WEST PAWLET — In the remote hills of southwestern Vermont, a group of locals gathered last week to talk with a reporter about chilling experiences they’ve had with a nearby property owner.
The property owner, Daniel Banyai, and groups of men armed with large guns, have had confrontational exchanges with local residents many times over the past four years.
Sometimes, neighbors say, they have been followed or confronted by the armed men. On weekends, they hear rapid gunshots, and sometimes explosions — part of paramilitary training that takes place at two shooting ranges on the 31-acre property.
Banyai runs Slate Ridge, a center for military-style training and “professional gunfighting,” which operates in a remote pocket of Rutland County. Located near Route 22, on Briar Hill Road, the center is a 50-minute drive from Rutland’s State Police barracks, the closest law enforcement other than the town’s two constables.
The neighbors met with VTDigger near Briar Hill Road, which undulates beneath forests and through farm fields, lending a sense of isolation to the area. During the meeting, an unfamiliar truck sped into the backyard, several hundred yards from where the group had gathered. They didn’t recognize the vehicle, and their fear was palpable as the truck turned and peeled away.
Some jumped to their feet, while others called out in alarm. “I have no idea who that is. Who the heck is that?” One resident pulled out a phone to record, and another ran after the vehicle as it left the property.
They worried the driver could be Banyai, or one of the men acting under his direction.
In the past two weeks, men from Slate Ridge have surrounded individual neighbors in attempts to intimidate them. Banyai also threatened to kill bow hunters who had been near his property.
Social media profiles of people who have trained at Slate Ridge say they are members of local militia and anti-government groups. Photos posted publicly on Slate Ridge’s Facebook page show underground bunkers full of machine guns and enormous piles of ammunition. While it is unclear whether the Facebook images were taken at Slate Ridge, federal authorities say Banyai is believed to be unlawfully in possession of a large cache of firearms and ammunition.
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Banyai has been cited for two felony gun charges pending in New York. According to records from court proceedings dated Dec. 10, 2019, Banyai did not obtain local zoning permits from the town of Pawlet to build several structures that exist on his property, and his “firearms training facility,” which he’s operated since 2017, is still considered an “unpermitted use” by the town. Banyai attempted to acquire a permit for a “school,” but was denied by the town. He also lacks required Act 250 permits.
He is currently prohibited from owning or purchasing firearms and, according to an ATF bulletin issued earlier this year, had refused to follow orders to surrender his guns.
Sarah Ruane, a spokesperson for the FBI, said Wednesday that per policy, she could not confirm or deny if that law enforcement agency is investigating Slate Ridge. The ATF bulletin refers to an ongoing investigation into Banyai. Calls to the ATF were not returned.
Vermont State Police have investigated a half-dozen complaints filed against Slate Ridge and Banyai, but none of the activities have risen to the level of a criminal charge, according to Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.
“At any point, if anyone steps over a line, we are ready to act and hold them accountable,” Schirling said in an interview Tuesday.
Despite these issues with law enforcement and state officials, Slate Ridge continues to operate, apparently with impunity.
The group of West Pawlet neighbors had been careful to keep the late October meeting a secret. As it happens, the truck did not belong to Banyai or a member of Slate Ridge, but rather to a well-meaning teenage friend. When they learned this, members of the group were visibly relieved.
“This is what we live with,” one said of what their lives have been like since Banyai started the center on the property a few years ago. “This is what we go through every day of our lives for the past four years. We go to sleep with revolvers next to our pillows.”
None of the local residents interviewed for this story were willing to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Slate Ridge has called on its followers to protest against Pawlet’s town officials, often using the hashtag #corruptpawlet. In April, a post on Slate Ridge’s page invited the public to attend a selectboard meeting to advocate for Second Amendment rights, “Free Speech, Freedom of choice with religious preferences and sexual preferences.” Banyai asked supporters to bring a “primary & secondary [weapons] and IFAK,” a trauma kit that typically includes lifesaving first aid supplies designed for combat.
