WEST PAWLET — While all of the attention related to Slate Ridge has focused on the impacts on the neighbors, the man who claims to own the shooting facility in West Pawlet and his supporters say they are the targets of their neighbors.
These claims, made in private Facebook messages and public posts as well as court documents and public meetings, say it’s the neighbors who are threatening, trespassing, harassing and making life difficult for people who shoot and train at Slate Ridge.
The neighbors said Daniel Banyai and those who shoot and train at Slate Ridge play the victim in an attempt to win over public support.
Banyai and others associated with Slate Ridge declined invitations to comment for this story. As a result of those interview requests, Banyai filed a harassment claim against the Journal with Vermont State Police, who later told the Journal they saw no basis to pursue those charges based on the evidence.
“My comment is no comment,” Banyai said.
Since late 2017 when he moved in and created Slate Ridge, Banyai’s neighbors have complained that his Slate Ridge shooting range has caused issues with excessive noise from thousands of rounds of gunfire, explosions, increased traffic, night-time noise and more. The neighbors, who say they have no issue with the firearms or shooting, only that it has encroached on their right to enjoy their property and, they claim, the operation is unpermitted and, therefore, illegal.
The fight is in the courts over zoning permit issues, but those neighbors taking on this fight say Banyai and his friends have systematically engaged in in-person and online intimidation tactics, bullying them and using threats of violence to get their way.
The neighbors say they’re alarmed and scared because Banyai and his colleagues carry firearms at all times and have acted menacingly by surrounding neighbors at times and shadowing neighbors on their own property.
Banyai, who has an active Federal Firearms License through Feb. 1, 2021, under the trade name Honvend Security Solutions, has legal issues in New York state. He was kicked out of Pace University after threatening a dean over a grade and had his New York pistol permit revoked.
He has pleaded to a reduced charge after he was caught up in a New York sting for submitting fraudulent claims to obtain workers’ compensation benefits of $17,000.
He is also currently awaiting sentencing after he agreed to a plea-bargain to one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, according to Senior Assistant District Attorney Melissa Pasquale.
And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued a bulletin about Banyai in Rutland County, Vt., and Dutchess County, N.Y., that said the ATF believes Banyai is unlawfully in possession of a large cache of firearms and ammunition despite being prohibited from possession or purchasing firearms, and that he has refused to follow the order to surrender his firearms.
The ATF said Banyai is known to carry a firearm, may become agitated if encountered by law enforcement, could present false documents and that “Banyai appears to have declining mental health.”
A brief phone conversation with Banyai is indicative of what neighbors, judges, Pawlet town officials and others have experienced when dealing with Banyai.
Banyai said the Journal’s requests for comment were threatening.
“I feel threatened, my family feels threatened, my children here feel threatened,” Banyai said.
Feeling threatened is what Banyai told a judge in a recent court proceeding about his Oct. 19 filing seeking anti-stalking and protection orders against Rich and Mandy Hulett, neighbors abutting the Slate Ridge property who have been entangled with Banyai for several years.
In an affidavit, Banyai wrote that the Huletts “have harassed, stalked and trespassed on my land.”
Banyai accused them of breaking and removing his gate and said they frequently “park on and near my driveway to prevent me and my family access [sic] to my property.”
He wrote that a recent incident included the Huletts “gathered at the end of my driveway with 15 or more people that were yelling hate speech and death threats at myself and my blended family.”
“They stalk my social media account calling for others to intervene in hate and death threats against me,” Banyai wrote in the affidavit.
In the Complaint for Order Against Stalking, Banyai wrote, “Stop threatening me and my blended family.”
After reviewing the evidence at the hearing, the judge disagreed with Banyai’s assessment and ruled in favor of the Huletts, dismissing the case and dropping all charges.
The neighbors have said that Banyai’s actions are a way of gaining support by making himself out to be a victim of anti-gun rhetoric and to grow support for Slate Ridge. At a Select Board meeting Sept. 25, 2018, resident John Davis Sr. presented a photo to the board of a sign he said had been posted on the Banyai property that read, “Trespass here. Die here! Take the chance!”
Whether that’s a threat or a warning depends on perspective, but neighbors point out that since Banyai was served by the Town of Pawlet in September 2019 with a notice of a zoning violation, Banyai has been conducting regular online and in-person harassment. The notice, the fourth over about a year to a year and a half, was for “operating an ongoing unpermitted commercial enterprise at this property in the rural agricultural zoning district.”
But Banyai says he doesn’t run a commercial shooting range operation. His posts on Facebook have changed recently to emphasize that Slate Ridge’s shooting classes are free to attend.
One recent post advertised, “Welcome to Slate Ridge! Please invite your family & friends and share our page! FREE TRAINING”
While far from the only neighbors who have expressed problems with Banyai and Slate Ridge, the Huletts have been the target of most of the Slate Ridge Facebook posts. The Huletts, who run a trucking business, watched a video posted to the Slate Ridge Facebook page that showed a vehicle with bullet holes in it. On the door of the vehicle is hand-written “Hulett Trucking.”
