This New Jersey slumlord had tenants pay rent with their bodies during pandemic police say

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ELIZABETH, NJ – It didn’t matter whether you were a man or woman, but if you were down on your luck during the pandemic and couldn’t pay your rent, Joseph Centanni, of Mountainside took other forms of payment. We’re not talking about Paypal or Bitcoin, but sex.

No COVID-19 tests were required.

Now, the owner of hundreds of rental units scattered across 18 residential properties in Elizabeth who was arrested earlier this year and criminally charged with coercing more than a dozen of his tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief has been rearrested and charged with similar crimes against a group of additional victims, acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo and Elizabeth Police Department Chief Giacomo Sacca and Director Earl Graves jointly announced today.

Joseph Centanni, 74, of Mountainside was charged with five additional counts of second-degree sexual assault and seven additional counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, bringing the total number of alleged victims for whom he has now been charged to 20 and the total number of criminal charges against him to 35. The alleged incidents in question took place at various times from 2013 to 2020, with male and female victims ranging in age from 22 to 61.

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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 tenants or prospective tenants who were homeless, about to be evicted, or otherwise struggling financially, according to Special Victims Unit Supervisor and Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor, who is prosecuting the case. 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. 

The defendant allegedly described the sex acts he solicited from his victims as a quid pro quo, agreeing to offer them rent reductions, a delay in eviction, or other forms of financial assistance in exchange. He also allegedly threatened tenants who hesitated or refused his advances with eviction or other retaliatory measures. 

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“I commend the tireless commitment of the investigators and prosecutors as they continue pursuing justice for every victim impacted by the alleged acts of the defendant,” said Ruotolo.

Centanni was taken into custody without incident Wednesday morning and will be lodged in the Essex County Jail pending a first appearance scheduled to take place in Union County Superior Court. He had been free on pretrial release with conditions following his initial arrest.

The ongoing investigation into Centanni’s activities has been 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, previously assisted with the execution of a search warrant at Centanni’s office.

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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 fairhousing@usdoj.gov.

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.

Any additional victims of Centanni who have yet to come forward and anyone with information about Centanni’s activities are urged to contact Detective Son of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office at 908-477-1698.