Anti-government group activity has increased dramatically across the country this year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. Earlier this month, 13 men were charged with conspiring to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, citing an abrogation of their constitutional rights during the pandemic. Many anti-government groups refuse to wear masks and socially distance as recommended by state and local governments to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. President Donald Trump has championed their cause, poking fun at rivals who are Covid-careful.
In August, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was charged in the killing of two people who were protesting police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, paralyzing him. Rittenhouse, whose legal team describes him as a member of a militia, attended the protest armed, along with many other citizens who claimed they wanted to protect the city.
Anti-government and militia groups have begun training for social unrest they believe is imminent in the United States. Many call for action related to next week’s election. Trump has asked poll watchers to challenge voters at local precincts.
There are four anti-government groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Vermont: American Patriots, United Patriots Front, Green Mountain Militia and The Three Percenters.
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In several public posts on Facebook, Slate Ridge has promoted general calls to action.
A post on Sept. 8 features a photo with the words, “Are you prepared for civil unrest?” The caption says, “free training at @slateridgevt. Be better prepared and organized…” A post on Oct. 7 says, “The enemy is urban and it’s getting closer.”
Meanwhile, a state official and neighbors who feel threatened by Slate Ridge have asked for protection from local, state and federal agencies. Residents in close physical proximity to the property are terrified by the activities at Slate Ridge and have invested in security systems, firearms, bulletproof vests and shades to cloak the sunny windows of their farmhouses.
But until law enforcement authorities act — they say they need proof of criminal activity to do so — residents say they are living in terror of what might happen should the group’s trainees act on threats they’ve made on social media.
“You’re gonna pick up the paper someday, and it’s going to be mass murder up on Briar Hill Road,” one neighbor said. The rest of the group nodded.
VTDigger reached Banyai by phone Wednesday, and he said by text that he would consult with a lawyer before providing an interview. “My understanding is your organization is very liberal I support the Second Amendment,” he wrote. Banyai went on to complain about the Rutland Herald and The Post Star in Glens Falls, New York, who have “wanted to do a story but the hate and corruption I have uncovered jeopardizes individual(s) safety and that isn’t worth it.”
“Really think about it,” he wrote. “Please. What I am battling is monstrous. People’s safety is on the line.”
Shortly afterward, Banyai posted to his 3,000 Facebook followers, asking for their thoughts about VTDigger. “Please everyone be careful if you are contacted by VT Digger in regards to Slate Ridge,” one commenter said. “They are calling some of us trying to get interviews. I don’t trust them at all and I am not sure why they are doing this.”
On Thursday, Banyai texted again to say “Upon direction from our legal council we decline to support your efforts. Our for the record position is ‘no comment.’ All the best.”
VTDigger reached out to several people who appear, on social media, to be involved with Slate Ridge, but did not receive responses.
Attorney General TJ Donovan said this week his office knows about activity at Slate Ridge.
“We’re aware of it,” Donovan said. “We are working with our federal and state partners in law enforcement, and are monitoring the situation.”
Schirling, the public safety commissioner, said the substance of complaints to the Vermont State Police varied — some relate to noise, others to the size of gatherings that take place during the pandemic, and there have been complaints about harassment.
“So far none of them have yielded any conduct that rises to a criminal charge,” he said.
Under Vermont law, there isn’t a specific provision related to the legality of gun ownership for a person who has been cited with a felony charge. Schirling said he believes federal agencies would take action if they observed violations of gun laws.
Schirling said his staff has had a variety of conversations with West Pawlet community members and residents. The department held a briefing for legislators in early August on extremist groups, and Vermont State Police troopers have spoken with neighbors and legislators who think there is more substantial activity at Slate Ridge. The office said it takes all reports seriously, and will “continue to respond and investigate as things come in.”
“We’ll continue to be vigilant,” Schirling said. “We hope fears happening there are unfounded. You don’t want to have harassment and threatening behavior occur. At any point anyone steps over a line, we are ready to act and hold them accountable.”
