Imagine you’re a resident of a quiet, rural community in southern Vermont, and a guy from New York moves to town and starts operating a tactical shooting range without a permit.
Now, imagine that members of a local militia start showing up for military-style training in your neighborhood. And when you raise concerns about the operation, the owner, Daniel Banyai, starts taunting you with thinly-veiled threats.
That’s exactly what some residents of West Pawlet say they’ve endured for more than three years.
Records obtained by VPR show that state officials believe the unpermitted military training facility in West Pawlet, called Slate Ridge, may be violating Vermont environmental laws. Yet authorities have dropped any attempt to enforce them.
Neighbors who live nearby tell VPR that’s been incredibly frustrating.
Several gather around a kitchen table to show us holiday greetings they and others in town received from Slate Ridge last Christmas.
Michelle Tilander, one of the few members of this group that will let us use her name, reads from several of them.
“Some of the words that are used are ‘racist,’ ‘corrupt,’ ‘miserable souls,’ ‘jerk-off,’” Tilander says. She picks up two others: “‘Special place in hell for you,’ ‘bestiality.' Horrible, obscene. And this is mildly obscene compared to what we’ve had.”
The letters are written on Slate Ridge stationary and mailed with stamps that commemorate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Slate Ridge is a weapons training facility just down the road that has operated in West Pawlet without a permit or Act 250 approval since 2017.
Many Vermonters first learned about it when VTDigger published a lengthy article about it in the fall.
But Slate Ridge had already been on federal authorities’ radar.
A bulletin released last year by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, warned that Banyai is believed to possess a large cache of weapons and ammunition. It said he falsely claims to be a federal agent, is known to carry a pistol, and may be agitated if encountered by law enforcement.
The bulletin also says that Banyai is prohibited from possessing firearms.
That last part is ironic to Michelle Tilander, since she’s heard so much gunfire coming from his training facility in recent years.
She remembers the first time she heard it. She and her husband were sitting outside under their favorite oak tree.
“I'm not talking about one or two or three or four or six or 12 shots, I'm talking about multiple shots,” Tilander says. “We know firearms. Sounded like an AR, sounded like a full clip, sounded like multiple full clips from different people at the same time. And my husband's like, ‘What the heck is going on? It sounds like Vietnam.’”
So let’s rewind and explain how we got to this point.
In 2013, Banyai bought 30 acres of land in West Pawlet at 541 Briar Hill Road. The property is close to the New York state border, and is surrounded by farms, rolling hills, quarries and a smattering of houses.
In December 2017, Banyai applied for a zoning permit to build what he referred to as a “school.” The town rejected it, but according to court documents, Slate Ridge went ahead anyway.
On Facebook, Slate Ridge bills itself as a facility that has “the resources to educate a dynamic solution to your defense scenarios.”
There are dozens of videos you can click on to see the kind of training they offer. One from last September shows two men firing handguns at targets while attempting to help a fallen comrade. Amid the sound of gunfire, you can hear someone with a bullhorn calling out instructions like, “Deploy the tourniquet!” and “Cover!”
VPR reached out to Daniel Banyai numerous times to get his side of the story. But he turned us down, though we did get a chance to meet him, which we’ll talk about later in this story.
Neighbors who did speak with us told us they’ve been trying to get people to pay attention to what’s going on in their community for years.
Mandy Hulett and her husband Rich own about 1,000 acres in the area, including land abutting Banyai’s. They’re dairy farmers, and they own a trucking company.
Hulett says it’s not so much the gunfire and traffic that’s bothered her. It’s that Banyai has flouted rules that everyone else has to follow. As farmers, Hulett says if she and her husband did that, they’d face steep consequences.
But Banyai? She shrugs.
“I think he scares people,” she says.
Hulett tells us about something that happened back in October. Her friends were out bow hunting with their teenage sons on her property. The group chased a deer they’d hit close to the entrance of Slate Ridge.
“Everybody knows, don't go on his property, ever,” she said.
According to an incident report filed by a game warden, Banyai approached the hunters and shined a light on them, asking who they were. It was after 6 p.m. and dark.
Banyai reportedly said back, “I’m going to shoot you.”
