March 22, 2021

ELIZABETH, New Jersey (WABC) -- A landlord in New Jersey is under arrest, accused of forcing more than a dozen tenants into sex acts in exchange for rent.

Prosecutors say between 2016 and 2020, 73-year-old Joseph Centanni targeted tenants in Elizabeth who were about to be evicted or otherwise struggling financially.

They say he solicited sex from the alleged victims in a quid pro quo and offered them rent reductions, a delay in an eviction, or other forms of financial assistance.

Centanni, who owns hundreds of rental units scattered across 18 residential properties in Elizabeth, 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.

Acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo, Elizabeth Police Chief Giacomo Sacca and Director Earl Graves made the joint announcement Monday.

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

Officials said 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, both male and female, with each reporting they felt as though they had no choice but to concede to Centanni's demands.

They cited dire personal circumstances such as trying to maintain housing for their young children, authorities said.

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 he faces 5 to 10 years in prison if convicted.

It is believed that there may be additional victims of Centanni who have yet to come forward.

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