Militia activity at Slate Ridge
On Nov. 12, 2019, Banyai posted a description of his vision for Slate Ridge.
“At Slate Ridge we are PROFESSIONAL Gun Fighters,” the post reads. “Our education and training models are from a practitioner model. The matrix we utilize sets the stage for education, retention, and future utilization of a firearm.”
Neighbors say the noise coming from Slate Ridge sounds like a “war zone.”
Another local group, the Vermont State Militia, is based in White River Junction, and was founded by Jesse Gramling, Mike Shumway and Sammi Shumway in 2019 as an alternative to the national organizations. Gramling said at one point the militia had 200 members, but now has 40 to 50 members who are dedicated to defending the Vermont Constitution, which includes a provision protecting the right to bear arms for self-defense and the state.
Gramling lauded Banyai for his expertise and says Banyai is a National Rifle Association certified trainer who has held vehicle assault, introduction to pistol shooting and range safety officer classes. The courses, he says, “are very prefaced on reality,” and the facility, which includes two shooting ranges and a schoolhouse, are “unbelievably safe,” exceeding federal standards, he says. In addition to militia members, Slate Ridge trains people who are seeking security work, Gramling said.
While Slate Ridge itself does not claim to be a militia, its Facebook page shows a web of individual connections to militia and anti-government organizations. Banyai calls Slate Ridge an “educational consultant” on this page, and he describes the facility as a training center and a gun range.
But Slate Ridge appears to be more than that, based on documentation of activities on the property. Banyai often holds FTX training, or military-style “field training exercises.” On a recent weekend, Slate Ridge held a vehicle assault class, during which attendees shot through the windows of junk cars. An upcoming class is called “Intro to Defensive Pistol.” Videos show about a dozen people attending several of the classes.
Slate Ridge often posts photos of weapons and ammunition, though it’s often unclear whether Banyai took the photos. One, posted on May 14, 2019, features almost 20 plastic bins full of ammunition, and the caption reads, “Slate Ridge is ready are you?” Another, posted on Nov. 22, 2019, shows the barrel of a large gun with the caption, “Yes. Bring it. We are ready just assembled today. Boom. #fullauto”
A photo posted July 5, 2019, shows dozens of guns in a safe, with the caption, “Not bragging just saying are you as ready as we are?? Chillax I know I need to do some house keeping inside this safe but don’t mess with me. Lol”.
Banyai claims he’s advocating for Second Amendment rights, and neighbors emphasize that they, too, wholeheartedly support the Second Amendment — they all own guns and hunt. They worry that anti-government groups across the country, and activity like what’s happening at Slate Ridge, are giving gun owners a bad name.
“We’d be the first in line to defend the Second Amendment,” one said, “and he’s making everyone else think we have gun issues, when we don’t.”
A follower, Tom Pingree, who often shares Slate Ridge’s content and is frequently pictured in photos on the property, shared a WCAX story to Facebook about suspicious postcards sent to Vermont lawmakers. In a caption, he wrote, “I mean a few of them could disappear js [just saying].”
He also shared an article about Kyle Rittenhouse, who allegedly shot Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and announced he would not face charges in Illinois, where he lives. “Phenomenal news congratulations,” he wrote next to an American flag emoji.
Another follower, Gary Lee Witherbee, who also appears in photos and videos at Slate Ridge and often posts responses on the center’s Facebook page, refers to a “list” of people who will be taken out when the time is right.
“And here I sit cleaning my primary looking at my stockpile of ammo double checking my gear with a smile spread wide across my face thinking to myself it’s almost time to start checking names off the list,” he wrote in August. “Oh what a beautiful day it will be when the last name gets checked off.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, The Oath Keepers claim “tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members,” and “is one of the largest radical anti-government groups in the U.S. today.” Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ founder, saw the social unrest that resulted from police brutality this spring as the beginning of civil war.
Slate Ridge frequently posts about local officials who present barriers to the full operation of the center, and Banyai often expresses his distaste for town officials.
