Editor of sister papers charged with assault

| 29 Sep 2011 | 09:22

    Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure because a Straus Newspaper employee is involved, the following story is unusually graphic. Parents may want to decide whether it’s appropriate for their children to read. Mt. Olive Township - The editor of two sister publications to this one has been charged with sexually assaulting his niece, a now 16-year-old girl who told authorities the abuse began when she came to live with him in 1997. Mario R. Palomo, 44, of Mt. Olive, N.J. fromerly of Bushkill, was the editor of The Sparta Independent and The Township Journal, (For a more extensive version of this story go to www.spartaindependent.com.) “Through the investigation it was learned that the defendant has been engaging in numerous acts of sexual contact and sexual penetration with the minor victim over the course of approximately nine years and in two states,” the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office said in its press release. In an interview this week, Meg Rodriguez, the assistant Morris County prosecutor assigned to the case, said the investigation is ongoing and focuses on only one victim. According to an affidavit filed by Mount Olive Police Det. Luis M. Sanchez, Palomo “is the biological uncle of the victim who has sole custody and represents himself as her father.” (The affidavit can be read in its entirety on this newspaper’s Web site.) Palomo is a native of El Salvador; the victim came to live with him when she was eight years old to attend school in this country, according to Sanchez’s affidavit. The young woman told police that at first, Palomo would force her to strip in front of him. Later, she said, it progressed to sexual intercourse, which, the victim told detectives, continued up until Aug. 20. She also told detectives that Palomo photographed her while they were having sex. Palomo was arrested Aug. 24. He is being held in the Morris County Correctional Facility on $1 million bail. He was suspended the next day without pay from his responsibilities as editor of the The Sparta Independent and The Township Journal newspapers, pending the outcome of the case. Jeanne Straus, president of the company which owns this and eight other weeklies, said that, if exonerated, Palomo would receive full back pay, but that if convicted, or if he pleads guilty, he would be fired. Since coming to Straus in 2000, Palomo lived in Frelinghuysen, N.J., then in Bushkill, Pa., before moving back to New Jersey to Mount Olive Township in September 2004. Rodriguez said Palomo has no prior criminal record. At the moment, he does not have a lawyer. Palomo has an aunt who lives in New Jersey. In a brief interview Tuesday, she said the younggirl has returned to her mother in El Salvador. Colleagues at Straus Newspapers described Palomo as a cultured person with a sense of the world as well as the local communities he and his newspapers covered. Noted for his skill in photography and graphic design, Palomo won numerous awards for his newspaper page layouts from the Suburban Newspapers of America, a national journalism trade group. His pages were marked by bold headlines and photos that captured a reader’s attention. It also was commonplace for other editors to seek him out for help with the design of their newspapers. At first, these were informal exchanges between co-workers; about a year ago, Straus formalized his contributions by promoting him to director of editorial design. “He is as good a co-worker as I have ever had and I respect him as a professional,” said Mike Celizic, the managing editor for two other Straus publications - The Advertiser News (North Edition) and The Advertiser News (South Edition) - who worked side-by-side with Palomo in the company’s Sparta, N.J., office. “I consider myself a good photographer, but he taught me how to be better,” Celizic added. “And he really cared about his newspapers, all of our newspapers.” About a year ago, Palomo added to his already hectic work schedule by taking on a part-time reporting job for the Mount Olive Chronicle. That weekly’s managing editor, Phil Garber, said he hired Palomo about a year ago as a part-time employee to report on the town council and school board. He said Palomo was good reporter; he filed more than 90 stories for the newspaper in the last 12 months. Jeanne Straus, president of Straus Newspapers, said she did not know Palomo was working at the Mount Olive Chronicle. Likewise, Garber said he did not know Palomo worked as an editor for Straus. And like many who worked with Palomo there and at Straus Newspapers, Garber said he was taken aback by the allegations. