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A West Milford man pleaded guilty to child endangerment offenses Friday for sexual encounters he had with two teenage girls he met through his membership at the Jehovah's Witnesses temple in town.

Tom Blankenship, 23, had been befriended by an elder at the church and was often invited over for meals and visits, said Joseph Del Russo, Passaic County chief assistant prosecutor.

From the fall of 1998 through April 2000, Blankenship had sexual relations with one of the elder's relatives, a 17-year-old girl. He had similar sexual contact with another relative, a 14-year-old girl, from June 2001 through Feb. 21, Del Russo said.

Although there was no physical force used in the incidents, Blankenship was charged with multiple sexual assault charges because of the victims' ages. The incidents sometimes took place when Blankenship was over for visits, other times when he sneaked into the house late at night, Del Russo said.

The church elder contacted police Feb. 27 and Blankenship was arrested March 3 and charged with sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, and child endangerment offenses.

He pleaded guilty to two of the child endangerment offenses and will face a probationary sentence with up to 364 days in the county jail. Had he been convicted at trial, Blankenship faced up to 10 years behind bars.

- Jennifer V. Hughes

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