This image provided by the Burlington Police Department shows Jason J. Eaton. Police have arrested the suspect in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Eaton while conducting a search of the shooting area in Burlington on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. AP
With the investigation in its early stages, Vermont state attorney Sarah George said there was not yet sufficient evidence to support a hate crime enhancement of the charges against the suspect, identified as Jason Eaton, 48.
But "I do want to be clear," George told reporters in Burlington, the northeastern US city where the shooting occurred. "There is no question this was a hateful act."
The attack -- police said a gunman stepped off a front porch, "unprovoked," and opened fire on the three college students as they walked together on a city block -- occurred during high tensions in the United States over the Israeli war on Gaza.
College campuses and other locations have seen mounting threats and incidents of violence including acts of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
The White House said President Joe Biden was "horrified" by the shooting of the three university students, who had gathered to observe the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
The attack also prompted anger and shock among several US lawmakers.
Eaton was arrested Sunday and appeared before a judge in a Burlington court on Monday. NBC reported he pleaded not guilty to the shootings.
Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad described how law enforcement agents encountered Eaton when they knocked on his apartment door, and he responded by saying "I've been waiting for you."
When the agents asked why, Eaton said "I would like a lawyer," according to Murad.
Authorities searched the premises and retrieved a weapon and ammunition that matched the shells recovered from the scene of the shooting, the police chief said.
'Domestic violent extremists'
US Attorney General Merrick Garland warned Monday of increasing threats from "domestic violent extremists" amid growing attacks against minority groups, as he vowed a full investigation into the shooting, including whether a hate crime was committed.
"There is understandable fear," Garland said, as the United States experiences a "sharp increase" in threats and attacks against Jewish and Muslim communities since October 7.
Burlington police had earlier described the shooter as a white man with a handgun.
"Without speaking," police said, "he discharged at least four rounds from the pistol and is believed to have fled on foot."
A police statement said two of the victims were in stable condition, and the third suffered "much more serious injuries." It said two are US citizens and one a legal resident.
Two of the young men were wearing keffiyehs, the traditional black and white Palestinian scarf.
All three victims were graduates of the Ramallah Friends School, a private Quaker school in the West Bank, and are now attending different universities in the northeastern United States, according to a statement from a spokesman for the victims' families.
The shooting came as civil rights groups have warned of a rise in hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans -- as well as growing anti-Semitism.
The families have said they are devastated by the shootings. Richard Price, an uncle of one of the victims, and who was hosting the trio for Thanksgiving, told the Burlington press conference that "the families fear that this was motivated by hate."
Radi Tamimi, an uncle of another of the victims, said his family was still in shock.
"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, you know, the right decision," Tamimi said.
"We feel somehow betrayed in that decision here and, you know, we're just trying to come to terms with everything."
*This story was edited by Ahram Online