In an email exchange with a former zoning administrator, Banyai asks the official, who had called him “Daniel,” to “address me as Mr. Banyai or Sir. I am not your friend.” To the same official, he wrote, “you are a true imbecile degenerate. If this is your best as professionalism and your intuitiveness to town duties that is a shame because your duties to ANY town are derelict.”
During the winter of 2019, neighbors and local officials received holiday cards with Slate Ridge’s emblem. They were personalized, and contained disparaging remarks.
“From all of us at Slate Ridge, we wanted to wish you two miserable souls a wonderful holiday season,” one card reads. “We hope you degenerates have fun stalking our Facebook page and idolizing us because we are successful.”
“Nobody likes you! Your family is ugly,” another reads. “We have all required permits. Happy holidays you snaggletooth.”
Another: “God has a special place in hell for terrible humans.”
A recent conflict ensued between one of Slate Ridge’s most ardent supporters, Karen “KC” Cummings, and several Pawlet residents. The Hulett family gave information about Slate Ridge to a local farm that was considering employing Cummings. The farm did not hire her. Slate Ridge took to social media, writing a long post about the Hulett family and the farm, which included the names and both personal and business addresses of the Hulett family and the farm.
The practice of publishing identifying information on the internet with malicious intent is known as doxing.
“Please friends, we must eradicate these people from allowing them to continue to cultural, ethical (sic), and religiously cleanse an area they feel they own and control,” a post on Slate Ridge’s page reads. “Walk with me, people like KC, and everyone else who has had their rights violated by these scumbags.”
Cummings did not reply to a request for comment, and asked others on Facebook not to speak with VTDigger.
A video from the vehicle assault class, which took place that weekend, showed a car with “Hulett Trucking” written in black marker on the door. The name was shot through.
Mandy Hulett responded from her Facebook account, sharing information about Banyai and the video of the shot-up car with her family’s name on it. “Typically, I’m not one to post negatively, but I feel I have to throw this out there in case something happens to me or one of my family members…you are all witnesses,” she wrote on Facebook on Oct. 18.
Hulett received an outpouring of support. Her post was shared 235 times, and to numerous local Facebook pages.
Cummings protested a Black Lives Matter event in Bennington with a sign that said “Blue Lives Matter,” then “WWG1WGA,” and “Q,” which are references to QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory that believes a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is trying to take over the government.
The FBI has warned that conspiracy theories like QAnon are linked to a growing threat of domestic terrorism. President Trump has refused to denounce the group, saying at a recent NBC town hall, “I don’t know about QAnon,” then later, “What I do hear about it, they are very strong against pedophilia.”
Who is Daniel Banyai?
Daniel Banyai is 6 feet tall and has a long, thick beard. The 47-year-old gun enthusiast opened Slate Ridge with the intention of “teaching citizens how to be armed as a professional,” according to one of his Facebook posts.
Banyai has been in and out of trouble with law enforcement for more than 20 years. He pleaded guilty to insurance fraud in 2006, having fraudulently received $17,000 after becoming injured in 1997 while working for Robin Apple Distributors, according to a statement from the New York Attorney General’s Office. Court documents say he was sentenced to a conditional discharge.
In February 2018, documents from New York’s Dutchess County court system show that Banyai made threats to members of the administration at Pace University. He enrolled in a Homeland Security master’s program there, but was dismissed after failing a class and engaging in “disruptive” behavior with students and professors.
He attempted to appeal his grade to the school’s assistant dean, Al Ward, but Ward denied the change, according to a later New York court order revoking his pistol permit. Banyai later called Ward, whose number was listed in the school’s directory.
“Banyai again argued about the grade and was reportedly confrontational,” said an email exchange obtained by VTDigger from Michael Occhicone, senior investigator for the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. “Dean Ward told Banyai that the conversation was inappropriate and then hung up.”
The next day, Ward received an anonymous text message.
“You and your family are going to suffer a miserable tortuous event and then you will die,” it reads. “al ward think it is funny to hang up on people and not return calls you and your family will be held accountable coming to your home or school.”
