A removals firm boss has been spared jail after putting his hand down an employee’s trousers in a bid to lure him into a threesome with a 15-year-old boy.

Robert Vowles, 38, from Southwick, asked his 18-year-old worker to bring lunch to his flat in a deliberate ploy to get him to walk in on him having sex with the 15-year-old boy, a court heard. But when the worker declined to join in, Vowles put his hands in his trousers.

At a sentencing hearing at Lewes Crown Court yesterday, Judge Charles Kemp said the offence was so serious it could have warranted 24 months imprisonment.

The court had earlier heard Vowles had been boss of a removals firm at the time of the sex attack on November 16, 2014, in Hove.

Vowles had asked his worker to accompany him on a removals job, and during the van journey he revealed he was gay and wanted him to join in a threesome.

In a deliberate ploy, the boss then asked his worker to get lunch and take it to his flat in Shirley Street, Hove.

The worker walked in on Vowles having sex with a 15-year-old boy, who claimed to be 17.

When the worker declined to join in, his boss put his hands down his trousers. The worker then fled.

After coming forward two years after the attack, the victim told the court he had not consented to being touched.

Vowles, of Downsway, Southwick, pleaded not guilty to two counts of sexual assault.

A jury acquitted him of one and found him guilty of another count of sexual assault – touching.

Brian Shaw, defending, said: “Vowles was very clear he went far beyond in setting up the encounter and said that to the police in interview and at his trial. Clearly he knew he straight away he had transgressed.

“He had an unusual upbringing in that he was taken away from his mum for some years and growing up coming to terms with his sexuality in the mid 1990s in small town America where the stigma of being gay and HIV positive was difficult.”

Judge Kemp sentenced Vowles to 24 months imprisonment, but suspended it for two years as his network of support from health professionals would be “interrupted” if he was jailed.

He was also sentenced to 180 hours’ unpaid work and was placed on the sex offenders’ register.

Vowles was also made subject to a ten-year sexual harm prevention order, severely restricting his access to children and computers. He had used gay mobile app Grindr and website Craigslist to meet young-looking boys.

Speaking outside court, Detective Sergeant Paul Hitchcock of Brighton’s Safeguarding and Investigation Unit, said: “The evidence in this trial showed that Robert Vowles had casually employed teenage boys from the Brighton area to work for his business called A Abbey Removals.

“In this case he was sexually attracted to the 18-year-old victim. After doing a furniture removal in December 2014, he took the victim back to his home address where Vowles engaged in sexual activity with the 15-year-old. Vowles then sexually assaulted the 18-year-old who fortunately had the courage to report this to the police.”