Transcript

743: Don't You Be My Neighbor

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

This house on Washington Street in New York doesn't look like a house. It's more like an industrial building. Comes right up to the sidewalk-- red brick, steel window frames, and a grid of windows. It'd be considered a big house anywhere, but in New York, where people live in pretty small quarters--

Eyal Levin

I mean, it's huge. My building, I think, has 14 apartments. And I think this looks twice as big as it. And it's just him and his family. I don't know.

Ira Glass

The "him" in this case is Noam Gottesman, a billionaire finance guy and art collector. The guy telling me about him is a neighbor from around the corner, Eyal Levin, not a billionaire, father of two teenage boys who share a bedroom. He runs a jewelry business with his wife. There's one other important feature on this immense house that he wants me to see-- bright yellow letters, neat and tidy and dignified, on the bank of windows. Eyal reads--

Eyal Levin

"No parking, active driveway." But when you live here, everybody knows he's bluffing.

Ira Glass

It's not a no parking zone, he says, because there's no driveway. There's no garage. There's just a big door. But by pretending to have a driveway, what this man gets, he says, is the kind of real estate money cannot buy in New York-- his own free parking space, right in front of his house. And parking-- parking is just beyond difficult in certain neighborhoods in New York. People cry over parking. It's so frustrating. And finding a space in this neighborhood, Eyal says--

Eyal Levin

You sometimes go, make the rounds and rounds and rounds. And time passes. Sometimes it can take an hour, sometimes more.

Ira Glass

Eyal says that when he first noticed Gottesman's signs telling people not to park there, he respected the moxie.

Eyal Levin

Initially, it was very funny. I actually chuckled. And I was like, wow, this guy, good for him for confiscating the parking. I mean, whenever I passed it, it was kind of funny. Like, look what this guy did.

Ira Glass

But then one day, Eyal was driving around, looking for parking himself. It's taking forever. And he sees the space in front of Gottesman's house. And he decides, OK, this will be the day he'll park there.

Eyal Levin

Five, 10 seconds after, there's a security guard or two of them that barge out of the property. They have cameras all over so they see when you park, and they run out.

Ira Glass

He says they told him you can't park here. And they pointed to the signs on the door.

Eyal Levin

I was laughing. And I said, "Listen, guys, I'm a neighbor. I know what you're doing here. I personally don't care, but I'm allowed to park here." And then they start making threats. You will get out. Why are you being so difficult?

Ira Glass

Eyal describes himself as somebody who's generally pretty mellow. And the first time he tried to park there, he decided it wasn't worth arguing about and pulled out. But the next time he needed a place to park, he poured into the space again. Again, the tough guys showed up. And this time, Eyal had had enough. He stood his ground.

Eyal Levin

I was like, why am I being bullied when I know for a fact that I'm allowed to park there and that the signs are basically fakes?

Ira Glass

So he left his car there. He parked. Did it maybe a half dozen times, he says. Then one day, he's taking his son to school, walks by the parking space, and realizes his car is gone. They had him towed. Eyal believes the guards must have found a cop who'd write a ticket and then called for the tow truck. The ticket later got thrown out. But to get his car back, Eyal still had the hassle of riding the subway out to the tow lot. It was in a part of Queens called Maspeth. It was a subway ride and a 20-minute walk, he says. He also had to pay $201 to get the car back.

Eyal Levin

I mean, at the time, I was enraged. It's ludicrous. It's my car. It's public space. I don't care how much money you have. I'm still allowed to park on the street.

Ira Glass

So the neighbor had cameras, guards, money, and, Eyal thought, cops they could talk into writing tickets for something that is not illegal. But Eyal had some moves, too. Sent the story to the tabloids, talked to reporters.

Eyal Levin

Then I wake up in the morning, and I see it online. And I'm like, whoa. It was the whole front page.

Ira Glass

And what was the headline again?

Eyal Levin

Uh--

Ira Glass

We're in his apartment for this part of the conversation. And he heads over to a cardboard box behind his couch, next to a bin of soccer and basketballs, rustles through some stuff, and pulls out three different days of the New York Daily News where this story is the front page. You can't buy that kind of real estate in New York either. The front pages of the New York tabloids are like the Madison Square Garden of journalism, usually reserved for the top acts-- cheating celebrities, no-goodnik mayors, headless bodies in topless bars, A-Rod.

Eyal Levin

So all over the first page, they've got a great headline, I think-- "Tow-tal Jerk."

Ira Glass

And they spelled total, T-O-W, dash, T-A-L.

Eyal Levin

Right.

Ira Glass

Get it? Tow, like they towed his car. He's interviewed for radio and TV. There are follow-up stories. The mayor's office declares that hogging a parking space like this is shameful. The Department of Buildings sends out an inspector. And the billionaire Gottesman is eventually told that if he wants to call this a driveway, he needs to install a proper garage door. Eyal gets why the story had such legs. It's got something for everybody.

Eyal Levin

A rich guy, a mansion, a car being towed, how the rich always get away with it.

Ira Glass

It's David versus Goliath.

Eyal Levin

Yeah. And I'm David. Nice to meet you.

For the next few days, wherever I walk, I get stopped by neighbors.

Ira Glass

He learns that other people in the neighborhood have noticed the billionaire and his parking space. He becomes a magnet for their stories about run-ins with the neighbor's security guards. In Eyal's building, when they had their annual meeting, there were people he's known for 10 years.

Eyal Levin

And I got applause there. They were like, how did you do it? And one older neighbor was like, I've been trying to fight them for years because I was so upset about it. He doesn't even have a car, but just whenever he passes it, he was getting upset about it.

Ira Glass

After talking to Eyal, I reached out to Noam Gotteman's spokesperson. Noam Gottesman agreed to talk to me, though he didn't want me to record. When we got on the phone, he told me he totally understood why people got so upset at Eyal's story. But he said Eyal is wrong about the most basic fact in the story. Eyal thinks it's legal to park in that space. And he thinks he only got a ticket because he was targeted by Noam's security guards.

