounding of three Palestinian students near the University of Vermont. He has worked as an investment adviser and broker.
  • The victims were shot Saturday night on their way to a Thanksgiving dinner while two of them were wearing Palestinian keffiyeh scarves.
  • The shooting comes as Islamophobia escalates against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, which is currently in a military pause to release hostages.
  • U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said federal authorities are investigating whether the attack was a hate crime.
Jason Eaton, 48, was arrested for the shooting of three Palestinian students near the University of Vermont. (edited) New 9:48
Source: Burlington Police Department

The 48-year-old Vermont man charged with the shocking shooting of three Palestinian students was fired from his job as an investment adviser weeks before the attack, his former employer said Monday.

The suspect, Jason Eaton of Burlington is charged with attempted murder in connection with the shooting and wounding of the students as they walked near the University of Vermont on their way to a Thanksgiving dinner at one of their relative's homes.

"I've been waiting for you," Eaton told a federal agent as he answered the door at his Burlington, Vermont, on Sunday, according to court documents.

Eaton refused to identify himself to the agent, but did volunteer that there was a shotgun in the apartment, a court filing said.

Authorities had gone to Eaton's apartment as part of a general canvass by police of the neighborhood, not because he was already a suspect in the shooting of the three men, who are all aged 20, an official said at a press conference Monday.

Two of the men wearing keffiyeh scarves typically worn by Palestinians, and the trio was speaking a mix of English and Arabic as they walked, police said.

Eaton lives in an apartment building near the shooting scene.

A search by police of Eaton's apartment later found a Ruger .380-caliber pistol and ammunition that matched the brand of shell casings found at the shooting scene on Saturday night in Burlington. That gun was purchased by him earlier this year, cops said.

Eaton was ordered held without bail at his arraignment Monday in Chittenden County Court.

Eaton's lawyer said he was pleading not guilty to three counts of attempted murder in the second degree in the attack, which is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

A prosecutor said she wanted Eaton detained without bail pending trial. A hearing on that request will be held soon, a judge said.

Eaton, who has worked as both an investment adviser and a broker during his career, most recently worked in Vermont for CUSO Financial Services from January to November this year, according to records maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

"Jason Eaton worked less than a year at CUSO Financial and his employment had been terminated on Nov. 8," a spokesperson for the company told CNBC.

"We are horrified by the shooting, and are cooperating with law enforcement as they investigate," the spokesperson said.

The company declined to say why Eaton was fired from his job.

Before CUSO, Eaton worked for Ameritrade in Fayetteville, New York from May 2019 through March 2021, and before that for about a year at Edward Jones in East Syracuse, New York, FINRA records show.

A court document shows photo from the Burlington PD of a Ruger .380 pistol and ammo found in the suspect's bedroom.
Source: Burlington Police Department

The victims are Hisham Awartani, a junior at Brown University; Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Tahseen Ahmed, a student at Trinity College in Connecticut. The men previously attended a Quaker school in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank.

President Joe Biden on Monday said that he and first lady Jill Biden were "were horrified to learn that three college students of Palestinian descent, two of whom are American citizens, were shot Saturday in Burlington, Vermont."

"They were simply spending Thanksgiving gathered with family and loved ones," Biden said. "Earlier today, I spoke to Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to offer my support. We are grateful to the Burlington Police Department – as well as the FBI, ATF, and other law enforcement partners – for their swift work identifying and arresting a suspect. Our Administration will provide any additional federal resources needed to assist in the investigation."

Two of the victims were in stable condition as of Sunday, while the other had more serious injuries, police said. Two of the victims are U.S. citizens, while the third is a legal resident.

The shooting occurred as Islamophobia and antisemitism had escalated against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, which was in a military pause to ensure the safe passage of released hostages.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke about the attack during a visit Monday to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, New York.

"There is understandable fear in communities across the country," Garland said.

"Even as we speak, the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] and the FBI are investigating the tragic shooting and three men of Palestinian descent in Vermont," Garland said. "That investigation, including whether this is a hate crime, is ongoing."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations in a statement Monday said, "We welcome the arrest of a suspect in this shooting, and we encourage law enforcement to file state and federal hate crime charges if the evidence confirms that anti-Palestinian racism motivated this attack."

"We also call on elected officials to reject and condemn the rise in anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Palestinian racism that has led to hate crimes, discrimination, and censorship targeting everyone from students to workers to protestors who dare to speak up for Palestinian human rights," said CAIR national executive Director Nihad Awad in that statement.

Earlier in November, Biden announced what the White House called the "first-ever" national program to counter Islamophobia.

The victims' families in a joint statement called on police to treat the shooting as a hate crime, saying, "Our children are dedicated students who deserve to be able to focus on their studies and building their futures."

Burlington police said they are investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime.

"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.

"And I have already been in touch with federal investigatory and prosecutorial partners to prepare for that if it's proven," Murad said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in a tweet Sunday wrote, "It is shocking and deeply upsetting that three young Palestinians were shot here in Burlington, VT."

"Hate has no place here, or anywhere. I look forward to a full investigation. My thoughts are with them and their families," Sanders wrote.

— Additional reporting by CNBC's Kevin Breuninger