The father replied: “Are you kidding me? Me and my 17-year-old son and a 14-year-old boy are here looking for a deer my son shot.”
Banyai reportedly called out: “Go ahead and cross that line, and I’ll shoot you and teach you and those kids a lesson.”
The hunters called 911 and state police investigated. But authorities said they lacked evidence to charge Banyai with criminal threatening.
Mandy Hulett says no one in her family goes running or horseback riding alone anymore, and they’ve installed a new security system at their home because of events that have occurred since that hunting incident.
When asked if she personally is afraid of Daniel Banyai, Hulett shakes her head.
“You know, it's funny, I'm not so much afraid of him as I am his, I call them his disciples,” she says.
Hulett is talking about the people who take the classes at Slate Ridge, some of whom, according to comments Banyai has made to journalists, have ties to militia groups. And she worries about the nearly 4,000 people who follow Banyai and Slate Ridge on Facebook.
Every neighbor we talked to for this story expressed similar fears. They’d all installed new home security systems with cameras. One neighbor even showed us the bulletproof vest they’d bought.
Mandy Hulett hasn’t bought one of those, but admitted, “I do carry my son's pistol now, which is pretty crazy, but I feel safer doing so.”
Mandy and her husband Rich also hired an attorney and late last month they received temporary relief from stalking orders against Banyai.
Banyai and the firearms training facility he started in West Pawlet have come under considerable scrutiny from environmental regulators. And in 2018, the Natural Resources Board launched an investigation into alleged violations of Vermont’s environmental laws.
The Natural Resources Board was created by the Legislature to administer Vermont’s Act 250 permitting program. According to Evan Meenan, associate general counsel at the NRB, it’s also the legal entity that’s responsible for enforcing the state’s land-use laws.
“The Board has received complaints from neighbors and from the town of Pawlet alleging that Mr. Banyai needs an Act 250 permit because his training facility meets the definition of a commercial development,” Meenan tells VPR.
In Vermont, if you want to construct improvements on your land for any sort of significant commercial activity, you need an Act 250 permit; Banyai doesn’t have one.
“We have strong suspicions that he needs an Act 250 permit,” Meenan says. “But we have not determined conclusively that he does.”
While the NRB would normally be responsible for determining “conclusively” whether Banyai’s activities violate Act 250, Meenan says in this instance, the board is unable to fulfill that duty.
“The Board has concluded that there could be some safety concerns with sending its own investigators who are not certified law enforcement officers, who do not carry weapons, and who are not trained to deal with confrontational and potentially dangerous individuals to a property where there are firearms, ammunition, and an individual about whom we’ve received complaints for engaging in threatening and harassing behavior,” Meenan says.
According to Meenan, the NRB took its investigation as far as it could, but feared that doing more could endanger the safety of employees.
And correspondences obtained by VPR show that the NRB has been trying for more than two years now to convince state police and the attorney general to take over the investigation.
Both entities have refused.
“It’s unprecedented to use a law enforcement organization to investigate a land-use issue,” Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling tells VPR.
Schirling says it’s true that Act 250 violations can sometimes lead to criminal charges. But he says that doesn’t mean his department should get into the business of enforcing land-use laws.
“Our investigators don’t know anything about Act 250,” he says. “I mean, literally nothing … so to ask that we investigate that kind of event is just — there’s no basis of knowledge from which to launch that kind of investigation.”
In a confidential memo to lawyers at the attorney general’s office, written in December of 2018, the NRB formally asked the office to “investigate and, if appropriate, civilly or criminally prosecute Daniel Banyai for constructing improvements for a commercial purpose without first obtaining an Act 250 permit.”
The NRB acknowledged that it would customarily institute its own enforcement actions. But it said this case is “atypical because Mr. Banyai may pose a safety risk.”
About a year later, Meenan reiterated his plea for assistance in an email to Robert McDougall, chief of the Environmental Division at the Attorney General's office.
“… I do think all of the aggravating factors in this case differentiate Banyai from other respondents in environmental enforcement actions and warrant a stronger response,” Meenan wrote. “This could even include criminal prosecution for the Act 250 violations themselves.”