The threat was reported to the Mount Pleasant Police Department, and a statement was issued to students at Pace, informing them that Banyai was banned from campus.
“If you see him on campus or at a University event, please immediately inform Pace Security or call 911,” the call said. “We recommend that you not attempt to confront or detain him or engage him in conversation.”
Soon after, the school’s newspaper ran a front-page story about Banyai, calling for campus officials to provide more information following the administration’s statement. “This statement caused many students to panic and fear for their personal safety,” the story reads.
Then, on May 7, 2018, Banyai’s pistol permit, first issued in 2000, was revoked in New York. It required that he surrender “all firearms owned or in which the respondent has an ownership interest, whether registered, unregistered or co-registered, or in the possession of the respondent.” Grounds for revocation included previous records of his insurance fraud and the threats to Ward.
Two months later, Banyai was charged with two felony counts, also in New York: criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, a Class D felony, and criminal possession of a loaded firearm with intent to use unlawfully. Those charges are still pending; his next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 4.
While federal law generally prohibits those convicted of felonies from owning or purchasing firearms, Vermont laws only prohibit those convicted with violent crimes from owning a gun. It is unclear what action federal agencies may take if Banyai is convicted of his felony charges.
In fall 2018, the Slate Ridge Facebook page featured photos of large guns and boxes of ammunition.
A leaked bulletin from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says Banyai falsely claims to be “a federal agent, a member of the military special forces community or an emergency management professional and he may present false credentials.”
During an environmental court hearing on June 22, which related to several state administrative violations regarding the use of his land, Banyai claimed twice that he’s an active member of the military. The first time, he said he was out of the country on deployment when the town served him with papers regarding permitting violations.
The second time, Banyai said he’d be “out of the country within 30 days” in response to the judge’s request to schedule an evidentiary hearing. When the judge asked how long he’d be gone, he said he was “waiting for the deployment orders to come in,” and could be gone for a few months. But Banyai’s military record has not been confirmed. A search in the Department of Defense’s Manpower Data Center in October 2018 did not produce results associated with Banyai’s name or date of birth.
ATF’s bulletin, which was posted on social media and circulated among those concerned about Slate Ridge earlier this year, warns law enforcement officers about Banyai.
It lists his felony charges, and says he was “served with a warning notice to surrender his firearms by ATF. Following this notice, he posted vague posts about shooting individuals on his Facebook page. He is believed to be unlawfully in possession of a large cache of firearms and ammunition. Banyai is currently prohibited from possession or purchasing a firearm and has refused to follow the order to surrender his firearms.”
The bulletin also describes Banyai as having “declining mental health” and said he may be “agitated if encountered by law enforcement.”
Officials from ATF’s field office in Burlington did not respond to a request for comment.
Vermont State Militia trains at Slate Ridge
The Vermont State Militia has pledged in its mission statement that members will “fight on a moment’s notice with deadly force to protect those we love from all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Gramling said members of the militia hold the principles of the Constitution dear and “we don’t want to see them trampled on here.”
About 10 to 15 members of the Vermont State Militia participate in trainings at Slate Ridge once a month. Gramling, Mike Shumway and Sammi Shumway were recently photographed training at Slate Ridge. The militia group had an online presence at one point, but it has since been removed.
Gramling says “we do not exist to go on the offensive,” but the group stands ready to “defend our constitution.” He said the militia does not use social media to harass or intimidate. Instead, he said the group is “not inflammatory.” Members are committed to giving back to the community, he said, through participation in blood drives, survivalist training and helping neighbors clear driveways after storms.
The Vermont State Militia has planned no action in response to the election next week, he said.
Black Lives Matter as a target
An hour’s drive south of Pawlet, in Bennington, organizers for local Black Lives Matter events are fearful after being targeted by people who identify as “patriots” and use rhetoric that aligns with anti-government groups.
The BLM organizers aren’t sure how seriously to take threats posted on Facebook.