Noam Gottesman said that nobody can park there. That when he built his house, the curb was already cut low for a driveway-- had been that way for decades, and he left it that way. And the Department of Buildings approved it as a loading bay and driveway. And he says they do load and unload stuff into his house through a massive door there. Like I said, he's a big art collector. Because it is approved by the city for this purpose, Noam said, it is not legal to park there, same as other driveways and loading bays in the neighborhood.

He says other cars have gotten tickets there. And in fact, he doesn't park there in front of his own home because he's gotten a ticket there. It was so many years ago. Unlike Eyal, he didn't have a copy he could show me. He says he pays to park in the garage, or he finds a parking space and then walks home like all the non-billionaires in the neighborhood do. I'm paraphrasing here. He didn't actually call anybody a non-billionaire in our conversation.

But checking into it, I learned he's right. The space in front of Noam's house was, in fact, not a legal parking space. Eyal's ticket was legit. I will note tickets seemed very rare for that spot. The police told us they haven't issued one this whole year. And Noam says he's never heard of anybody else being towed from that spot besides Eyal.

So if I had to guess, I would guess that after a half dozen arguments with Eyal, Noam's security guards were fed up with him and called over a friendly cop to write a ticket and called the towing company. When I suggested this to Noam, he categorically denied it. Said he did not arrange for that to happen, that he asked his security guards. They said they didn't do it either.

Though the towing company did tell the Daily News that someone phoned from Noam's house to ask for Eyal's car to be towed. When I later asked Noam's spokesperson why they would say that, it is not true, she said she had no idea.

Eyal, meanwhile, doesn't buy it. He says there's no way he would have been towed without Noam's guards making it happen. Says the city shouldn't have approved this as a driveway in the first place because it's not really a driveway in any normal sense of the word. But even though he thinks he's in the right--

Eyal Levin

I didn't park again in that spot since it happened. I'm sometimes tempted when I-- and then I'm like, I don't want to go to Maspeth again. And this is where the bullying sometimes works.

Ira Glass

Today, on our show, one man's bullying is another man's simple adherence to New York parking law. It's hard being neighbors when things get angry or ugly or seem unfair. It's like everybody is just stuck with each other. You know, it's hard to move away. Moving away is for quitters.

Today, we have a story of a very different group of neighbors in a very different place. And a man moves in who breaks all kinds of rules, and the neighbors have to figure out what to do about it. And nobody backs down. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Home, Home Near the Range

Ira Glass

Act One, "Home, Home Near the Range." So what you're about to hear takes place not in a city, but in a small town in Vermont-- Pawlet, Vermont. Think rolling green hills, red barns. And pretty peaceful, until a stranger comes to town, buys up some land.

The neighbors aren't exactly sure what to make of this guy. And then problems start. And things escalate in a pretty serious and intense way, probably because this new guy, not only does he not play by the rules, in fact, he seems to feed off breaking them. This story's going to be the rest of our show today. Reporter Mike Giglio tells what happened.

Mike Giglio

It all started with a gate. A man named Daniel Banyai bought a wooded 30-acre property between some farmland and a slate quarry back in 2013. The neighbors didn't see much of him for a while. They noticed construction vehicles rumbling up and down the road. And they figured he was building a house. Mandy Hulett and her husband, Rich, owned a farm next to Daniel's property. Here's Mandy.

Mandy Hulett

A good friend of ours used to own that property. And he sold the property to him. And the very first time we met him, he came down to the farm. And he was actually-- he was OK. But the next thing we knew-- it was like two weeks later-- he was erecting a gate on our property.

Mike Giglio

Daniel's land is actually surrounded by other people's property. It's kind of like an island. So in order to access it, he has the right to cross the Huletts' land. There's a long driveway. Daniel put a gate at his end of it, but his gate was on the Huletts' property. Mandy and Rich are in their 40s. They have two kids. They own a lot of farmland and a trucking company. Rich grew up there. His family's been in the area since before the Civil War.

Mandy Hulett

So Rich approached him and said, "You do know that you put your gate-- I don't know-- 10 feet onto our property." And he's like, "I'll put my gate wherever I want to put my gate." And Rich said, "Well, in Vermont, we put our gate on our own property or on the property line, not on somebody else's property."

And I think he gave him two or three weeks to remove it. And if you don't, I'm going to come remove it. And he's like, "You're never going to get that out of the ground." So he gave him two or three weeks. And he didn't move it. So Rich went up with a payloader and brought a witness with him as well and just picked it up off out of the ground and tossed it onto his property, back on his own property. [LAUGHS]

Mike Giglio

So things were off to a bad start. Daniel was a newcomer to the area. He was from upstate New York, but other than that, he was guarded about his background. He told one neighbor he'd been in the Army. Then there was a rumor around town that he'd been a Navy SEAL or federal agent or something. It wasn't clear.

And just a word about the place he'd moved to-- this part of Pawlet, it's a bit isolated, up on a hill. There are about a dozen households all spread out along a couple of roads. There are the Huletts, John Davis, a Vietnam vet, and his wife, Val. Then down the hill was Beth Duquette, a former librarian, and her husband, Ray. Paul and Michelle Tilander are grandparents who moved to the area about 10 years ago. People are pretty private here, but they help each other out. This is Ray and Michelle, who lives one house down from him.

Ray

Paul and Michelle moved in next door to me.

Michelle

I love this story.

Ray

I told them.

Michelle

I know what he's going to say.

Ray

If you ever have an emergency, call me first, then call 911, because the cops won't show up, but I will.

Michelle

And that's the way we roll around here.

Mike Giglio

Most of them came here for the landscape and the quiet. And then, one day, the woods erupted with gunfire, hundreds and hundreds of rounds. This is Beth Moser-Duquette, the former librarian.

