Staff report, VTDigger
An environmental court judge has ordered that, for now, Daniel Banyai must stop paramilitary training activities at Slate Ridge, which has operated without a permit for several years in West Pawlet.
Following court proceedings that have lasted more than a year, the judge on Thursday, Jan. 21, issued a preliminary injunction, which states “Defendant shall not conduct or permit to be conducted any school and/or firearms training related activities on the Property situated 541 Briar Hill Road, nor host classes of any type on the property, from the receipt of the order, until further order of this court.”
Merrill Bent, the attorney for the town of Pawlet, filed the motion for emergency injunctive relief after expecting the judge to issue a decision at a hearing in December. Instead, the judge asked for post-trial briefs from both Banyai and Bent, which were due earlier this month.
The preliminary injunction states that the town proved at that hearing that Banyai is operating an “unpermitted firearms training facility” and that the defendant “has refused to cure any of the violations and instead continues to develop infrastructure and expand the facility.”
Judge Tom Durkin has not yet issued a final decision. The town has asked him to make the order permanent, require the removal of unpermitted buildings, impose fines and require Banyai to cover the cost of the town’s legal fees.
“It is difficult for the Court to imagine an alleged zoning violation that could be the source of more significant irreparable harm than an unpermitted shooting range,” the motion, filed by attorney Merrill Bent to the court, said.
Governor Phil Scott said Friday, Jan. 22, it’s “good news” for its neighbors that a judge approved the injunction temporarily banning firearms training at the Slate Ridge complex in West Pawlet.
“Obviously, this has been an area that has been controversial,” Scott said. “If there were environmental laws that were broken, they should follow through on that, which we’ve been advocating for.”
Both Scott and Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, had said in the past that they haven’t found evidence that Banyai has committed any crimes on which the state could act. But now with the injunction, Banyai’s lack of the town permits required to operate a school or business in a residential zone in West Pawlet gives them something to enforce.
“There has not been the basis of evidence to act on any of the reports that have been made,” Schirling said. “A number of them have been reviewed by prosecutors, in addition to having ongoing investigations. At this point, now that there is an order in place, there could be a contempt of court if those activities continue.”
But state officials have said enforcement action would largely fall under the jurisdiction of the town or the federal government.
Recently, Vermont Public Radio reported that Vermont’s Natural Resources Board has obtained evidence that gives the town a strong indication of Act 250 violations on Banyai’s property. The board’s staff members have declined to investigate the property themselves, fearing for their safety, and hoped state police would take on the case.
But Schirling declined, saying the Department of Public Safety staff is not trained on Act 250 violations, and state police have never gotten involved in land-use disputes.
So, currently, no one is investigating potential Act 250 violations on the property.
Neighbors feel threatened
Last week, a different judge issued a protective stalking order in civil court against Banyai, ordering him to stay away from Mandy Hulett, a neighbor whom Banyai has doxed [maliciously singled out, per Oxford Languages] and harassed in the last six months.
In the court order, Judge Helen Toor cited posts from Slate Ridge’s Facebook page, then concludes, “any reasonable person would interpret the overall message as threatening to cause physical harm to Hulett and her family. Banyai certainly knew or should have known this.”
Toor points to three posts, which Hulett and her attorney used as evidence in a hearing last week, that demonstrate threats. The first said Hulett and her husband needed to “go to HELL!” and later said “we must eradicate these people,” then listed her home address.
Another post asked followers to help find a car “like this,” alongside a photo of a car identical to that of Hulett’s teenage daughter, to “shoot up and then blow up” at a forthcoming vehicle assault class to be held at Slate Ridge.
The final post cited in the court order “stated that thousands of stickers were available with the symbols ‘NO #hulett #pawlett #vtdigger,” offering “a firearm and 1,000 rounds of ‘ammo’ to the person placing a sticker in the ‘best location.’”
The stickers feature red circles with slashes through them superimposed over the names. “In the context of the other posts, a reasonable person would interpret this as a threat to have people kill the Huletts,” the order said.
During last week’s hearing, Banyai stated that he does not operate Slate Ridge’s Facebook page. Toor wrote that the court “did not find that testimony to be credible.”
Banyai cannot amend or attempt to revoke the protective order, which requires him to “stay away” from Hulett and her children.
“‘Stay away’ means do not talk to, telephone, text, email, or use any other electronic communication to make contact, and do not post to them or about them on social media, and do not ask other people to give them messages,” the order, granted Friday afternoon, Jan. 22, reads.
He must also stay 500 feet from Hulett, her children and their property.
The order will remain in effect until Jan. 15, 2023. Violation of the order can result in imprisonment, a fine or both.
Banyai has a pending felony charge in New York, at least two protective orders filed against him, and according to a leaked law enforcement bulletin from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “is believed to be unlawfully in possession of a large cache of firearms and ammunition.”
Numerous Facebook photos and videos published by Slate Ridge attest to the risk Banyai poses.