Burlington shooting suspect grew up here


By Tom Ayres, Vermont Standard Senior Staff Writer

Copyright © 2023 Vermont Standard. All rights reserved.

The shooting of three Palestinian college students in Burlington last Saturday evening has sparked anew a nationwide conversation about gun violence, mental illness, and hate crimes, particularly given the shooting incident’s occurrence in the midst of the latest Israel-Hamas war and its attendant rise in virulent — and often violent — expressions of antisemitism and anti-Arab sentiments across the nation.

For Woodstock and its surrounding communities, the tragedy of the shootings last weekend strikes chillingly close to home because the alleged shooter, Jason James Eaton, now 48, grew up in the Upper Valley, graduated from Woodstock Union High School (WUHS) in 1994, and worked steadily for roughly 13 years at Maplecrest Farm in West Woodstock. The farm’s proprietor, Ned Macksoud, and Eaton’s childhood friends and WUHS classmates reacted with dismay and disbelief Monday when they awoke to the news that Eaton had been arrested by Burlington Police and charged with three counts of attempted second-degree murder. Although Macksoud and others had not had any recent contact with Eaton, who spent most of the past 20 years living near Syracuse in upstate New York, they said categorically that the alleged violent act — and the fact that local and federal law enforcement agencies continue to investigate the shooting as a potential hate crime — was completely out of character for the teenager and young man they knew in the 1990s and early 2000s.

That sentiment was echoed by Eaton’s mother, Mary Quinn Reed of Salisbury, in a front porch conversation with a Boston Globe reporter at her home about an hour south of Burlington on Tuesday morning. “I don’t believe this was a hate crime,” Reed reportedly told the Globe. “He’s not a hateful person.” The Standard’s attempts to reach Reed over the past few days were unsuccessful. Macksoud, who served as a mentor and employer to Eaton during his high school years and early adulthood, and the alleged shooter’s close high school friend Luke Saul, who was in touch with Eaton as recently as five or six years ago, concurred. They also shared their thoughts about Eaton’s mental health and possible social and political leanings in conversations with the Standard on Tuesday.

“It’s a sad thing when somebody snaps like that,” Macksoud said before offering to talk candidly about his relationship with Eaton, which ran from 1991 until 2004 when Eaton moved away from Woodstock. “I haven’t been in touch with him since way back then,” the longtime Vermont farmer, logger, and maple syrup producer offered. “Jason was having some trouble in school with staying focused. I don’t remember how it got dreamed up, but while he was still a high school student, they allowed him to come and do some work on the farm. As it turned out, I was doing a kind of mentorship with him. He was a good worker and he had a good attitude. He was happy to be doing something alternative to just sitting in a classroom. It really helped him get back on track in those days. He did a lot of diverse work for me — he drove tractors and sugared with me. Everything that Maplecrest is about, he participated in. I think I have only seen him one time since that whole time when I was seeing him on an almost daily basis.”

Jason James Eaton

Burlington, Chittenden County, and federal investigators said at a Monday press conference that they were looking into Eaton’s mental state and any potential motive for the shooting of the three Palestinian 20-year olds — Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad — while they were walking near a relative’s home in Burlington on Saturday night. It’s been reported that Eaton did not say anything to the three men before opening fire in the N. Prospect St. neighborhood, close to the University of Vermont campus. He is being held without bail while the investigation continues. Asked about Eaton’s mental state during the years that he worked at Maplecrest Farm, Macksoud said he thought any allegation of Eaton’s having acted out of hatred in the Burlington shootings was “very out of character. I just can’t understand how he would just walk out of his house and shoot three people. I don’t know what might have happened between his leaving me and where he is at now at 48. He might have been radicalized or something.

“As far as I know, Jason was never on the wrong side of the law,” Eaton’s former mentor and employer continued. “He may have had a traffic ticket or something like that, but never anything remotely like this. I would have been reluctant to hire anyone who was that troubled.” Macksoud added that “it’s unfortunate that those young men were walking by his house — and it’s hard to separate that it wasn’t a targeted thing. But I never saw things in Jason that were targeted like that. I did see what I thought was depression and some mental health issues. That’s why he came to work for me; they were having a hard time with him in school, but that straightened out. Maplecrest was a good run for him.”

Luke Saul, who graduated from WUHS in 1993, a year before Jason Eaton, was one of Eaton’s closest friends in high school. Saul, who is now a physics teacher and computer software specialist in New Hampshire, has also had more recent contact with Eaton, who pitched his old friend about an opportunity to invest in a potential café in the Syracuse area about five years ago. According to his resume, Eaton had spent the last 20 years pursuing a variety of agricultural endeavors in upstate New York, including participating in the opening of an organic farm-based craft brewery and working on a large cooperative farm, before relocating to Burlington this past summer. Saul said he was interested in his friend’s proposed café venture but never heard back from Eaton. “He approached me and asked me to loan him some money,” Saul recalled. “I was interested in the project, but he never got back to me. I don’t know if he ever pursued it.” That was the last time Saul had any contact with Eaton. Nonetheless, the alleged attempted murder charges and potential hate crime allegations against Saul’s old high school friend have left him baffled and deeply concerned.

“We were in high school together,” Saul recollected Tuesday. “At the time, he lived over near what used to be Thompson’s Garage, where Route 12 turns off toward Pomfret. I think his family goes way back in the area,” he continued. Saul added that the portrait of Eaton that has emerged in the regional, national, and international media in recent days is “completely contradictory with the Jason that I knew.” Contrary to some reports from other classmates that Eaton was “a hippie-type guy,” Saul said his friend was “quite clean cut. He wasn’t much of a spinner-dancer type guy…

“Jason was always a champion of oppressed people,” Saul continued, remembering Eaton’s youthful concerns. “When kids at school were getting bullied, he would always stand up for them. Even when I spoke with him just a few years ago, he was concerned about people who were struggling financially, about the economy and economic justice. So I just totally don’t understand what might have happened in Burlington.” Saul said he doubts the shootings were hate-motivated, citing Eaton’s previously expressed political and social views. “It almost sounds to me like he didn’t even notice who these guys were.”

Saul also reflected on what Ned Macksoud said about Eaton’s mental state back in his high school years and how working at Maplecrest Farm helped turn his friend’s situation at WUHS around. “What Ned said lines up with what I remember as well,” Saul commented. “I don’t think Jason had troubles socially in the sense of making friends, but he did kind of struggle academically. But he was just the kind of guy who would speak up when there was a wrong occurring and he’d try to make it right.”

Saul, who is Jewish, concluded by saying he was “trying to get [his] head around this incident” and how he might react to and act on it. “I may make some contributions in Jason’s name to some groups that I am active with,” Saul offered, citing in particular an activist organization — Jewish Voice for Peace — that advocates for mutual understanding and reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Editor’s Note: Readers are advised that there are two Jason Eatons who have longtime associations with the Woodstock area. Jason James Eaton, the alleged shooter in the Burlington incident, had lived and worked in upstate New York for the past two decades until he returned to Vermont this past summer. The other Jason Eaton is a resident of Pomfret who serves as the district manager and sales consultant for Chippers, the Woodstock-based arborists, turf and plant health care specialists.