Cummings is a frequent counter-demonstrator, and aggressively opposed an event where activists painted the words “Black Lives Matter” on South Street in Bennington.
“I just can’t sit by and do nothing while this trash gets painted on our state road here in Vermont,” she posted ahead of the painting. She responded to another commenter who said Bennington’s history would make it an appropriate place for a revolution. “It is a very fitting place for this revolution to begin,” she said. “Just like the Green Mountain boys, we need to stand up to the tyrants!”
Counterdemonstrators sometimes brought large guns to protests in Bennington over the summer. Black Lives Matter organizers say, as a result, participants are less likely to come out.
While many anti-government groups have established connections to white supremacy, Joseph Young, a professor at American University who studies political violence, said there isn’t always a connection between racism and anti-government groups — each is based on different ideology. Some simply fight for “rights” to use guns without restrictions, for example.
Bringing guns to protests, though, is threatening behavior, Young said.
“As soon as you bring a gun, it’s no longer a nonviolent protest,” he said. “You’re threatening violence. You don’t ever enter an argument with someone and show a gun. That’s inherently violent. You’re suggesting there will be violence in the interaction.”
On a Facebook post for the Bennington mural painting event, a Facebook user with the account name “Corrow Terry” said anyone who opposed the event should “make a list of houses to vandalize or burn when the shit goes down.”
Since then, a BLM organizer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was told directly, over Facebook, that they’d made it onto that list.
Those involved with racial justice events in Bennington have trouble determining whether threats come from the same people who arrive at protests with guns, or whether posts on social media are related to any type of organization. At a certain point, they say, it all blends together, and affects their sense of safety.
“My life has changed drastically,” they said. “Being a native Vermonter, I had no problem with people who hunt and fish and shoot guns. But I, never in a million years, thought I would ever not only shoot a gun, but carry a gun. I don’t leave home without my nine anymore.”
Unsure about how seriously to take threats, the organizer has seen the posts of weapon stockpiles on Slate Ridge’s page and doesn’t want to take chances. They work from home now, afraid that going to a largely empty, unprotected office could be a safety issue.
“If they want to kill us,” they said, “they’re going to kill us.”
About 25 members of the Vermont State Militia bearing concealed firearms attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Rutland last summer when they heard that the Burlington branch of the white supremacist group United Patriots Front would be in attendance. Gramling said militia members blended into the crowd and were there to ensure the “safety of everyone.”
“We wanted to make sure the police officers were safe,” Gramling said, and “to make sure there were no confrontations between United Patriots Front, police officers and Black Lives Matter protesters.”
Gramling says neighbors have picked a fight with Slate Ridge since Banyai put a gate up on a right of way to his property. They called him a “flatlander,” he said, because Banyai is from New York. “I’m rather close to that problem,” he said. “It’s sad.”
The neighbors are “racist” and nepotistic, he says. “They are adamantly opposed to anyone who is not a white Christian,” Gramling continued.
Banyai is “a very reasonable man, he’s tried to negotiate with the neighbors,” Gramling says.
“I’ve been told people are afraid of him,” Gramling said. “He’s a kind individual unless you’re on his bad side. I’ve never been there.”
Calls for help
Earlier this month, several bow hunters, including two teenagers, were looking for a deer they’d just shot on a neighbor’s property, which abuts Slate Ridge. The group had obtained permission from the neighbor to hunt there.
According to Vermont State Police witness statements, obtained by VTDigger, Banyai appeared on the property line and asked for the hunters’ names. When the hunters refused, Banyai threatened to shoot and kill them if they crossed his property line. One of the hunters told Banyai teenagers were present, and he responded by saying, “step across that line and I will teach them a lesson when I shoot you.”
The statements say several men watched from the edge of Banyai’s property, and a man in a truck, which pulled up as the hunters waited for police to arrive, told hunters the situation “could have all been avoided” if the hunters had given their names.
State police attempted to mitigate the situation over the phone, then arrived more than two hours later.
