On November 4, 2020

Militia training site terrifies neighbors in West Pawlet

Slate Ridge, a center for military-style training and “professional gunfighting,” posts life-threatening messages, but breaks no laws?

By Staff Report, VTDigger

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, 47, 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 paramilitary 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.

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.

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, Oct. 27.

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 Select Board 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.

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.

In several public posts on Facebook, Slate Ridge has promoted general calls to action, but does not claim membership to any of these group.

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.

VTDigger reached Banyai by phone Wednesday, Oct. 28, 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.”

On Thursday, Banyai texted 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.”

Attorney General TJ Donovan said last week his office knows about activity at Slate Ridge. “We’re aware of it,” he 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 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.”

Daniel Banyai has been in and out of trouble with law enforcement for more than 20 years. Banyai is currently being charged with two felony counts 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.

The Slate Ridge Facebook page has featured photos of large guns and boxes of ammunition.

A leaked bulletin from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) also 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.”

Banyai claims he’s advocating for Second Amendment rights, and the 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 neighbor said, “and he’s making everyone else think we have gun issues, when we don’t.”

This story is an excerpt. For the full investigative report visit VTDigger.org.

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