In a correspondence to Attorney General TJ Donovan in October of 2020, Meenan said that if the AG’s office wasn’t willing to assume the investigation, “I hope it will at least assist the Board in obtaining the State Police’s assistance.”
But an email from Schirling to Meenan last month, according to records obtained by VPR, dashed any hope that the help the NRB sought would be forthcoming.
“[Vermont State Police] has conferred with the Attorney General’s Criminal Division. We are aligned in our view that investigation and enforcement falls squarely in the NRB’s purview,” Schirling wrote. “There is no precedent for, and we collectively do not believe it is appropriate to, use law enforcement agencies to investigate Act 250 violations even if a criminal penalty is an option.”
Schirling tells VPR that state police have investigated that incident with the hunters. He says they’ve also looked into allegations from neighbors about threatening and harassing behavior from Banyai.
But, he says, police and prosecutors have both determined there isn’t enough evidence to charge Banyai with a crime.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy wouldn’t comment other than to say state police continue to monitor the situation.
Charity Clark, chief of staff for Attorney General TJ Donovan, says the attorney general’s office can’t help with the Slate Ridge investigation, because they don’t have an investigator to put on the case.
“So our environmental division doesn’t have an investigator, so we don’t do investigations,” Clark says. “We rely on other agencies to do investigations, like the NRB or Vermont State Police.”
Schirling says if safety is the concern, he’ll happily provide the Natural Resources Board with police escorts to Banyai’s property.
But Meenan says the NRB needs more than muscle: The state’s case against Banyai, he says, hinges on state police or the attorney general taking over the investigation, because they’re the only ones capable of collecting evidence needed to charge Banyai with a violation.
And since neither organization is willing to pursue the case, Meenan says, the investigation into Banyai has stalled.
“To my knowledge, no one is actively investigating or prosecuting the alleged Act 250 violations,” Meenan says.
VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld started exchanging texts with Daniel Banyai in early November. We were hoping Banyai would give us a tour of the Slate Ridge property, tell us all about what he was doing there, and let him respond to neighbors’ allegations that he’d been terrorizing them.
He wasn’t interested though. And after a few back and forths, he told Pete to “cease and desist from contacting us.”
So Pete drove down to West Pawlet in early November, to get as close as he could to the Slate Ridge property without trespassing on Banyai’s land.
The only way vehicles can access the property is via a narrow driveway that cuts across a farm field. Pete followed that driveway as far as he could, until he came upon a large, brown metal gate, with a sign that says the premises are monitored by 24-hour audio and video surveillance.
There’s another sign, set back a few feet behind the gate, that offers another message:
“Warning, no trespassing. Written permission needed to enter,” the sign reads. “Admission with state or federal ID only.”
And then the sign says: “Trespass here, die here. Take the chance!”
As Pete took in the scene, a bearded man on a four-wheeler came speeding down the steep gravel driveway to meet him.
It was Banyai. After Pete introduced himself as the reporter who’d been contacting him, Banyai told Pete it was “pretty courageous” of him to show up here.
Pete asked Banyai how many years he’d lived here, and he said this is his sixth. And Pete asked if it felt like home yet. Banyai said, "No," and Pete asked why not.
“I think people that are, like, anti-gun,” Banyai said.
Pete asked Banyai if he lives there alone or with other people, and Banyai told Pete that was confidential. Pete asked also him if he’d be doing any shooting that day, and he said probably not.
And then the brief encounter came to an end, when Banyai gave Pete an abrupt goodbye, and headed back up the driveway on his four-wheeler.
So what do we know about Daniel Steven Banyai?
We know he spent much of his life in New York State, where he’s left a long trail of court records, records that include: insurance fraud, divorce, debt and two felony charges. He pled guilty to one of the felonies, criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. In New York that’s a violent felony. The case is pending.
His records also show a pattern. When courts, creditors, and local officials have gone after Banyai with notices and legal summons, he often ignores them or delays.
Like with his property taxes. Julie Mach, Pawlet’s town treasurer, says: “Mr. Banyai is delinquent in the amount of $786.94, and that’s from taxes that were due last year. He is late on his payment this year, as he’s made zero payments.”
Mach says since 2014, Banyai has only paid his property taxes on time once.
