A 78-YEAR-OLD sex offender who it was feared was grooming a vulnerable nursing home resident has been spared jail so he can continue to receive treatment in hospital.

Thomas Hayes breached a sexual offences prevention order he had been given in June 2008 by having contact on four separate occasions with a 35-year-old man with mental health difficulties.

Hayes claimed the man owed him money, but Judge Howard Crowson cast doubt on his story and said it was an understandable view that he was grooming a potential target.

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Prosecuting at Teesside Crown Court, Harry Hadfield said the order meant Hayes could not have contact with vulnerable adults unless they were supervised.

However he raised suspicions at the Norton care home when he began visiting the 35-year-old, turning up unannounced without telling staff, and also being seen walking towards a pub in the area with him.

Hayes, of Centenary Crescent, Stockton, said the complainant had borrowed £100 from him, but had failed to pay it back.

He accepted the contact was unsupervised.

His previous convictions included an indecent assault, committed 26 years ago, and an offence of exposure last year.

Mitigating, Jim Withyman said there was no suggestion that Hayes had done anything appropriate.

He said the pensioner was receiving hospital treatment for a personality disorder and to send him to prison would be difficult for him due to his age and ill health.

Sentencing, Judge Howard Crowson said: “I do not believe your account about the money. What was going on was you slowly befriending someone and had it not been for police intervention it might have developed further.”

The judge gave Hayes a 20 month jail sentence, suspended for 18 months, and said it would be better for society if he continued to receive treatment.