Driven by Hate? Man Charged in Burlington Shooting Was a Volunteer With a Troubled Personal Life | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Driven by Hate? Man Charged in Burlington Shooting Was a Volunteer With a Troubled Personal Life

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Published December 6, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Jason Eaton at the arraignment - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Jason Eaton at the arraignment

Authorities are investigating whether Jason Eaton, who has been charged with gunning down three men of Palestinian descent in Burlington, was motivated by hate. The November 25 shooting occurred during a nationwide spike in Islamophobia and antisemitism amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Further, the victims, Hisham Awartani, Tahseen Ali Ahmad and Kinnan Abdalhamid, all 20-year-old college students, had been speaking a mix of English and Arabic as they walked together on North Prospect Street. Two wore kaffiyehs, a distinctive patterned scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian identity. A white man they didn't know walked over from an apartment building and, without saying a word, opened fire, they told police. All three survived, though Awartani is paralyzed from the chest down.

Eaton, 48, who is charged with three counts of attempted second-degree murder, could face enhanced punishment if he's charged with a hate crime.

But interviews with those who know Eaton, and a review of his digital footprint, point to a complicated person with views not easy to pigeonhole. Sorting out his motivation, never mind proving it beyond a reasonable doubt, could be difficult.

He grew up in Vermont, spent many years in the Syracuse, N.Y., area and moved to Burlington sometime over the summer. He flitted from job to job and was fired from his most recent, with a financial services company, on November 8.

Eaton maintained a carefully curated presence online and expressed skepticism of the COVID-19 vaccine. Eaton's mother, who lives in Addison County, told news outlets that her son struggled with mental health issues. Still, in April, Eaton was able to legally purchase the gun that authorities say he used to shoot the young men.

Several people who know Eaton have said they're shocked by the allegations against a man who volunteered with disabled children and Boy Scouts. But his behavior alarmed at least two former romantic partners in New York State, one of whom obtained a restraining order against Eaton that was in place for three years.

And a former landlord described Eaton as an erratic person who "talked a big game" but proved disorganized, disrespectful and deluded. The landlord ultimately evicted Eaton over unpaid rent and also sued him last year after Eaton started an outdoor fire that caused tens of thousands of dollars in property damage in LaFayette, N.Y.

"It was just one weird thing after another," the landlord said. "And I couldn't take it anymore."

After the shooting, investigators seized five cellphones, an iPad and hard drives from Eaton's Burlington apartment to scour for clues. He's being held without bond and is due back in court on December 18.

In a statement last week, members of the wounded victims' families said they "have no doubt that our sons were targeted simply for being Palestinian." The statement went on to deride media reports that have "centered on the defendant's mental health" and made him into the victim.

"Millions of people in America and across the globe struggle with mental health challenges," the statement said. "That does not make them pick up a gun and attack people based on their identity. We do not accept what this wrongfully implies about people who struggle with their mental health, nor do we accept it as justification or context for this heinous, hate-driven crime."

Nothing in Eaton's publicly visible digital footprint indicates that he harbored a consistent or coherent ideology. In the profile for his account on X, formerly known as Twitter, he describes himself as a "radical citizen pa-trolling demockracy and crapitalism for oathcreepers," an apparent reference to the armed far-right group the Oath Keepers.

Eaton's location is tagged as "parallel universe," and a meme attached to his account reads, "Libertarians want trans furrys to be able to protect their cannabis farms with unregistered machine guns."

Eaton's messages are protected, meaning only people who follow him can view his approximately 1,800 posts. One of those people, who asked not to be named, shared with Seven Days a small selection, including a handful about the Middle East conflict in the weeks after Hamas' October 7 surprise attack on Israel that left some 1,200 people dead and hundreds more taken hostage.

While Seven Days has not been able to view all of Eaton's social media posts, what was provided to the paper suggests he had some sympathy for the Palestinian side of the conflict.

"What if someone occupied your country? Wouldn't you fight them?" he wrote in a November 16 post responding to a VTDigger.org commentary by U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) that called for a cease-fire. "Brittan [sic] wouldn't let ships with food sent by other countries into Ireland during the famine. My people starved."

In an October 17 post on X responding to a different article, Eaton wrote that "the notion that Hamas is 'evil' for defending their state from occupation is absurd. They are owed a state. Pay up."

Eaton's apartment building - SASHA GOLDSTEIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sasha Goldstein ©️ Seven Days
  • Eaton's apartment building

In an earlier post, on August 24, he used a popular hashtag for Burlington news to say he thought "we will have civilian defense forces on patrol in #btv soon. Someone here decided to defund the police a few years ago. Ooops. @NRA #2A."

Eaton maintained a personal website, jasonjeaton.me, on which he described himself as a "rd'-kl st'-zn" — radical citizen. "Casting out the money lenders since 2003," he wrote on the site, an allusion to New Testament accounts of Jesus confronting merchants in a holy place. "This is not advice. Use at your own risk."