Beth Moser-Duquette

I mean, it was just shooting on a daily basis, like di-di-di-di-di. Di-di-di-di-di.

Mike Giglio

I want to point out, Pawlet is not a gun-shy town. Beth told me that gunfire is the sound of Vermont. She's a longtime NRA member. The area's mixed politically. Some of the neighbors voted for Trump. Others went for Biden. But none of them has a problem with firearms. Farmers have their varmint guns, and hunters have their rifles. And no one bats an eye at a neighbor doing some practice with an AR-15. This was different.

Michelle Tilander

We didn't know what was going on. We were like, what, it sounds like Vietnam.

Mike Giglio

This is Michelle Tilander, the grandmother who lives with her husband, Paul.

Michelle Tilander

Here in Vermont, you expect to hear somebody out there, plunking away at their targets, getting ready for turkey season or hunting season or just keeping their firearms in tune. We do that. That's expected, but not what we heard. That was totally out of the zone.

Mike Giglio

Did you try to approach him at that point?

Michelle Tilander

No, at that point, I was too afraid to approach anybody that was firing that much weaponry because that's not normal, certainly for this area. I don't think I would want to approach anybody that was firing off 1,000 rounds. That's scary.

Mike Giglio

Daniel had opened up a gun range. John Davis, the Vietnam vet, was tipped off about it by a friend. John got in his truck and drove up and down the hill, knocking on doors to alert everyone. He told me it was like Paul Revere's ride. Mandy Hulett and another neighbor walked the property line around Daniel's place. They peered through the trees and saw some silhouette targets in dirt berms. Mandy worried that someone would end up shooting towards the road.

Mandy Hulett

And the trajectory of those bullets is actually right to my brother-in-law's house and then right to the school, right over the hill.

Mike Giglio

The neighbors did not want a shooting range in their backyard. Daniel had filed for a permit not to open a shooting range, but for what he called a school, apparently where he would do classroom firearms instruction. In order to build the school on his property, Daniel needed permission to widen his driveway through the neighbor's land. So he asked the Huletts if they would give him the extra space. The Huletts said no. His neighbors on the other side said no as well.

Daniel's permit application for a school was denied, but he'd already put up the building, and he just kept going. He also didn't have the right permit to operate a shooting range on his land. But of course, he was doing that, too. What he was developing was a sprawling facility, the kind that military contractors or law enforcement or self-styled militia might use. He called it Slate Ridge. I reached out to Daniel. He didn't want to be interviewed. But he lays the whole thing out in this YouTube video.

Daniel Banyai

Slate Ridge is 100% predicated on the practitioner model. Gunfighters, professionals that use the firearm as a tool in the line of their employment.

Mike Giglio

Daniel is six feet tall and stout, with a bushy beard. That's how he talks-- lots of jargon. The video is shot by a dude named Adam McLain, who associates himself with the Boogaloo Bois, an armed movement that calls for civil war. His Twitter handle is boojahideen.

Daniel Banyai

So this is Range One. This is what started Slate Ridge, right? I built this first. And I continued to proceed on my dream.

Mike Giglio

He shows Adam the school and a surprisingly fancy bunkhouse and two shooting ranges, one with a wraparound berm that's intended to let people fire in multiple directions to more closely mirror real-life combat. There's a spot where people can practice entering and clearing a building and a place where they can detonate explosives. After the tour, Daniel and Adam sit down for an interview.

Adam McLain

So you're a private contractor. How long were you a private contractor for?

Daniel Banyai

For several years.

Adam McLain

For several years?

Daniel Banyai

Several years, yes.

Adam McLain

OK.

Mike Giglio

In the video, Daniel is wearing green military style cargo pants and green wraparound shades. He tells Adam the origin story of Slate Ridge. He says the idea came to him on his first overseas deployment as a private military contractor.

Daniel Banyai

I remember that day like it was just yesterday. I bumped up with about 12 guys that I had no idea who they were. I didn't know much about them. I tried out with these guys. I made it on the team. And then we get there, right? We're out of the United States of America. And we're in it.

And that night, when we hit our bunks, I watched-- with all due respect, because some of those guys I have become very good friends with. Some of those guys are my battle buddies now, and some of those guys, I would bleed for them. But a lot of them turned into a totally different person. Here, we had men crying, shivering, and second guessing themselves. And I sat there, and I watched these men. And I said, wow, what did I get myself into?

Mike Giglio

The problem was they weren't properly trained. So he decided to start his own training facility. He tells Adam he put $1.6 million of his own money into building the place. To Daniel, Slate Ridge is more than a shooting range. It's a place for people who define themselves by owning guns. He refers to himself as a professional gunfighter.

Daniel Banyai

In the military, we had the three M's-- the mission, the men, then me. I'm always at the last.

Mike Giglio

"I'm an Army guy," he tells Adam. Daniel talks about his service a lot. At one town meeting, where he made his case for the school building, he described himself as a veteran who's passionate about guns. He paints his work as a private contractor in patriotic terms. In court, he tells a state judge--

Daniel Banyai

OK, Your Honor, last thing I'd like to add is that, within 30 days, I will be out of the country--

Judge

OK.

Daniel Banyai

--so.

Judge

Let me ask you this. How long are you gone for?

Daniel Banyai

I'm not sure. I'm waiting for the deployment orders to come in. It may be a few months.

Judge

OK, all right. Well, please be safe in those travels, OK? And thank you for your service, sir.

Mike Giglio

The neighbors wondered if even the most basic part of his biography, that he'd been in the military, was a lie. John Davis, the Vietnam vet, wasn't sure he bought it.

John Davis

If you're a veteran, there's nothing more disreputable than somebody claims to be something he isn't. And I have no use for people that go around and act like they're something they aren't.

