PISCATAWAY — When Denise Saliba pictures her neighborhood, she sees a snowblower being pushed by someone who doesn’t think twice about also clearing off the sidewalks of the people who live on either side of him. She sees her son helping spruce up the yard of his next-door neighbor, a retired physical-education teacher from the school he once attended. She sees families that are undeniably blue-collar, some maybe even a little rough around the edges, but most tight-knit and well-versed in the art of enjoying life.
Not exactly the stuff of nightmares.
Yet if accusations against one longtime township resident are true, the area in and near the 1800 block of West Seventh Street has been harboring a dark, ugly secret for almost two decades. This week Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office officials announced that a total of six people, ranging in age from 16 to 24, have told investigators they were sexually abused multiple times by 71-year-old Joseph T. Burns. The alleged crimes occurred at various points from 1994 through 2007, when the alleged victims ranged in age from 5 to 16.
Investigators said many of the incidents took place under circumstances strongly indicating that those who knew Burns trusted him enough to leave their children alone with him, with settings ranging from his own garage to a pool owned by a neighbor. In addition to one count of aggravated sexual assault and six counts of sexual assault, Burns also is facing six counts of child endangerment after also allegedly sharing alcohol and pornographic material with his victims.
“It is a shock,” Saliba said while sitting in her living room Thursday morning. “I’ve never seen any trouble here. It’s a very close neighborhood.”
Saliba recalled that her own grown children, a 26-year-old daughter about to get married and a 23-year-old son taking classes at Rutgers University, at one point passed Burns’ home just about every day on the short walk home from nearby Arbor School. But no one in the family, which includes first-generation transplants from Beirut, Lebanon, knows Burns personally.
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