Woman claims to be target of hate crime in Front Royal

Christel Guillen, who was staying at Tareq Salahi's home through Airbnb, found the clothing seen here, with the shirt's arms tied with rope and a black cloth sack (as a head), behind the house. She says it is an effigy of a simulated lynching. Courtesy photo by Christel Guillen

FRONT ROYAL — Christel Guillen and three of her colleagues, all of whom are people of color, visited Front Royal in early April for a three-night stay at Tareq Salahi’s home through Airbnb for a work retreat, but awoke after the second night to find an effigy depicting a lynching in the back yard.

The group is working on starting an alternative school in Washington, D.C., that aims to help what Guillen calls “black and brown” youth and will focus heavily on understanding institutionalized racism. The four rarely have time to work all together on this project, so she said they planned a work retreat that wouldn’t be too far from D.C., and chose Salahi’s home.

Guillen, 32, said she woke up on the morning of April 8 looking to relax on the hammock behind the house in an open picnic area, and was taking an Instagram live video on her walk down the trail. She returned to the house after forgetting something, and on her way back down the path to the hammock is when she said she saw on the ground the boots, jeans, flannel shirt and black cloth sack (as a head) tied up with rope to simulate a lynching

“Right away I started realizing how fresh it looked,” Guillen said, noting that it did not have any debris from the trail or the storm that weekend. “I started feeling like this was left for us intentionally because of how fresh it was.”

The property is located in a double-gated community, so access is restricted.

Guillen said she contacted the host of the Airbnb, a woman Salahi had hired, and told her she needed help with something without telling the host exactly what they found. Guillen said the host never showed up, and the woman texted her saying Salahi would not let her do so. The group immediately packed their things to head home.

During the trip from Front Royal, Guillen reached out to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office upon the advice of her lawyer. After explaining what happened she said she was told a deputy would call her back. Deputy Stephen Collins called Guillen, but declined to investigate the situation, saying that he spoke to Salahi about it and he said that it was just a decoration, Guillen said.

“Speaking with Mr. Salahi, he did say that there were numerous decorations that were thrown through the yard due to the weather,” Collins said. “He actually had someone coming up there to clean them up as we were speaking.”

Collins said that according to Salahi, the decoration was left over from a Halloween party at the house, and that Collins remembers responding to a call around that time and knows “for a fact” that there were many decorations in the yard and in the woods. He asked for Guillen to send him a photo of the effigy, but said he waited over an hour and he never received it. Collins also said that further attempts to contact Guillen went unanswered.

“At that point, we had no evidence on the apparent picture that she had,” Collins said.

Salahi’s listing received some backlash in the recent past from the neighborhood after the property hosted various parties, and it was discovered that he had been renting out the property for months without a permit from Warren County.

The Warren County Board of Officials did not grant him the necessary conditional use-permit, and Salahi challenged that decision up to the Virginia Supreme Court. The property has a 4 1/2 star rating on Airbnb.

David Silek, an attorney for Salahi, said that Guillen’s claims have “no validity” and are “perfectly absurd.”

“I know my client would not be involved in anything like that,” Silek said, also noting that he knows Salahi had a large Halloween party that was a benefit for a northern Virginia charity.

When Guillen returned home, she said she reached out to Airbnb about the situation. The company received attention for discrimination issues last year, when the top trending #AirbnbWhileBlack hashtag featured many African-American users detailing their negative experiences while trying to book a room or during their stay.

The company adopted new rules to combat racial discrimination in September with an “Open Doors” initiative that is supposed to address bias and promote diversity. Guillen was offered a refund for the night they did not stay, but there was no mention from the company about investigating the issue any further, she said.

Now, Guillen said, she is considering reaching out to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Better Business Bureau about what happened to her and her colleagues. She said that they feel Salahi shouldn’t have a house on Airbnb anymore, to prevent this from happening to other people, but doesn’t necessarily want him to lose his business.

“What we want is for there to be some sense of responsibility taken, accountability taken,” Guillen said. “We want it to matter. We want someone to care and to hold the business accountable — and the police department accountable.”

Salahi has not responded to requests for comment.

Contact staff writer Briahnna Brown at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or bbrown@nvdaily.com