Mike Giglio

After Slate Ridge opened at the end of 2017, its Facebook page racked up a few thousand followers. Daniel started referring to them as "the Slate Ridge family." He hosted classes on shooting and tactical training and field first aid. The neighbors would see strangers driving up and down their shared dirt road. Sometimes the shooting would go on all weekend.

The neighbors hadn't been all that close before this started, just friendly in that small town kind of way. But the conflict with Daniel brought them together. They started meeting in John Davis's workshop. Sometimes a couple dozen people would show up. Their weapon of choice was as American as the Winchester rifle-- zoning laws, those most basic rules for how neighbors are going to live next to one another.

This area was zoned residential and agricultural. Daniel went back to the town and argued for a variance in the zoning laws so he could finally get a permit for the school building. 46 people signed a petition opposing this. They showed up at the town meeting in force. Here's Michelle.

Michelle Tilander

I thought maybe the town would step in, and we'd go to a couple select board meetings. We thought for sure it would be brought under control, I'd say within six months.

Mike Giglio

There's no recording of the meeting where Daniel asked for the zoning variance, but there's official minutes. This kind of captures the feeling of it. Quote, "Gary Hadeka addressed the board as an abutting landowner and interested party. Mr. Hadeka explained that as an owner of a horse stable, they have a lot to lose, that they do not want to live through a war, and that they were there first. He expressed that he wishes to stay on their property and is entitled to peace and quiet."

But the town zoning board decided in Daniel's favor. Said he was right. He could have his zoning variance for the school building. The neighbors appealed. For the next few years, he'd apply for permits. They'd try to stop him. Sometimes they won. Sometimes he won, and they'd appeal to the town or the state court. Eventually, the town of Pawlet took the neighbors' side and filed a case against Daniel, too, for violating its zoning laws.

But this kind of thing can move really slowly. Beth, the former librarian, knew the state's environmental laws and looked for a way to use them against Daniel. She peered into his property from a neighbor's yard one day and noticed what looked like wetlands. Those are often protected in Vermont, which is no small thing because the state can crack down on people for even small seeming environmental problems, like manure.

Beth Moser-Duquette

We're farmers, so we're allowed to spread manure. From April 15, we start to spread our manure, and December 15 is our cutoff. December 16 comes along, and you spread, Agency of Natural Resources would be so quick here, like on a fly on you-know-what. And we'd be fined.

Mike Giglio

Beth's an environmentalist. She was on a local conservation board at the time. She contacted the state's Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Board, trying to get someone to investigate. There was no quick response. Nobody stepped in to stop Daniel.

Beth Moser-Duquette

And it was all falling upon deaf ears. Who do we go to? Who do we tell? Who do we talk to?

Mike Giglio

Daniel fought back, and not just in the town hall and the courts. In the winter of 2019, the neighbors got holiday cards with the Slate Ridge logo printed on them. Each one had a handwritten message. Here's Michelle Tilander, the grandmother, and John Davis, the Paul Revere guy.

Michelle Tilander

Yeah, all of us in the neighborhood got one. And some of them were pretty--

John Davis

Can I read mine?

Michelle Tilander

Yes, you can.

Mike Giglio

I got together with a group of these neighbors on Beth's front lawn. She set out a table with muffins and Dunkin' Donuts coffee.

Michelle Tilander

Let me see. There's mine. Some of them were pretty filthy, so there's some I'm not going to read, but there you go, John.

John Davis

Oh, yeah. This is Mr. and Mrs. Davis, and our address, a.k.a. Davis Trash. "From all of us at Slate Ridge, we wanted to wish you two miserable souls a wonderful holiday season. People hate you two inbreds. We are so fortunate you are our neighbors. Please feel free to move away, because no one likes alcoholics." Because we have a front porch, and in the summer, at the end of the day, we'll sit out there and have a beer. But I mean, this is just typical. They're all like this.

Michelle Tilander

Especially after a big season.

John Davis

We're all inbreds. We're all--

Michelle Tilander

Oh, this-- did you want me to read yours?

Neighbor

Absolutely.

Michelle Tilander

Oh, this is disgusting.

Mike Giglio

The cards are in these binders. The neighbors brought them to the meeting, in this huge plastic bin, the kind you'd store your old clothes in. They're each labeled carefully with a label maker. There's "Pawlet Zoning Regulations" and "Slate Ridge Facebook Postings" and "Odds and Ends/Unfinished Business." This was the moment I realized how much the conflict with Daniel had taken over the neighbors' lives. There's maybe 20 of these binders. And inside are all the pieces of information that the neighbors have spent the last few years obsessively documenting about Daniel and Slate Ridge.

Mike Giglio

Michelle, what does this say on the inside of this binder here?

Michelle Tilander

Threats, postal cards, and then also some stalking problems here.

Mike Giglio

OK--

Michelle Tilander

But all the threats. Everything, we try to keep it compiled.

Mike Giglio

I asked the neighbors where they keep the binders, and they wouldn't tell me. They'd only say it was a remote, locked facility. Here's Paul, describing a Facebook post they've got in one of the binders. It was on the Slate Ridge page.

Paul Tilander

He put a picture of our house. And he captioned it, "Any day above ground is a good day. These people will be leaving soon."

Mike Giglio

How did you feel when that happened?

Michelle Tilander

Unsafe.

Mike Giglio

And this is John Davis again. John and his wife moved to Pawlet 43 years ago, in large part because his PTSD was so bad when he came back from Vietnam. He wanted the quiet.

John Davis

My wife and I were down and visiting my sister for about three days. And he posted on his website, the Davises are away. And then some of his disciples posted, "Oh, really? They're away." So we cut our visit short.

Mike Giglio

Last fall, the Slate Ridge Facebook account posted a photo of an SUV and said they were looking for one like it to use for something called vehicle assault class, where the vehicle will be shot and then blown up. The SUV in the post was the exact same make, model, and color as an SUV the Huletts' daughter had recently bought. Another time, the account posted a video.