In another incident, a neighbor parked a car near the entrance to Slate Ridge, on property the neighbor owns. Three men emerged from the Slate Ridge and surrounded the neighbor, who remained in a truck, and allegedly made threatening remarks. The neighbor is unsure whether the men were carrying weapons at the time.
In recent years, Vermont authorities have struggled to make citizens feel protected when they’re threatened by people with the power to harm them.
In 2018, law enforcement officials arrested Jack Sawyer for planning to murder students at his former high school in Fair Haven. The 18-year-old bought a 12-gauge pump shotgun from Dick’s Sporting Goods just days before his arrest. Police found journal entries Sawyer had written in which he detailed plans to kill his former schoolmates. The Vermont Supreme Court later ruled that Sawyer could not be charged with an attempt to commit a serious crime based on those plans.
After Rep. Kiah Morris, the state’s only Black female legislator at the time, declined to seek reelection because she and her family were racially harassed in Bennington County, Attorney TJ Donovan concluded that white supremacist Max Misch had not violated the law.
Pawlet and Bennington residents have spent several years gathering evidence to prove that Daniel Banyai and Slate Ridge pose a threat to their safety and quality of life. Much of that evidence has been sent to officials at local, state and federal levels.
In March 2019, neighbors appealed to the Pawlet Selectboard. Banyai has paid some money in fines for zoning violations, but court records show the town asked in December for “a monetary judgment for civil fines in an initial amount equal to at least 125 pecernt of the actual legal fees and costs incurred by the Town in bringing enforcement action in connection with this property,” and “a daily fine to continue until all the violations are cured.”
Residents, who have brought issues at Slate Ridge to officials’ attention since 2017, are frustrated by the lack of action toward Banyai considering the use of his property still violates several of the town’s bylaws.
“We have attended each Select Board, Development Review Board, and Planning Commission meeting for over a year now in order to respectfully make our concerns heard by the 16 town officials, and the town attorney, to little avail,” a spokesperson for the group told the board. “Why have the servants of the people, who are supposed to be our voice, not upheld the bylaws that promise to ‘conserve the value of our homes’ and ‘promote the health, safety, and general welfare’ of our townspeople?”
Pawlet has taken action against Slate Ridge, but the town of 1,200 has little capacity to handle the situation on its own. Attorney Merrill Bent with Woolmington, Campbell, Bent & Stasny has attempted to help them enforce local permitting and zoning rules, along with violations related to Act 250. Banyai fights back, doxing local officials and adding the #corruptpawlet hashtag on posts. He’s even accused selectboard members of having affiliations with the Ku Klux Klan.
In September 2019, according to documents obtained by VTDigger, Bent emailed the Rutland County State’s Attorney Rosemary Kennedy to ask whether a temporary order of protection issued against Banyai in New York could be enforceable in Vermont under Full Faith & Credit, a clause in the Constitution that allows states to recognize judicial decisions from other states.
“I was just wondering about its enforceability in Vermont under Full Faith & Credit, given that this gentleman owns and operates an unpermitted firearms training facility and, to the best of my knowledge, is in possession of a lot of weapons,” Bent wrote.
The next day she wrote again, including new records she had received that detailed Banyai’s threats at Pace University. “The history of threatening behavior is more cause for concern,” she wrote.
Bent followed up again in December.
“I have to wonder at what point Vermont authorities would give Full Faith & Credit to the NY Orders, or might act under Vermont’s Extreme Risk Protection Order Provision in 13 VSA 4053 et seq.,” she wrote. “It would be for the protection of public officials who are just trying to keep the peace and enforce Pawlet’s zoning laws without being threatened a guy (sic) with this type of history.”
Kennedy, in an email response for comment Wednesday, didn’t address why charges haven’t been filed in the matter or why her office has not moved forward in seeking an extreme risk protection order.
“If a person believes a crime has occurred, he or she needs to report that to the police for their investigation,” the prosecutor wrote. “If the police believe the conduct rises to the level of a crime, they will present their findings to my office and we will decide if a prosecution is warranted.”
