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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct a factual error. Steven Moodie is the only property manager and representative for the Hotel Cordoba vacation rental.
By Shawn Raymundo
On the night of Jan. 19, around 7 p.m., Chris Steblay remembers pulling up to his San Clemente home on Avenida Cordoba, where several young individuals were congregating. From one house over, a well-known short-term vacation rental, he could hear loud music thumping.
“It was obvious something was brewing,” Steblay, 35, said of that evening—the night before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. To call it a party, he added, would be “an understatement.”
Party, bash or otherwise, the invitation to it leaked on social media, attracting hordes of teenagers from nearby high schools, including San Clemente High, to the residential neighborhood on the 100 block of Avenida Cordoba.
While it’s unclear exactly how many people attended, witnesses who have spoken with San Clemente Times estimate the head count to have ranged anywhere between 100 and 200 people.
“Over 100,” Steblay recalls. “People were coming and going, but the house, a two-story house, was packed, like standing-room-only. They had a DJ and a dance floor; just seeing inside, it was shoulder-to-shoulder.”
A group of students from Mission Viejo High School made the booking to celebrate a friend’s birthday with a party. The teens, according to 16-year-old Robert Ruggiero, one of the organizers, invited only a fraction of those who attended.
“It was only supposed to be like 30 to 60 people, and that’s how many were only supposed come, and then over like 200 people—because the address got leaked—over 200 people came,” Ruggiero told SC Times.
While the party was meant to be a celebratory occasion, it ended with one individual being stabbed multiple times in the leg, and one of the organizers’ friends, 18-year-old Ariya Rajab, being arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.
The wild party and the stabbing incident at the local vacation rental, commonly referred to as “Hotel Cordoba,” has sparked outrage and renewed criticism from the community over the city’s allowance of short-term lodging units, or STLUs.
During the latest city council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 21, a handful of residents spoke out about the incident, expressing frustration with the city and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department over their inability to prevent the whole ordeal.
That night, Mayor Dan Bane assured residents that the city and code enforcement were aware of the situation and had been in contact with chief of Police Services. Lt. Edward Manhart to address the issue.
In May of 2016, amid a myriad of complains related to the businesses operating in residential neighborhoods, the city adopted ordinances to regulate STLUs and establish designated areas of San Clemente where such rentals could be permitted.
The action, however, prompted a legal challenge by the San Clemente Vacation Rental Alliance, a coalition of local vacation rental owners and property managers. The proponents of the STLUs had argued that the city should punish only people who cause distress for their neighbors, while noting such a business is a primary means of income, news files state.
To settle the lawsuit, the city council in the fall of 2017 proposed to relax many of the provisions in the ordinances. Some of the amendments included the elimination of STLU-specific parking standards and expanding the allowed areas to include lots on Avenida Montalvo and Buena Vista, according to city reports.
Maps of the allowed areas on the city’s website show where STLUs can operate within the city. Based on a review of those maps, Hotel Cordoba falls outside of its nearest allowed area—the downtown corridor.
Assistant City Manager Erik Sund noted that, per the settlement with the Alliance, the city extended the amortization period for 19 properties to continue operating as vacation rentals until 2026. Hotel Cordoba was one of the 19 STLUs that were grandfathered in to the ordinance.
As Steblay recalls, he and his girlfriend were unable to escape from the wild gathering of teenagers that was happening next door, as strobe lights began to shine through the windows, which lit up the inside of his home.
“It felt like a club in Downtown L.A. in our house,” Steblay said, adding: “We knew this was going to be an issue. We’re used to seeing groups there, because it’s a rental, but this was a different breed.”
Wanting to stop the house party from growing, Steblay and his girlfriend, along with several of their neighbors, began calling the authorities, as well as the rental property’s manager, Steven Moodie, who quickly drove to the home and were “shocked with what was happening.”
“(Steven Moodie) explained that was not supposed to be happening,” Steblay said.
“I called police services as well to reiterate the urgency that we knew it was getting out of hand. From my backyard, there was over 50 people in the (neighboring) backyard; you can see strings of kids walking to the house. There was a vibe of spring break going on.”
According to those who spoke with the SC Times, when a deputy did respond, he was unable to help Moodie stop the party and remove the guests, because the teens had reportedly rented the property for the night—a point Moodie disputes.
“The owners were begging (the officer) to shut down the party,” Steblay said. “The owners of the rental were doing their best to shut it down, but the police officer told them they had no rights, pulled the owners across the street, and many of us neighbors had to stand across the street.”
According to OCSD spokesperson Carrie Braun, deputies called to the scene “responded as allowed by law.”
