State Officials Defend Response to Controversial Firearms Training Center | Off Message

State Officials Defend Response to Controversial Firearms Training Center

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Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR ©️ Seven Days
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Vermont law enforcement officials have been monitoring a weapons training center in southwestern Vermont for at least a year, state leaders said Friday, responding to questions about a VTDigger.org story published a day earlier revealing how neighbors of the property live in a constant state of fear.

A story posted to the online news website Thursday evening said that neighbors of a West Pawlet facility known as Slate Ridge have experienced a number of confrontational exchanges with property owner Daniel Banyai and his associates.

The neighbors, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, told VTDigger that they are terrified Slate Ridge's trainees may one day act on the threats they've made on social media. One quote from the report summarized their fears: “You’re gonna pick up the paper someday, and it’s going to be mass murder up on Briar Hill Road," one of the neighbors said.



Responding to questions about the situation during a press conference on Friday, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said Slate Ridge has been on his department's "radar" since before he took over in September 2019.

He said state authorities are "very sensitive" to the concerns of neighbors and continue to be "vigilant and responsive" to "all incoming reports." But he said allegations against the center, its owner and its membership have not risen to the level of criminal charges.

"We've received multiple reports of various activities at that site ranging from noise to threats to potential zoning violations," Schirling said at the press conference. "Some of those fact patterns have been investigated and reported up to prosecutors to ensure that our assessment that nothing has risen to the level of criminal charges [is accurate]."
Schirling added that the state has shared information with federal authorities, but he declined to say whether there were any pending federal investigations. "I have every confidence that if they uncovered something that rose to the level of a federal criminal charge that they would take that very seriously," he said.

Banyai, a 47-year-old gun enthusiast who opened the center several years ago, has a history with law enforcement, according to VTDigger. He pleaded guilty in a 2006 fraud case in New York and was dismissed from a Homeland Security master's program at Pace University in 2018 for failing a class and engaging in disruptive behavior with students and professors.

He was then banned from the campus after a confrontation with the university's dean. A day after the two men had a heated phone call, VTDigger reported, the dean received an anonymous text message that read: “You and your family are going to suffer a miserable tortuous event and then you will die."

In May 2018, New York revoked Banyai's pistol permit and required him to surrender all of his firearms, according to VTDigger. Two months later, he was charged in New York on two now-pending felony weapons counts.

Vermont law contains no specific provisions preventing people who have been cited with a felony from owning a gun.

VTDigger revealed a leaked bulletin from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that described Banyai as having “declining mental health” and warned that he may be “agitated if encountered by law enforcement."

Banyai declined to speak with VTDigger. When this reporter messaged Slate Ridge's Facebook page on Friday with an interview request addressed to Banyai, someone responded: "Yes sir. Would you like to come to visit me at Slate ridge[?]" But the respondent revoked the offer shortly after and did not respond to further messages.

The public scrutiny of Banyai and Slate Ridge comes as groups claiming to be militias are preparing for what they envision as an impending social unrest.

Some have taken particular issue with measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, accusing state officials of trampling individual rights. Earlier this month, 13 men were charged  for allegedly conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government.
Other purported militia groups have sought to capitalize on nationwide protests against police violence. The legal team for 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse — who was charged in August for killing two people at a protest in Kenosha, Wis., sparked by the police killing of Jacob Blake — described their client as a member of a militia that had hoped to protect that city from looters.

President Donald Trump has done little to stifle right-wing sentiments. In fact, some of his comments have only fanned the embers, such as his response to a request that he condemn white nationalists and militias, including the Proud Boys.



"Stand back and stand by," Trump said at a debate several weeks ago, a phrase that was quickly celebrated by the Proud Boys. A day later, the president said he did not know who the Proud Boys were and said the group should "stand down."

Slate Ridge does not claim to be a militia, rather branding itself as an "educational center." But Slate Ridge's  Facebook page has posted logos of two anti-government, far-right conspiracy groups — the Three Percenters and The Oath Keepers — that call on members to take up arms against the government if necessary, according to VTDigger's report. And social media profiles of people who have trained at Slate Ridge say they are members of local militia and anti-government groups, according to the story.

Trainings on the property go well beyond casual gun range exercises. Videos posted earlier this month show attendees at a "vehicle assault class," during which they sat in the front seats of a junk cars and shot at targets through the windshield before maneuvering behind the vehicle.

Neighbors have reported gathering evidence in attempts to prove that  Slate Ridge poses a threat to their safety and quality of life. They said they have invested in security systems, firearms and bulletproof vests, and have asked both state and federal authorities for protection. But state authorities have not stepped in.

“We hope fears happening there are unfounded," Schirling told VTDigger. "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.”
At Friday's press conference, Scott initially deferred a question about the matter to Schirling. Pressed for a response, Scott said that he was "very much aware" of the situation and was monitoring it. "But if it doesn't rise to the level of criminal offense, what would you suppose we should do?" he said.

"We've been reacting when they've been calling," he said of the neighbors. "We've been in contact with them ... it's not as though we're just letting this go. But there's some things we can say, and some things we can't."

Like what?

"If I could say it, I would," he said. "So I'll just leave it at that."

It is common for state officials to be tightlipped about potential federal investigations. According to VTDigger, the ATF bulletin about Banyai referenced an ongoing probe, but the agency did not return the outlet's call for comment. A spokesperson for the FBI told the news outlet that the agency could not confirm or deny whether it was investigating Slate Ridge. Kraig LaPorte, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office, told Seven Days the same on Friday.

VTDigger reported that an attorney working with the Town of Pawlet pushed county prosecutors to impose an "extreme risk protection order" on Banyai, which is a civil process that allows for the seizure of firearms from those deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.

Lawmakers passed the extreme-risk legislation two years ago in the wake of 18-year-old Jack Sawyer's arrest on charges that he planned to murder students at his former high school in Fair Haven. Prosecutors dropped the most serious charges against Sawyer after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled there was not enough evidence to prove he had actually attempted to kill anyone.

Scott, a Republican who had long opposed restrictions on gun ownership, shifted his position following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the apparent near-miss closer to home.

In April 2018, two months after Sawyer's arrest, Scott signed into law a trio of gun bills. That same week, he vowed to work with state and local authorities to seek "any and all legal avenues" to keep Sawyer in custody.
Scott was less willing to insert himself into the Slate Ridge controversy. Asked if he thought the state should seek an extreme risk order, Scott said it was "up to prosecutors." He later said that it was not fair to compare Sawyer to Slate Ridge because Sawyer had laid out an explicit plan to harm students in the school, so "it wasn't a question of if, it was a question of which day."

"If you have information to the magnitude that we saw with Jack Sawyer, you should present it to us," Scott said when asked what would need to occur for him to push for an extreme risk order. "If you have details of a plan ... set in place to do harm to others, you should present it. We have not seen that, as I know of, at this point in time."

"If someone has information that they would be able to provide, then we could take action," he said.

Slate Ridge seemed to be reveling in its newfound infamy. In a Facebook post on Thursday evening, the center wrote, "FREE RANGE TIME & FREE TRAINING JUST MENTION VT DIGGER." In another post on Friday, it wrote, "Welcome to the Slate Ridge Family. We welcome all the Vt Digger Audience." Several commenters wrote they learned about the center through the article and hoped to visit soon.

Then, around 1:20 p.m., the center posted its takeaway from the governor's press conference. "Thank you Governor Scott for standing up for Slate Ridge," read the post.