In another video, shooters fire at human-shaped paper targets placed in the back seat of a sedan. A comment posted under the name of Tom Pingree, who on his Facebook page proclaims to be a member of the Vermont State Militia and says they train “in West Pawlet,” says, “I think your neighbors want too [sic] sit in the back seat lmfao,” to which Slate Ridge replies, “yes please invite them.”
During the recent court hearing, Banyai was asked about posts that have appeared on the Slate Ridge Facebook page.
When asked, “You operate that Facebook page, don’t you?”
“That is incorrect, I do not,” Banyai said. “I have a moderator and an administrator.”
The questioner asked if Banyai had the right to control what was on Slate Ridge’s Facebook page?
“I believe I do,” Banyai said, but added that he didn’t review it too often. “I’m very busy trying to stay safe.”
Banyai also said that if he authored a Facebook page post, “it will say DSB2628 on the end of it.”
No posts to the Slate Ridge Facebook site have carried that designation in a review of posts from the past several months.
Sparring with a judge
An environmental court hearing was held in June for a procedural issue in the town of Pawlet’s ongoing quest for injunctive relief to force Banyai to remove a building the town says was erected without permits as well as to quit operating an unpermitted shooting facility. The town is also seeking fines as determined by the court for the violations.
The conclusion of that legal process is scheduled to take place in Environmental Court between Nov. 23 and Dec. 21.
During this proceeding, Banyai and Judge Thomas S. Durkin jousted verbally and the hearing occasionally got heated. Banyai wanted to make points unrelated to the purpose of the hearing.
“The most important thing, my objective here is for the general populace, the people of Vermont and the 980 residents that are full-time residents in Pawlet, to see the circumstances, the vengeance and the suppression of my life in this community,” Banyai said.
“I offered it very emotionally, and very categorically to you [Judge Durkin] on my first introduction with you at our first hearing, and you assured me that none of that is going to happen. But you’re not living down here with people of color, people that are LGBTQ or me having my rights negated in the community as a Jewish individual practices Judaism. I need the people to see that.”
Judge Durkin pointed out that Banyai had not offered any information pertinent to the case and was choosing instead to continue his battle against what he calls, “the hate for people like me.”
Durkin was befuddled.
“I’m at a loss as to how to respond to much of what you say because it doesn’t relate to the issues we’re trying to resolve here,” Durkin said.
At another point, the exchange got heated between the judge and Banyai when Banyai, serving as his own counsel, wouldn’t quit interrupting the judge.
“Stop interrupting me,” Durkin, raising his voice, told Banyai. “Stop interrupting me, sir. 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? Am I clear?”
Banyai wasn’t having it.
“Your honor, you’re not my father, OK?” Banyai said. “Nobody speaks to me like that. I’ve been nothing but professional to you.”
At a Pawlet Development Review Board meeting in April 2018, it became clear what the neighborhood was like for people who lived there. The DRB, in a report, pointed out that the Pawlet zoning administrator had also denied a permit for Slate Ridge as a firearms training facility. Among its reasons in denying the request was the impact the facility would have and was already having, on the “character of the area.”
According to the DRB report, “The neighbors describe a significant change in the character of the neighborhood, including constant gunshot noise intruding on a sense of well-being; increase Safety and Security concerns; a reduced feeling of safety with respect to children and family pets; the destruction of past businesses; property value concerns; the loss of use of some adjacent areas of the property for recreational purposes; and a tremendous increase in traffic in an otherwise quiet area.”
“There can be no doubt that such use would alter the essential character of the neighborhood, and would substantially and permanently impaired appropriate use and development of neighboring property — and in fact it already has done so.”
Beyond the 1st Amendment
State Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman who represents Pawlet, as well as Rupert, Tinmouth, Middletown Springs and Wells in Montpelier, said he has worked on the situation for a while, trying to get the neighbors access to people who might be able to help them in government.
“I was doing it quietly to not draw attention to the situation or myself,” Chesnut-Tangerman said. “But the increased level of hostility in the [Slate Ridge] social media postings, the stories I’ve heard about them surrounding people and threatening hunters, it feels like it just keeps ramping up. Some of the social media things go way beyond freedom of speech. We can’t afford to be quiet about it anymore.”
Chesnut-Tangerman said he doesn’t see Slate Ridge, Daniel Banyai or his followers as the victims.
“Given the potentially dangerous situation I think it’s way out of the town of Pawlet’s hands and into state or federal,” he said. “The fact that people from out of state and out of the area and potentially a militia are training there, it causes me a great deal of concern. I think there are probably so many combined violations, whether they be environmental or is he running a business there, is he paying taxes, there’s speculation about what kind of firearms and ammunition. I think there are a lot of concerns there.”