“When handling noise complaints, they are handled the same way regardless of whether the property is owned, leased, or rented,” Braun later explained in an email. “Property owners’/managers’ rights to remove a tenant would need to follow eviction processes. That is an issue that has to be dealt with through a civil process.”
In a prepared statement emailed to SC Times, Moodie explained that they had tried to kick the students out of the house, notifying the officer that the minors weren’t authorized to be there and that the city’s ordinance on STLUs didn’t allow for parties.
“The deputy advised that the party did not exceed the noise complaint levels at that time. The (property manager) was told by the deputy that he could not remove anyone from the house and demanded that he wait across the other side of the road. He was further advised that he would be detained if he tried to enter the property.”
Furthermore, Moodie explained, the teens weren’t authorized to be there in the first place, as the credit card that was used to make the booking was declined.
“An attempted rental of this residence was made by a minor from the school who apparently utilized his parent’s credit card to try and rent the property for two nights through a rental property website,” Moodie’s statement said. “The parent’s credit card was declined, and no rental agreement was made.”
Acknowledging that the card had been declined, Ruggiero said he and his friends didn’t know it at the time of the party, as they never received a notice and had already been given the information to access the house.
“So when (my friend) put in the credit card, it gave him all the access; it said the key will be in the mailbox at 4 p.m.,” Ruggiero said.
After telling the property managers and neighbors that the party couldn’t be stopped, the officer left, according to those who were there. However, it wouldn’t take long for the officer to have to return.
Around 9 p.m., according to Braun, officers responded to calls of an assault, as a man in his 20s had suffered multiple stab wounds to his leg. Six people were detained, and Rajab was determined to be the suspect in the stabbing.
He was arrested and booked into jail for one count of assault with a deadly weapon, Braun said.
While Ruggiero doesn’t dispute those details, he offered another perspective of the incident, claiming that Rajab was acting in self-defense.
According to Ruggiero, who admits he didn’t witness the incident, Rajab, a former classmate of Ruggiero’s, was jumped by members of a local gang and used a knife he carried in his waistband to defend himself and flee from his alleged attackers.
Friends at the party told Ruggiero and others that Rajab had gotten into a fight and ran upstairs.
“He just moved here from Iran, and he’s not the kind of guy that would get in a fight. We heard that and started running through the crowd upstairs . . . he was all bloody,” Ruggiero said, adding that when he and his friends went to find the people who beat Rajab, they found the victim downstairs, “lying in a puddle of blood.”
“What’s real sad is those gang members aren’t getting charged with anything . . . an ambulance came . . . blocked off both sides of the street . . . it turned into a whole crime scene,” Ruggiero said.
For Steblay, he said the whole incident “was a totally preventable problem” had the police officer stopped the party earlier.
“The writing was on the wall when the police was here,” he said, later noting: “He was back here about a half an hour after he left.”
The SC Times’ attempts to reach out to Rajab for comment, through Ruggiero, were unsuccessful as of press time.
Braun stated that while the deputies did respond as allowed by the law, “it appeared there may have been code enforcement violations, and the city’s code enforcement was contacted.”
According to Moodie, a city code compliance officer arrived at the scene “who did attempt to shut the party down, telling the students it was over and to leave.”
Assistant City Manager Sund said that the code compliance officer did witness some violations and issued two citations. A list of previous citations for the property that Sund provided to the SC Times included Noise and Disorderly Conduct, Exceeding STLU Occupancy Limits and Loud and Unruly Gathering.
Sund added that while the city is still doing its due diligence, conducting fact-finding missions, “it’s safe to say obviously these issues warrant the review of revocation.”
As part of the city’s fact-finding mission, Sund stated, the city does plan to hold a meeting with the neighbors to discuss what transpired at Hotel Cordoba on Jan. 19. Afterward, Sund said, he plans to present all the information to the city councilors at their next meeting on Feb. 4, allowing them to determine the next set of steps.
“The city totally understands that this is an unfortunate incident, and the city council totally recognizes this shouldn’t be condoned,” Sund said. “But the city wants to do due diligence before determining next steps. . . . I think after the next meeting, we’ll have council direction to move forward to abate this issue and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
As of Wednesday, Jan. 29, the listing for the vacation rental was active on VRBO, which also showed that the property currently has availability near the end of the months of February and March.
In their prepared statement, the Moodies said they’re “currently working with the community, city officials and law enforcement towards resolution of this matter.”
And as for Ruggiero, he said he doesn’t have any regrets over what happened.
“I don’t have any regrets; I’m trying to forget about the whole thing,” he said, before stating that he missed Rajab, who at the time of the interview was still in police custody.
“The only thing I have to say is, free Ariya,” Ruggiero said.
Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this story can be found in the Jan. 30 edition of the Dana Point Times.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.