'Everyone's So Afraid Of Daniel Banyai': VTDigger Editor On Slate Ridge Investigation
There’s no reporter byline on VTDigger’s story "Militia Training Site Terrifies Neighbors In West Pawlet". But given its content, it's understandable. The investigation by several reporters describes neighbors in the southwest Vermont community who say they fear for their personal safety due to alleged threats and intimidation from the owner and patrons of a local firearms training facility known as Slate Ridge.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Anne Galloway, founder and editor of VTDigger, for more on this story. As editor, Galloway worked with the reporters on the story and interviewed some of the people who appear in it. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: What's been going on in West Pawlet that has neighbors fearing for their safety?
Anne Galloway: There's a man named Daniel Banyai who started a shooting range in West Pawlet about four years ago. Since he started this company, neighbors have been quite frightened by the activities there.
And over time, Mr. Banyai has become increasingly more aggressive. He has with him, often at all times, many other armed individuals. Daniel and his friends have intimidated neighbors. They've surrounded them. They shout epithets. They've threatened to kill people. He has doxed town officials and neighbors, which means that they've put the private addresses and other information about neighbors on the Slate Ridge [social] media page.
So the neighbors are quite concerned. One of the neighbors we spoke with keeps a pistol under his pillow at night. People are just terrified. We do understand from an [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] bulletin that Daniel Banyai is believed to have caches of guns and ammo on the property.
What about those weapons, Anne? Are they permitted for that property? Are they legal weapons in the state of Vermont?
I can't answer that question. I wish I could. Daniel Banyai does not have permits for the operation. I do know that. And he's been fighting the town of Pawlet.
You mentioned at one point surrounding some of these residents of West Pawlet. And I think you meant that in like real life, real time. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
There was a neighbor who was driving onto a driveway there, near Slate Ridge. He was he was sitting in the truck, and he was surrounded by Daniel Banyai and other people who were armed. They said threatening things and he felt quite intimidated.
There were some bow hunters on Daniel Banyai’s property who had been tracking a deer, and they left Daniel's property to go to a neighbors’, and Daniel followed them with a group of armed men and surrounded them, and threatened to kill them, shoot them on sight, for having been on his property.
At last Friday's media briefing by Gov. Phil Scott, he was asked about this situation and both the he and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said they'd been aware of this for quite some time. They've been in contact with federal authorities about this.
But the governor said to this point, they have found no offense that rises to a level where he could take action. And he said, “If it doesn't rise to the level of criminal offense, what would you suppose we should do?”
Is the governor right about that? Has there been nothing that rises to the level of a criminal offense?
Well, all of these things are a matter of interpretation. I'm not a lawyer. I can say that I was quite surprised that the governor did not condemn the threatening behavior. You have half a dozen complaints that neighbors have filed with a Vermont State Police.
Michael Schirling says each one of those has been investigated, and they determined in each case that they had nothing to go on in terms of moving ahead with an extreme risk protection order [which would allow law enforcement to remove firearms from someone possession if they pose an "extreme risk" to harming themselves or others], which could, in fact, be filed by the Vermont attorney general. An extreme risk protection order could also be filed by the state's attorney, Rose Kennedy, in Rutland County. But no such protective order has been filed.
When I spoke with Michael Schirling last week, he said that really, this is a matter for the federal government, because of illegal gun possession charges that are pending against Daniel Banyai. So, it’s kind of in this limbo land between the feds and the state. And that happens sometimes.
I mean, nobody wants a Ruby Ridge or Waco situation. On the other hand, the neighbors have been enduring this harassment now for about four years. That's a long time to lose sleep over a neighbor.
You and I are speaking just a few days after that press conference. Have you heard anything since then from neighbors of West Pawlet reacting to how the governor reacted to this situation?
We heard from one person who said that the governor's comments were tantamount to saying “there are good people on both sides,” that this is his kind of “Charlottesville” moment. That's how upset they are by the whole thing.
What about reaction from Daniel Banyai or other members of the Slate Ridge, either to the governor's comments or your paper's report on them?
They haven't been too happy about it. They put up a post on Facebook referring to our article Thursday. They said “free-range time and free training, just mentioned VTDigger.” And that page had 130 new followers on Friday. So, we've gotten a lot of blowback from people who are affiliated with Slate Ridge.
It sounds as though this particular training facility, firing range, whatever you would like to call it, it doesn't seem as though it is permitted for what it is doing in this area. Why hasn't any action been taken just on that level?
Town officials have tried. There [is an ongoing environmental court] case involving Banyai and the town of Pawlet. It's just been very difficult for anyone to enforce zoning laws in Pawlet because everyone's so afraid of Daniel Banyai. People aren't anxious to tangle with them.
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Editor's note: this story has been corrected to note the ongoing court case involving Banyai and the town of Pawlet is within Vermont's environmental court.