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Palomo,” he said. In an Aug. 15 Mount Olive Chronicle story, Palomo wrote about a humanitarian effort organized by four high school students who raised money for supplies, candy and clothes and then traveled 2,000 miles to deliver the items to a school in the small town of San Rafael in El Salvador. The story said the students’ visit occurred Aug. 2. Palomo served as a chaperone on the trip to his homeland. His niece was among the four students. The investigation and allegations The investigation into the sexual abuse began sometime after Palomo returned from the trip to El Salvador in early August. And it was around this time that his niece told Palomo that she wanted to go back to El Salvador to see her mother. Friends described him as “beside himself” at the prospect. According to the affidavit in support of an arrest warrant, on Aug. 24, Mount Olive Police Det. Luis M. Sanchez interviewed a person identified only as “Citizen Witness #1,” who stated “that he/she had been present during acts of sexual abuse of (the victim) by the defendant in other jurisdictions. Citizen Witness #1 was aware of the sexual abuse of the victim from first-hand knowledge and conversations with (the victim).” This person had told a second “citizen witness” about the alleged abuse sometime in the week prior to the arrest. This second person told a third, who called the police, Sanchez wrote in the affidavit. The detective and other law enforcement officers also interviewed the victim on Aug. 24. She told the detective “that she has been living with the suspect since she was approximately 8 years old to attend school in the United States.” According to Sanchez’s affidavit, the abuse began at that time when Palomo would force “her to strip naked in front of him.” At first, he would touch her intimately, the niece told detectives; the abuse later progressed to sexual intercourse, she added. The young girl also told police that “the suspect had her sleep in his bed with him. (The victim) stated that between September 2004 and February 2006, he engaged in sexual intercourse with her several times a week. In February of 2006, (the victim) began to sleep in a separate bedroom. The sexual abuse continued at a rate of approximately ten times per month until the present.” The victim also told police “that during the time frames she resided elsewhere with him, he took photographs and videos of her while nude and/or engaging in sexual activity with him. She recalled him recording her and she tried to hide her face while he was performing sex acts on her. He attempted to make her watch this recording at a later time but she refused to watch it. She believes he continues to possess these images.” Once they moved to Budd Lake, the victim told police “the suspect took additional photographs of (the victim) while she was nude and/or engaging in sexual activity with him. Further he showed her child pornography including incest and father-daughter pornography on his computers. She stated he has both a desktop and a laptop computer. He also made her read pornographic literature to him prior to having sexual intercourse with her.” She told police that Palomo engaged in intercourse with her most recently on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006. The arrest On the same day Sanchez interviewed the victim - Aug. 24, another Mount Olive investigator, Det. Peter Yagiello, applied for a search warrant of Palomo’s home. Police said the search recovered: “a blue vibrator, lubricating jelly, a box of Trojan condoms with 8 inside and a zip lock bag with 6 condoms, a used condom and condom wrapper, numerous tissue papers, numerous partially naked photos believed to be of (the victim), numerous partially naked negatives believed to be of (the victim), numerous CDs, numerous DVDs, miscellaneous paperwork, video cassettes, and computers.” Palomo was arrested later that Thursday and held on $1 million bail. Rodriguez, the assistant prosecutor in the case, said the amount of bail was justified because of the severity of the charges and because authorities believe that Palomo is a flight risk due to his ties to El Salvador. At his bail hearing this past Monday, Palomo told New Jersey Superior Court Judge Salem Vincent Ahto that he could not make bail. According to a story that appeared in Tuesday’s Morristown Daily Record, Palomo said: “I have no money to meet that bail - any bail at all.” Reaction Meanwhile, Palomo’s aunt said the girl has returned to her mother. At Straus offices in Sparta and Monroe, N.Y., Palomo’s colleagues said there was no indication of anything other than a strong father-daughter relationship between Palomo and his niece. Some said they assumed the young girl was his daughter; others said they knew she was a niece. They also said she spoke very little English when she first came to this country, but had grown into an articulate young woman. One Straus Newspaper colleague said that Palomo took the part-time reporting job at the Mount Olive Chronicle in order to save money for the young woman’s college tuition. “It was always about her going to college,” he said. The young woman was a frequent visitor to the newspaper office. She shared photographs of a trip she and her mother had taken to Europe. She and Palomo frequently talked on the telephone. Said one Straus co-worker: “He would call her ‘Beautiful;’ she would call him ‘Papi.’”