Daniel Banyai

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a 9 millimeter, full metal jacket, 115 grain bullet--

Mike Giglio

While Daniel narrates, the video shows a close up of a bronze bullet, then pans to the driver's side of a silver car.

Daniel Banyai

--that went through this door, through the car.

Mike Giglio

The door has been shot through multiple times, right where someone has written the words, "R. Hulett Trucking" on it. That's the name of one of the businesses the Huletts own.

Daniel Banyai

So if you think that you can hide in your car and be safe behind the door from a bullet, you're wrong.

Mike Giglio

Mandy Hulett eventually got a no-stalking order against Daniel. And the Slate Ridge Facebook page is down now. But the neighbors say it was not just threats, but accusations, smears, and that Slate Ridge supporters would then like and comment on the posts.

Beth Moser-Duquette

It's just to threaten. It's idle threats. And it's just, once again, psychological warfare.

Michelle Tilander

It's idle unless one of his knuckleheads that's been going up there takes it a different way and takes it to another level.

Beth Moser-Duquette

Yes.

Mike Giglio

They worried about Daniel's supporters. A few of the people training at Slate Ridge suggested online that they were affiliated with national militant groups, like the Three Percenters or a small local outfit with the grandiose name of the Vermont State Militia. Some of the neighbors did go to the police. But none of the things that Daniel and his supporters were doing seemed likely to bring criminal charges. It can be really hard to prosecute threats like these, unless they're very specific.

Daniel didn't just go after the neighbors. He made it sound like the town itself was conspiring against him. They were all in league with the Huletts, who he saw as his main opposition. Here he is at one town meeting, accusing the board of treating him unfairly.

Daniel Banyai

I believe Mr. Bob Jones has a conflict of interest and has suppressed my rights and my existence in this community on three facts.

Mike Giglio

Daniel points out that Jones, a board member, has worked for the trucking company owned by the Hulett family. Then he pivots to a different and very surprising attack.

Daniel Banyai

Furthermore, furthermore, this man has attended a Klan meeting by the group.

Mike Giglio

The meeting he's talking about is one of the ones the neighbors held to strategize about shutting down Daniel and Slate Ridge. But Daniel is calling it a Klan meeting, as in the Ku Klux Klan. Like, he's saying the neighbors are the KKK. This is part of a long-running and completely unsubstantiated claim of his that Pawlet is somehow run by white supremacists.

Daniel Banyai

You think it's funny. You think it's funny. And also had proceeded when the Hulett family took my gate down on my property. How is that legal for him to be here and to vote and not recuse and not have a misconduct? Mr. Cleveland, you laugh, too. The first six months of this opposition here, your son, Kenneth, was dating a Hulett. How can we not believe she didn't tell your son to tell you rhetoric to vote against me or diminish or sequester my rights in this community? You went to a Klan meeting, too.

Mr. Cleveland

I didn't go to any Klan meeting, let me tell you.

Daniel Banyai

The meeting you went to, whatever the verbiage is, you were not supposed to be there. It's as simple as that.

Mr. Cleveland

I believe I went to the very first meeting they had. And that was to collect information.

Daniel Banyai

OK, you're not supposed--

Mr. Cleveland

Which I did.

Daniel Banyai

All right, you're not supposed to be doing that.

Mr. Cleveland

OK, and furthermore, I don't think-- anyhow.

Daniel Banyai

Listen.

Mr. Cleveland

I don't think you need to drag my son into it either.

Daniel Banyai

We're not dragging your son, but it's not ethical. You need to recuse yourself. You cannot allow these degenerates to start making things against me in this town, and then you vote on it.

Mr. Cleveland

I think--

Daniel Banyai

I think so.

Mr. Cleveland

I think-- I think this is-- before this gets out of control--

Daniel Banyai

It's not going to get out of control. I have complete control.

Mr. Cleveland

It already is, as far as I know.

Mike Giglio

Daniel ramped up his attacks in the town. One post on the Slate Ridge Facebook page included a picture of Pawlet's town hall and said, quote, "No alarm, no security camera, single pane windows, no deadbolts, 30 to 40 minutes police response time, dead zone for all cell service, no safe room." People wrote in the comments that it was a soft target and noted the women on staff often worked late. Another post urged supporters to assemble at a town meeting with weapons and trauma kits, though none of them actually showed up.

There were other problems, too. In 2018, Daniel was banned from Pace University, where he'd been studying for a master's degree in Homeland Security. He'd allegedly sent a dean death threats over a text message. That led to a judge's order suspending his pistol permit in New York and requiring Daniel to surrender his firearms. When police searched his house, they found a handgun, which led prosecutors in New York to charge him with two felonies for criminal possession. Those are not resolved yet. According to a prosecutor, the majority of Daniel's pistols were transferred out of state, presumably to Vermont.

Up on the hill in Pawlet, the conflict was threatening to spiral. A sign posted on Daniel's property read, "Trespass here, die here." One night, two boys were bow hunting on the Huletts' property. Here's what happened next, according to allegations made to police. They shot a deer and tracked it to Daniel's land. As they approached, Daniel came down and threatened them. One boy called his dad. Things escalated. When Daniel asked them to identify themselves, they refused. And then Daniel said, "OK, you want to play that game? I'll shoot you." Nobody got hurt in the end. Daniel disputed that he threatened anyone. No charges were filed.

Ira Glass

Coming up, reporter Mike Giglio looks into Daniel's background to try to figure out who Daniel really is and just how worried the neighbors should be. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Fear Thy Neighbor

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Don't You Be My Neighbor." We're devoting most of the hour today to the story of Pawlet, Vermont and what happened when one new person moved in. In this next part of the story, reporter Mike Giglio tries to answer the questions that lots of people in town had about their new neighbor. Here's Mike.