He posted his résumé and other work-related documents, such as letters of recommendation, that date back nearly 30 years. He also opined on sustainable agriculture and finances, including one page that contained podcasts he'd recorded about investing and economics.

"I want to live in a peaceful, just, and free society," he wrote on the site. "Together we can build it. I oppose the use of force to achieve social or political goals."

Eaton's LinkedIn profile lists more than 40 jobs he'd held since his teenage years in Woodstock. He graduated from the local high school in the Upper Valley town and spent many years working at Maplecrest Farm in West Woodstock. In an interview last week with the Vermont Standard, farm owner Ned Macksoud recalled Eaton as a hard worker who never expressed any hateful thoughts.

"I did see what I thought was depression and some mental health issues," Macksoud told the paper. "That's why he came to work for me; they were having a hard time with him in school, but that straightened out."

In a 1994 letter of recommendation, a high school English teacher wrote that Eaton was "respected by both classmates and faculty as a young man of tremendous integrity and responsibility. No one questions the obvious fact of Jason's eventual success."

Eaton later studied forestry for a year at both Sterling College in Craftsbury and Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks. He spent time out west leading wilderness trips and teaching outdoor education to kids in Idaho and Oregon and, on his résumé, lists a wide range of other occupations: farm manager, caterer, carpenter, snowplow operator, groundskeeper at Middlebury College, agent for National Life Group in Rutland and Burlington, "night cleaner" at a noodle shop. He also held jobs in the financial industry, including with TD Ameritrade and Edward Jones.

By 2008, Eaton had landed in Syracuse. He volunteered as an adaptive ski instructor for children with disabilities and as a leader in the Boy Scouts of America. He was named "facilitator of the year" in 2009 by the city for his volunteer work with a neighborhood betterment project.

"You have proven yourself as a great leader with outstanding enthusiasm," wrote Edward Ortiz Jr., who was commissioner of the city's community development department.

Eaton was never arrested, but he had frequent contact with local police. Between April 2007 and November 2021, Eaton was a complainant, a victim or otherwise involved in 37 reports made to police agencies in Onondaga County.

"I'm not seeing anything where it's, like, a big history or anything that's racially motivated," said Lt. Matthew Malinowski, a Syracuse police spokesperson.

But Eaton's behavior concerned at least two former romantic partners. In summer 2013, one ex contacted Syracuse police shortly after ending a relationship with Eaton. He'd left a 20-gauge shotgun at her house, and the woman wanted to hand it over to police; she didn't "want to have contact with him," according to a police report. The woman also alluded to a "history of domestic violence" during their relationship, the report said.

"She explained that Eaton has a history of mental illness, and she does [not] feel safe returning the shotgun to him," police wrote in the report.

About six years later, a second woman who'd had a relationship with Eaton contacted police in the village of DeWitt, N.Y. He'd driven by her house and sent numerous text messages that were "sexual in nature but not threatening," even though she'd told him to leave her alone, an October 21, 2019, domestic incident report reads.

While police were talking to the woman, Eaton drove by and the officers stopped his truck. According to the report, Eaton told officers he'd gotten "mixed signals" from the woman about their relationship status.

"I advised Eaton that [the woman] wants absolutely no contact with him from this point forward," Officer Alexander Fratini wrote in his report. "Eaton stated he understood."

The woman later obtained an order of protection against Eaton that was in place until May 2022. Despite the rocky relationship, the woman told Seven Days she never knew Eaton to be racist or hateful. She said he described himself as a "lukewarm Christian," though Eaton's mother, Mary Reed, told the Daily Beast that her son was "very religious." His LinkedIn page quotes a verse from Matthew 6:21: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

A records search turned up no criminal convictions for Eaton in Vermont, though he had several minor traffic offenses dating back to 1998.

Outside the Quaker meeting house on North Prospect Street in Burlington - SASHA GOLDSTEIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sasha Goldstein ©️ Seven Days
  • Outside the Quaker meeting house on North Prospect Street in Burlington

Eaton appears to have lived alone in his North Prospect Street apartment. His landlord declined to comment, and a "No Trespassing" sign has gone up in the front window of the eight-unit building. Farther down North Prospect is a Quaker meeting house and Ohavi Zedek, a synagogue. Both have put up large posters with green hearts and the message "Neighbors Stand Against Hate."

After arriving in the Queen City, Eaton attended and volunteered at two downtown houses of worship: the First Unitarian Universalist Society and the First Congregational Church. This fall, Eaton attended services a handful of times at First Congregational, according to Caroline Crawford, a congregant who sits on the church's board of trustees. He would also come on weekend mornings and clean up used needles and other detritus left on the steps outside by the unhoused people who have taken to sheltering there, Crawford told Seven Days.

No one at the church knew Eaton well, but Crawford said she recognized him from his mug shot after the shooting.

"To realize that I had spent time in what I consider to be a safe and sacred space with someone who has the capacity to do something like this is deeply, deeply troubling," she said.

Derek Brouwer and Courtney Lamdin contributed reporting.

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