So, to recap, the state attorney general’s office, Vermont State Police and the state Natural Resources Board have all failed to act against Banyai, even while acknowledging he may well be in violation of at least some state laws.
That’s left Pawlet – population 1,386 – to pursue legal action against Banyai. Some local officials told VPR they feel intimidated by Banyai and the town spent $1,959 to install new security cameras at the town hall last fall.
According to Merrill Bent, the town of Pawlet’s attorney, “The town is doing exactly what it can. I mean, there's nothing more that it could do.”
Bent says the legal case against Banyai started when his original application to build what he referred to as a school was denied by a Pawlet zoning official in January 2018. In the three years since, there have been contentious local meetings and missed appeal deadlines. Town officials have argued over whether Banyai’s right of way was wide enough for a business.
Banyai took the town to court over a separate tax bill he says he never got. He eventually lost that battle.
In August 2019, the town of Pawlet sent Banyai a formal notice of violation. It said he had seven days to remove unpermitted buildings and stop the weapons training.
According to court records, Mr. Banyai did not appeal the notice.
He also didn’t do what the town asked, and more than a year after being told to stop, Banyai told a reporter with the Granville, New York Sentinel that since late October of this year, “We’re putting out 100-plus students a month here that are solid baseline people with gun safety.”
So the town of Pawlet sued Banyai in Vermont Superior Court’s environmental division. Judge Thomas Durkin presided over a virtual hearing in June 2020.
Banyai represented himself.
“We've been sued three times from the town of Pawlet,” Banyai told the judge. “We spent an exorbitant amount of money, my life savings, defending this country so that you folks can sit here and tell me what I can do and not do on my land...”
“Sir,” Judge Durkin answered. “I am, I'm at a loss to respond to much of what you say, because it doesn't relate to the issues that we're trying to address here.”
“Yeah,” Banyai said, “I was never served with a notice. Yeah.”
“Stop interrupting me, sir” Durkin said. “If you interrupt me, you don't have the benefit of what I'm trying to explain to you, so do not interrupt me again. Am I clear?”
After a lengthy pause Banyai replied, “Your Honor, you're not my father, OK? No one speaks to me like that, OK? I've been nothing but professional to you. I don't ask you, I don't ask you with ultimatums. Your hate runs deep.”
At the most recent hearing on Dec. 16, Banyai excoriated the judge again and refused to answer any questions on cross examination.
Pawlet’s attorney Merrill Bent asked the judge to impose a $200 a day fine from the time Banyai was first issued his notice of violation back in August 2019. A ruling is expected next month.
But Bent says it’s important for people to understand the case she’s arguing in Vermont’s environmental court is only about Pawlet’s ability to enforce its zoning regulations; it’s not a broader hearing on Slate Ridge.
“So to the extent that neighbors have made criminal complaints, to the extent that neighbors are concerned for their safety, a zoning enforcement action is not going to remedy those issues,” Bent explains.
John Davis lives right across the road from Slate Ridge. Initially he was reluctant to go on the record, but then he invited VPR down to talk about the situation.
“We tried to keep a low profile for a few years because we thought the system would work for us, but it hasn’t, obviously,” Davis says.
Davis and his wife, Valerie, moved to Vermont from New Jersey about 45 years ago, after he returned from a tour in Vietnam.
“The serenity, the peacefulness, you know? We love looking at the wildlife, you know. I know you can’t be a hermit in the world, but we were the only ones who lived on this road for 15 years... It was therapeutic for me,” Davis says. "Just being 19-year-old in a combat zone for 13 months changes people, you know?”
But Davis says that serenity and peacefulness is sporadically pierced now by the sound of gunfire echoing across the hayfield that separates his land from Slate Ridge.
Davis, to be clear, doesn’t have anything against firearms. He’s a card-carrying member of the NRA, and proud of it.
His problem, like all the other neighbors we spoke with, is with the unpermitted tactical shooting range that offers military-style training a couple thousand feet away from his house.
“We’re just wondering why somebody can come into town and decide to put something in our neighborhood that’s going to affect all of us,” Davis says. “It’s just not right.”
Corrections: A previous version of the story misstated the title of Rob McDougall at the Attorney General's office. A previous version of this story also misstated the name of the Granville Sentinel.
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