Mike Giglio

I started writing about militia groups and civil violence last year. Ever since, I've been getting emails from people who are afraid of their neighbors. There was a Tennessee woman who suspected that hers were getting ready for, quote, "a bloodbath." A Michigan man who asked me if he should report a high school friend to authorities because of his Facebook posts. People wanted me to help them figure out how dangerous was their neighbor. That was how I heard about Slate Ridge and Daniel. Someone who lives near Pawlet sent me a message asking if I might want to investigate.

You can drive yourself crazy these days, wondering if everyone threatening violence is serious or only trolling. When I was interviewing people in militia groups last year, for example, I often had the feeling that it was all just posturing. That all their talk about civil violence was just a mask for other anxieties. Then some people affiliated with these groups-- according to the FBI, at least-- took part in the attack on the US Capitol. People can seem like they're not really serious until they are.

Daniel Banyai's neighbors don't know how scared they should be of him, like how Mandy Hulett said in one moment that he's probably just full of hot air, but also has that no-stalking order against him. And she wrote a Facebook post saying she wanted people to know about Daniel's threats, in case anything ever happened to her.

And for all the research into Daniel, in the end, neighbors really don't know that much about his background. I spoke on the phone with him a couple of times, but he wouldn't let me record him. And he was evasive about almost every question I asked. I spoke to the head of Public Safety in Vermont, the major from the state police who was their point person for Daniel, and someone from the Vermont Intelligence Center, an agency that coordinates between local and federal law enforcement. I even sent his YouTube video with Adam, the Boogaloo guy, to a recently retired agent from the FBI.

But in the end, the person who knew the most about Daniel was his ex-wife, Gina Mahar-Daniels. They met in 1992, when she was 16 and he was 19.

Gina Mahar-Daniels

At our local mall, there's a pizzeria called Roman Delight. And Dan was the pizza man there.

Mike Giglio

You said pizza man. You mean-- what was his job?

Gina Mahar-Daniels

Literally the pizza man. He was the guy that was making the pies.

Mike Giglio

Gina told me she and Daniel both grew up in upstate New York. He had half siblings he didn't really talk about. He was close with his dad, who died before they met. Daniel eventually quit his job at the pizza shop and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. But he dropped out right before he finished. He had a job running restaurants for a bit. Gina got pregnant, and soon after, Daniel decided to join the Army.

Gina Mahar-Daniels

And so I thought that was a great idea. Good. That's good. We're kind of setting ourselves up. We're a young family. Good idea. So he gets sworn in. He leaves for basic training and calls me a few days in to let me know that they found cysts on his neck and that he was going to be coming home with a medical discharge.

So pretty much two weeks to the day that I dropped him off at the airport, I was picking him up again because he had been discharged from the Army for supposedly these cysts that he never did anything about. Supposedly, a medical discharge. I honestly don't know if that was the truth or if that was not the truth. But he was not in the Army.

Mike Giglio

The National Personnel Records Center confirmed that Daniel's time in the army lasted all of two weeks.

Mike Giglio

What was it that made him want to join the military?

Gina Mahar-Daniels

Honestly it was security, just strictly financial security. Not because he had any sort of calling to do so or sense of duty or-- nothing like that. Literally just like, oh, they'll provide us with a house to live in, money, security, health insurance, that sort of thing.

Mike Giglio

Was he patriotic at all? Do you remember?

Gina Mahar-Daniels

Not particularly, no.

Mike Giglio

In talking with people close to Daniel, I got the sense that he didn't believe in anything very strongly. He's not an ideologue. He's not really a militia type. Those guys will go on for hours about the Constitution. But he does like to present himself as someone with a mysterious past, maybe even a dangerous one. From the time he met Gina at the pizza shop, she told me, he would suggest that he was connected with the mafia, like when John Gotti died in 2002. Daniel said he was distraught, that he had to go to the funeral. She says he didn't go. And then there's their son.

Gumbrotti Luciano Banyai

I'm Gumbrotti Luciano Banyai. I know you can't see me, but I'm doing the Italian hand. You put all your fingers together, pointing at the sky. I find that that helps people with my name, but Gumbrotti Luciano Banyai.

Mike Giglio

If you're trying to remember what movie the name Gumbrotti's from, where you've heard it before, you haven't. There's only one Gumbrotti.

Mike Giglio

Has it always been a point of discussion with people?

Gumbrotti Luciano Banyai

Oh, yeah. Well, I just tell them my dad made it up. Actually, I tell them-- I say, "Hi, my name is Gumbrotti Banyai." And they go, "Oh, Gumbrotti?" I said, "Yeah, it's my real name. It's a fake name, but it's my name." Like, it's not a real name. I'm the only one, but it's my name, you know?

Gina Mahar-Daniels

When I was pregnant, we were talking about names. And he was like, "Ah, I want to name him something strong. And I want to name him Gumbrotti." And I'm like, "Oh, God, no, absolutely not. Seriously, that's horrendous. We're not going to name him that." He's like, "No, no, no, listen, listen. That was somebody from my past. And it was somebody I can't really talk about it, but somebody who was really important to me. He was kind of like a father figure."

And so I acquiesced at that point. I'm like, "All right, fine. This is a namesake. This is something that's really important to you. Fine." And later on, in years, it came up in conversation. I think someone was asking us together. And then he was like, "Oh, no, no, I made that up." I was like, "Are you serious? You made that up? You told me that was--" "Oh, no, no, no, no." No, and yeah. He's like, "It's a cool name. I just needed you to be on board." You mother [BLEEP]. Yeah, I was not happy.

Mike Giglio

Was the mafia thing kind of-- was it important to his presentation?

Gina Mahar-Daniels

It was, honestly. I mean-- he needs to be the toughest guy in the room.

