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High-Ranking N.J. Fire Official Charged with Child Molestation

HUNTERDON COUNTY, N.J. -- A high-ranking fire official and businessman in Hunterdon County, N.J., was arrested Tuesday on child sex molestation charges, according to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office.

Frank Venable, 52, of Flemington is charged with assaulting an unspecified number of victims, mostly in their early teens, in Kingwood, Delaware Township and Flemington, "over a period of years," said Deputy Chief of Detectives Dan Hurley, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office.

Hurley declined to give specific dates, say how many children allegedly were attacked or give the victims' gender. He also declined to say how Venable allegedly gained access to the children.

"The investigation is ongoing with the possibility of additional victims," he said.

Venable, a firefighter for three decades, is a past chief in the Sergeantsville Volunteer Fire Company, current treasurer for the Hunterdon County Fire Chiefs Association and owner of a fire-equipment supply company.

"If it's all true, it's horrific, it's unbelievable," said Scott Wintermute, fire chief for the Town of Clinton, and one of several firefighters and officials stunned by Venable's arrest.

Venable was charged with a second-degree count and three third-degree counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and two counts of third-degree sexual contact, according to Hurley. He said Venable also faces one charge of second-degree sexual assault and one charge of third-degree soliciting prostitution.

Detectives, Hurley said, arrested Venable at his business, Delaware Valley Fire Equipment in Flemington, after a six-week investigation by the prosecutor's office's sex crimes unit and State Police from the Kingwood barracks.

He was being held in the Hunterdon County Jail last night in lieu of $150,000 bail.

Authorities learned of the alleged molestation when a victim came forward, Hurley said. That youth's story led to the identification of other children who were attacked, he said.

Hurley credited detectives in the joint investigation and called it a step in bringing "some relief to the victims who have been suffering for years."

A man answering Venable's home and business phone lines yesterday declined to comment.

Wintermute said Venable was immediately suspended from his position in the fire chiefs association, where he also had been chairman of the radio committee.

Venable held various posts on the Sergeantsville Fire Company, according to its website, including fire chief in 1998 and 2001. He is currently listed as the company's president. Venable also is a member of the Raritan Township Fire Department, where he was a trustee in the early 1990s, and a former member of the Hunterdon County Emergency Medical Services Squad Chiefs Association.

"Frank has been involved in emergency services for many years, and is very dedicated to the community," said Jeff Herzog, a former president for the squad chiefs association.

Herzog was taken aback by news of Venable's arrest.

"I'm not sure what happened," he said. "It's very shocking."

Sergeantsville Volunteer Fire Company Chief Sean Conway called the arrest "very disturbing." He said he could not comment further.

Ralph R. Ortega may be reached at rortega@starledger.com or (908) 429-9925.

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