Elizabeth

NJ Landlord Charged With Sexual Crimes Against 13 Tenants: Prosecutors

Joseph Centanni, 73, is also the subject of another separate and ongoing Fair Housing Act lawsuit brought on by the United States Department of Justice for subjecting tenants to sexual harassment, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.

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What to Know

  • The owner of hundreds of rental units scattered across 18 residential properties in Elizabeth was arrested and charged with coercing more than a dozen of his tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief, according to authorities
  • Joseph Centanni, 73, is charged with eight counts of sexual assault, one count of attempted sexual assault, and 14 counts of criminal sexual contact in connection with incidents taking place from 2016 into 2020, law enforcement officials announced Monday
  • The charges stem from a long-term investigation that revealed Centanni allegedly targeted similar victims: tenants or prospective tenants who were homeless, facing eviction, or struggling financially. Each of the alleged targeted tenants reported feeling as though they had no choice but to yield to his demands due to their personal circumstances including trying to maintain a roof over their heads for their young children, according to prosecutors

The owner of hundreds of rental units scattered across 18 residential properties in Elizabeth has been arrested and charged with coercing at least 13 of his tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief, according to the Union County Prosecutor's Office.

Joseph Centanni, 73, of Mountainside is charged with eight counts of second-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree attempted sexual assault, and 14 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact in connection with incidents taking place at various times from 2016 into 2020, acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo and Elizabeth Police Department Chief Giacomo Sacca and Director Earl Graves jointly announced Monday. If convicted, second-degree crimes are commonly punishable by terms of 5 to 10 years in state prison.

Centanni was taken into custody Friday morning and is in the Union County Jail pending a first appearance and detention hearing scheduled to take place in Union County Superior Court at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Centanni’s attorney, Raymond Londa, said he was unaware of the arrest when contacted Friday. He said his client would enter a not guilty plea.

The charges stem from a long-term investigation revealed that Centanni allegedly targeted similar victims: tenants or prospective tenants who were homeless, facing eviction, or struggling financially. Each of the alleged targeted tenants reported feeling as though they had no choice but to yield to his demands due to their personal circumstances including trying to maintain a roof over their heads for their young children, according to prosecutors.

“Using a position of power and privilege to prey on the vulnerabilities and desperations of others is not just wrong – in this case it is also criminal,” Ruotolo said.

Centanni allegedly described the sex acts he solicited from his victims as a quid pro quo -- offering them rent reductions, eviction delays, or other forms of financial assistance in exchange for the sex acts. Additionally, Centanni also allegedly threatened tenants who hesitated or refused his advances with eviction and other forms of retaliation. 

"We see over and over the victims are parents of young children, parents of special needs children on the brink of eviction where they were really concerned about keeping a roof over their heads," Ruotolo said.

Using a position of power and privilege to prey on the vulnerabilities and desperations of others is not just wrong – in this case it is also criminal.

Lyndsay V. Ruotolo, Acting Union County Prosecutor

According to Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor, who is prosecuting the case, the sex acts took place in laundry, storage, or boiler rooms at his properties, as well as in a sample apartment unit meant to be shown to prospective renters.

Union County Prosecutors also believe that there may be additional victims of Centanni who have yet to come forward. Anyone with information about Centanni’s activities is urged to contact Detective Son of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office at 908-477-1698.

Centanni is also the subject of another separate and ongoing Fair Housing Act lawsuit brought on by the United States Department of Justice for subjecting tenants to sexual harassment, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.

Authorities remind the public they can report sexual harassment and other forms of housing discrimination by contacting the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at 855-281-3339, or by emailing the Justice Department at fairhousing@usdoj.gov.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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