Mike Giglio

After he was discharged from the Army, Daniel eventually started a landscaping business. He called it Tutiano Burgante Excavation-- also fake words. He had a knack for landscaping. I actually found an old article about him winning an award for stonewall preservation. But his record includes at least a dozen court cases-- people he owed money to who he never paid, a car repossession, a mortgage default. In 2006, he pled guilty to making a fake workman's comp claim. The landscaping business filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

Gina said Daniel was abusive. She said he hit her multiple times. She said she didn't file police reports about it, but told her therapist and her best friend, who both confirmed this. Once they were arguing in the car, and Daniel reached over and bashed her head against the window. Gumbrotti was there. He says he remembers it. And then there were periods when things would be OK. It could be hard for even his own family to know what to make of him. Daniel and Gumbrotti didn't speak for several years. They reconnected when Gumbrotti was 18. Daniel had an entirely new persona.

Gumbrotti Luciano Banyai

He was just different. He had a different way of carrying himself. He seemed more military lifestyle. Then he was like, "Oh, yeah, I'm executive protection, security." And I asked him to explain it. And I was like, "So you're a security guard or a contractor?" And he was like-- the exact words-- because it's such a stupid statement, I remember it. He says, "Oh, I escorted essential and nonessential personnel through the theater of battle." And I was like, "Oh, OK, cool." And then I remember him saying it to other people.

Mike Giglio

As for Daniel's claim that he's a private military contractor, he did start a security company called Garm Dynamics in 2014 with a guy named Ian Spurgeon, a former officer in the Swedish military. The two of them met in an executive protection training course in Denmark. Ian said, at the training, Daniel really impressed him. He said it looked like he had real experience.

Mike Giglio

Did he say he had-- any details of the work? Had it been overseas? Had it been in high stress environments? Anything like that?

Ian Spurgeon

Yeah, he said he had overseas contracts and with the US government and also with the private sector. And again, from my background, I'm prone not to ask questions because, really, if it's not my need to know, then I really don't ask any questions.

Mike Giglio

The idea was that Garm Dynamics would do security contracting and train people in military tactics. The Garm website had seals from the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies on it. But Ian told me that they never actually worked for any of them. He said Daniel had assured him it was OK to use the logos. The website also said the company was, quote, "established and facilitated by elite military and government personnel."

Mike Giglio

Was there anyone else that was elite military government personnel besides you?

Ian Spurgeon

No, it was only the two of us. But I don't know how we add that, but again-- enhancing the marketability of the company.

Mike Giglio

Yeah, right. But you said you have multifaceted teams of industry experts, forensic analysts, intelligence experts, on-the-ground sources, provide intelligence and risk assessment. Is that also just marketing?

Ian Spurgeon

Uh, yeah.

Mike Giglio

OK. And there's a picture of-- this is one thing-- there's a picture of these dudes in a helicopter. And their faces are blurred out.

Ian Spurgeon

Yeah, that's a stock photo, I think it is.

Mike Giglio

Ian said Garm never got any contracts, never did any trainings, at least when he was there. Eventually, Daniel seemed to be getting sucked more and more into his problems up in Vermont, and the company died.

Daniel also registered a second company that is still active. But I could find only one person on LinkedIn who said he'd worked there, and when I messaged him about this, he deleted it from his profile. It's hard to say for sure if Daniel ever did work as a private military contractor, or if he did, whether it really entailed dodging bullets in Iraq, as he once claimed to me. You can't check that kind of thing through public records requests. And people who do private contractor work also usually have to sign nondisclosure agreements.

The other work Daniel says he's done is executive protection, which is the business of guarding the rich and famous. We were able to confirm one aspect of this. Daniel worked for a time on a detail protecting Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator, though he was ultimately fired from that job.

I spoke with a few people who consider themselves part of the Slate Ridge family. They see a totally different version of Daniel than the neighbors do. Samantha Shumway is one of the co-founders of the Vermont State Militia. She says they're survivalists. They're a pretty small group, about 10 members. They train once a month. She's 32, has four kids, who call Daniel "Uncle Daniel."

She told me he's not dangerous at all. He's just someone who wants to share his knowledge about guns. He taught them all firearm safety. She and the other militia members drive about two hours to get to Slate Ridge, even though there are much closer ranges, because the facility is so nice and because Daniel is so warm and welcoming.

She doesn't believe the neighbors are really as scared as they say. She thinks they're exaggerating their fears because they don't want a noisy shooting range in their neighborhood, and they're afraid of change. They haven't even met us, she told me.

She did think the Facebook threats were over the line. After the Hulett Trucking video, she and some others in the Slate Ridge family told Daniel he needed to stop. It was all part of what she called a battle between neighbors, which she didn't see how it could end at this point. But the thing she was more worried about was the government taking Daniel's land. It's a piece of him, she told me.

In any community, there are basic rules and laws we agree to live by. It's how we're able to coexist. But in Pawlet, Daniel was clearly not participating in all that. And the state agencies that are meant to enforce those rules don't seem to be able to do anything about it. It's like he's managed to outmaneuver them, simply by creating chaos. For instance, with the state's Natural Resources Board, Daniel might be in violation of a Vermont land use law, but they need to prove that he's running a business. And he says he's not, that everything at Slate Ridge is free. And so far, the Natural Resources Board hasn't been able to prove otherwise.

And take those cases in New York. One of them is a restraining order against him, which required him to surrender his firearms. I asked law enforcement authorities in Vermont about this. Could they enforce New York's order? Go and seize his guns? They said, yes, they could. But here's the irony. Even though the neighbors have been hearing all that shooting for so long, even though Daniel talks about all the weapons he has, there's no hard proof that he currently has any in his possession. If you look at his Facebook posts, photos, videos, he never appears with a gun.

For a while now, some of the neighbors have had this feeling that's new to them, that the system is failing them, that the protection that they thought it provided isn't actually there. I think this can create a special kind of anxiety. And it's led them to take things into their own hands.

