The owner of hundreds of rental units scattered across 18 residential properties in Elizabeth has been arrested and criminally charged with coercing more than a dozen of his tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief, acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo and Elizabeth Police Department Chief Giacomo Sacca and Director Earl Graves jointly announced Monday.
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.
A long-term investigation initiated by a referral from the Elizabeth Police Department and led by the Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Victims Unit revealed that Centanni targeted similar victims: male and female tenants or prospective tenants who were homeless, about to be evicted, or otherwise struggling financially, according to Prosecutor Ruotolo. Each of the victims reported feeling as though they had no choice but to concede to Centanni’s demands, citing dire personal circumstances such as trying to maintain housing for their young children.
“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,” added Ruotolo.
The defendant repeatedly described the sex acts he solicited from his victims as a quid pro quo, agreeing to offer them rent reductions, a delay in an eviction, or other forms of financial assistance in exchange. He also threatened tenants who hesitated or refused his advances with eviction or other retaliatory measures.
According to Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor, who is prosecuting the case, the victims would meet Centanni in his office on the 200 block of West Jersey Street in downtown Elizabeth, and the sex acts took place in laundry, storage, or boiler rooms at his properties – or in a sample apartment unit meant to be shown to prospective renters.
Centanni was taken into custody without incident at his office on Friday morning and lodged in the Union County Jail pending a first appearance and detention hearing scheduled to take place in Union County Superior Court. The Prosecutor’s Office intends to seek to keep Centanni detained pending the outcome of the criminal case against him.
The investigation into Centanni’s activities was led by Special Victims Unit Detective Joanne Son, and assisted by Elizabeth Police Department Detective Louis DeMondo and Special Agent Khela Vazquez of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under the supervision of HUD Special Agent in Charge Christina Scaringi. Members of the Union County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Unit, under the leadership of Sheriff Peter Corvelli, assisted with the execution of a search warrant at Centanni’s office.
There is a separate, ongoing Fair Housing Act lawsuit against Centanni brought by the United States Department of Justice. Individuals 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 [email protected]
To read more about the federal civil suit, go online to justice.gov/usao-nj/pr/department-justice-files-sexual-harassment-lawsuit-against-owner-rental-properties.
It is believed 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.
Convictions on second-degree crimes are commonly punishable by terms of 5 to 10 years in state prison.
These criminal charges are mere accusations. Every defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.