Kennedy also wrote that, in deciding to apply for an extreme risk protection order, her office works “closely” with police in determining whether a request under the law is appropriate.
“Beyond that I have no comment,” she said.
New extreme risk law difficult to enforce
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, played a leading role in drafting the Extreme Risk Protection Order legislation in 2018 following Jack Sawyer’s alleged plot to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School.
Sears said Wednesday he doesn’t know the particulars of the situation of Slate Ridge and whether such an order would be appropriate.
“It’s up to the state’s attorney and law enforcement to follow the process and see where it leads them,” the senator said. “I think the law allows it, but again, it’s up to the court to decide whether or not that person is a danger to themselves or others.”
The legislation provides for a civil process to seize firearms from those deemed to pose an “extreme risk” of harm to themselves or others.
Sears said filing for an order is no guarantee one would be issued.
He cited a recent situation in Bennington where a man carrying a semiautomatic rifle and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask featuring a wide smile had spent many hours each day standing on a sidewalk at the main intersection in town known as the Four Corners.
His presence had raised concern among several people in town, and prompted Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage to seek an extreme risk protection order against him.
However, Sears said, a judge denied that request.
Marthage said Wednesday that Judge John Valente, in not granting her request for the order, ruled that it hadn’t been shown that the man was an “imminent” risk to harm himself or others.
The state’s attorney said local residents as well as town officials had approached her about what could be done since there were no criminal laws that the man appeared to be breaking.
Marthage’s office decided to file for an extreme risk protection order, arguing, in part, that he put others in fear. She said the man had also been the subject in the past of stalking orders.
“This to me seemed like exactly the kind of guy we should have an ERPO on,” the prosecutor said, adding that she understood the “fine line” that has to be walked between gun rights, public safety, and free speech.
“When questioned by police, he stated he was not homicidal or suicidal,” Marthage said. “Therefore, our request was denied.”
Sears said he wasn’t sure if the situation in Pawlet would yield the same result.
“People need to go through law enforcement, which needs to go to the state’s attorney, and Rose Kennedy needs to go to the court,” Sears said, “just like Erica Marthage did with this guy.”
He added, “Even though it was denied, she made the attempt and that’s all you can do. Maybe it will not be denied in this case, but at least you have a court looking at it.”
Taking threats on social media seriously
With domestic terrorism on the rise, American University professor Joseph Young has begun focusing recently on anti-government and militia groups within the United States.
“I do a lot of my research in the Middle East and Latin America,” he said. “But lately, a lot more of the things I’m interested in are happening in the U.S.”
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are effective tools for organizing anti-government, alt-right and militia groups across the country, Young said, though it can be tricky to determine when social media threats should be taken seriously.
“You get a lot of social media posts where people say pretty crazy things and potentially nasty and often violent things,” he said. “That in and of itself is not a perfect predictor of what their offline behavior is, because there’s plenty of people who never say anything online, and then go out and do violent things in person.”
His research suggests that general threats are often more credible than specific ones. A threat that someone will “get theirs,” for example, is more concerning to Young than a threat that cites a specific date and time an act will take place. Online threats, together with military-style training and calls to action — that’s cause for concern.
“I mean, there’s nothing wrong or illegal necessarily about owning a gun, or even carrying in a concealed manner, or even open,” he said. “I know Vermont has some of the more, let’s say, permissive gun laws in the country. And so, from that perspective, that’s not that troubling, or that’s not that weird. What generally is more troubling, or something that raises the hair on the back of my neck is when groups start training and preparing and hatching plots.”
Young said that any threats of violence on social media should be taken seriously. Under the First Amendment, anyone can express opinions about particular candidates, for example, but if someone states that action should be taken against a certain public official, authorities should investigate.
Asked what resources might be available to those attempting to decide the level of threat against them, Young wasn’t sure.
“I don’t have a good answer for that,” he said. “I mean, I think if I were one of the neighbors, I would be hyper vigilant.”
Editor’s note: Multiple VTDigger reporters contributed to this story.
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