Beth Moser-Duquette

This is my Kevlar vest.

Mike Giglio

So this is underneath your bedroom window.

Beth Moser-Duquette

Mm-hmm.

Mike Giglio

Yeah.

Beth showed me around her house. She and Ray have weapons hidden everywhere, just in case.

Beth Moser-Duquette

This is my favorite weapon.

Mike Giglio

You got a shotgun leaned against the window sill.

Beth Moser-Duquette

And this is my 243.

Mike Giglio

Can you describe it to me?

Beth Moser-Duquette

My beautiful camouflage 243 I bought on a whim because it was pretty. It's got a high-powered scope. It's camouflaged pretty pink, because I'm a girl. And I've got 1, 2, 3, 4 5 clips of 243 bullets that are already locked and loaded. Two years ago, I would have never-- it only takes one bullet to kill a deer. Why do you think I have all these? To protect my family. And these are my family. My neighbors are my family. So Banyai has family, we have family, too.

Mike Giglio

Are there other ammo and gun spots in the house tactically placed?

Beth Moser-Duquette

You can see a couple over there. I spy with my little eye.

Mike Giglio

Oh, wow, it's just behind the bedroom door.

Beth Moser-Duquette

Oh, yeah. Oh, you saw the 30-30 in the bathroom.

Mike Giglio

I did not. I guess I wasn't being observant.

I'm starting to lose count of how many guns she's showed me.

Mike Giglio

It's great. So but you have a gun, it seems-- I think you forgot some of them. But there's one just like-- they're like Easter eggs all over the house.

Beth Moser-Duquette

Yes, and that happens to be my favorite holiday, so that's OK.

Mike Giglio

Why in the bathroom?

Beth Moser-Duquette

Well, what if? I wouldn't want to get caught off guard, you know? I'm just saying. And it's near the back door. So if you had to run in and grab one, you know? Yeah.

Mike Giglio

The Tilanders' comfortable country home has a warped Norman Rockwell feel now. They've stockpiled weapons around their house, too. There's a loaded handgun in the cookie cabinet. The first thing Paul does every morning is search for a new post from Slate Ridge. When the Tilanders moved to Pawlet a decade ago, they planned a retirement of gardening and enjoying the views. Instead, Michelle looks out her kitchen window and imagines Daniel or his supporters creeping through the woods, lying down in hedgerow and aiming their guns into the house.

Michelle Tilander

His Facebook has posted pictures of his cronies with their ARs and their camo and all that, walking through the woods.

Mike Giglio

But do you imagine someone coming down the road here, where it's so close?

Michelle Tilander

Nah.

Paul Tilander

No, I think they would come through the field.

Mike Giglio

You're pointing out the back window here?

Paul Tilander

The back window.

Michelle Tilander

Well--

Paul Tilander

I think they come through the fields to avoid being seen. There's a fair amount of traffic on this road.

Michelle Tilander

You can come up that back-- by the creek there, where the land drops away. Walk right up and just lay down in that hedgerow. And here we are. This is where we spend most of our time. Yeah, that's what we live with now.

I don't know how many times I've come to this sink, looked out this window, pulled the blinds and said, if someone's going to shoot me, they're going to shoot me. We're older now. So we kind of accept that our days are numbered. Not afraid of that. I've had a great life. But I've still got grandkids I want to see grow up married. So we try to protect ourselves as best we can.

Mike Giglio

Paul has an AR-15. Most homeowners use bullets with hollow points, which stop when they hit a target so that they won't keep on traveling and hit a bystander or a neighbor. But Paul's gun is loaded with solid points.

Mike Giglio

Why did you go for the solid rather than the hollow?

Paul Tilander

Well, normally, I would prefer a hollow point if I had to shoot a varmint outside. But these people up the road here, they all wear armor-plated vests with metal plates. And the penetrating power of a hollow point is much less than a solid point. So-- I don't like the idea of having to be prepared for this. But I think we have to.

Mike Giglio

Something did happen for the neighbors recently. It actually looks like Slate Ridge might get shut down. And you know what did it? It wasn't the governor or the attorney general or the ATF or the state's Natural Resources Board or the state police. It was the tiny town of Pawlet. Their zoning case finally worked its way through the courts. And after years of delays, in March, a state superior court upheld the town zoning laws and ruled against Daniel.

The neighbors say the shooting has stopped for the most part, but they still hear construction noise from time to time. They think he's building another two ranges. The judge ordered Daniel to dismantle the buildings at Slate Ridge and pay $100 for each day he hasn't fixed his zoning violations, which came to $46,600. In his ruling, he detailed how Daniel has refused to comply with the town since 2017. He wrote, quote, "Mr. Banyai's record of compliance has been horrendous."

Daniel has appealed the ruling, of course. This could still drag on for a bit. And there's one thing that won't change. Even if the range gets shut down, even if the buildings get knocked down, Daniel will still own that land. And Paul, Michelle, and everyone else up on the hill?

Michelle Tilander

We're not moving, and we're not quitting.

Paul Tilander

Yeah, I agree with that.

Mike Giglio

So for now, at least, they're all still going to be neighbors.

Ira Glass

Mike Giglio. We'd also like to give a shout out to the local press in Vermont, which has done a great job covering all this-- VTDigger, Vermont Public Radio, and the Manchester Journal.

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Credits

Ira Glass

[CREDITS]

And our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there are videos. There are lists of favorite shows for your summer road trip listening. Tons of other stuff there, too. Again, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's confounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He told me he could sum up any movie in nine words or fewer. I was like, OK, Big Lebowski, go.

Eyal Levin

A rich guy, a mansion, a car being towed.

Ira Glass

All right, stolen and crashed, then towed, but yeah, pretty good. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "NEIGHBORS" BY LUCIUS]