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Survivalists, Town Clash Over Craftsbury Road - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Survivalists, Town Clash Over Craftsbury Road

Craftsbury, Vermont - August 21, 2009

Several people-- including a public official-- claim they have been threatened and intimidated by a heavily-armed religious survivalist group that resides in the town of Craftsbury. The controversy is the latest chapter in an escalating dispute over a 150-year-old road the town says is public-- but the church says is theirs.

Jeff D'Amico showed us how he and five friends on a trail bike excursion six weeks ago went around a gate so they could ride the last few miles on the public trail on Coburn Hill Road in Craftsbury. He says maps indicated the trail was a public right-of-way that runs through a 276-acre compound which is home to members of a religious group called Mission New England. So he and his pals ignored the no trespassing signs and went around the locked gate-- but not for long.

"We were surrounded by at least a dozen men who all came running out of what they had claimed to be a church," D'Amico said. "And they said there is no road so go back that way."

D'Amico says the men refused to move so he and his friends had to use force.

"So I popped the clutch on my dirt bike and just rode right through 'em," D'Amico said.

"It is a public right-of-way," Craftsbury Selectman Jim Jones said. "It is a legal trail they can hike it and bike it."

Jones says town officials notified Mission New England that blocking access or use of the trail on the town's right-of-way is illegal. The group was ordered to remove the trespassing signs and open the gates by August 1.

"So we sent them a letter and they come in asking us to rescind that. They've already taken the signs down and marked the trail," Jones said.

But when we drove up the gate August 21, the trespassing signs were still in place and the gates were closed and chained but not locked. We unchained the gate and headed down the road-- but only for about 150 yards-- that's when we heard a dog coming.

Town Lister Willy Ryan says he has been threatened and intimidated several times over the years when he has gone to the compound to assess the property values. The most ominous came this year by a man packing a gun.

"He said well you are now on private property and I would tread lightly if I were you, because your life might be in jeopardy," Ryan said.

Ryan says the man with the gun was John Maniatty, the reported leader of the church group. He has websites that detail how Mission New England is a born-again Christian group, explaining why its member are survivalists driven by the notion that the world is coming to an end.

Maniatty owns a gun shop in Morrisville. On the websites he has instructional videos demonstrating how to fire high-powered firearms, including fully automatic weapons.

We went to Maniatty's gun shop in Morrisville to get his side of the story. An employee told us Maniatty wasn't there-- but even if he was, he would have nothing to say to us.

So far, no one has filed a criminal complaint against the group, but D'Amico tells us he is planning to.

As for the town road issue, Mission New England has offered a land swap that would result in the disputed road being turned over to the survivalist group. It's unclear whether town officials are interested in that deal.

Brian Joyce - WCAX News

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