A Thai cave rescuer is suing the Tesla and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, for attempting to get his revenge on him by circulating evidence-free accusations of paedophilia to the media.
The row between the two started in July 2018, after Elon Musk offered to use of his custom miniature submarine to rescue a boys’ football team and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand.
His idea was never put into practice, and many put Musk’s true motives into question. Among the sceptics was Vernon Unsworth, a professional diver from Britain who helped rescue the team; he called Musk’s plan a publicity stunt and told him to “stick his submarine where it hurts” in a CNN interview.
Musk soon called Unsworth out in a Twitter post and branded him a “pedo guy.” He later apologised for that, but claimed in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed the following month that the diver was a “child rapist” who had moved to Thailand to take a 12-year-old bride. Unsworth has sued for defamation.
The cave rescuer is claiming in his lawsuit that Musk knew that his “heinous” allegations were false but kept pushing them nevertheless and “remains unwilling to admit it”.
Last month, Musk’s legal team launched a legal bid to dismiss the lawsuit. In depositions, he said that “pedo guy” was a mere insult rather than an accusation of paedophilia as it meant “creepy old man” in South Africa, where he grew up.
Unsworth, 64, challenges this claim citing the tweets that followed the “pedo guy” rant and Musk’s public apology. For instance, in late August 2018, Musk replied to a Twitter user, “You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me?” in reference to Unsworth, indicating that he believed what he said was true.
You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me? He was offered free legal services. And you call yourself @yoda …— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 28, 2018
In September 2019, Elon Musk admitted in a deposition that he had tasked the head of his family office, Jared Birchall, with hiring a private investigator to dig up compromising information on Unsworth in the summer of 2018.
Birchall had hired James Howard-Higgins, a self-proclaimed private detective who had reportedly been convicted for defrauding his private maritime security company of more than $500,000. The sleuth is said to have received $52,000 from Musk’s office, with a $10,000 bonus “for successful confirmation of nefarious behaviour” never paid because he was unable to confirm any wrongdoing on the part of Unsworth.
“The investigator reported that Mr Unsworth was a fixture in Pattaya Beach, Thailand — a locale notorious for prostitution and child trafficking — [and] that he had a taste for young Thai girls,” Musk’s lawyers said.
The cave rescuer’s legal team now argues that neither Birchall nor Howard-Higgins had ever told Musk that their client was a child rapist or had a 12-year-old bride, but the Tesla chief still wrote BuzzFeed in an apparent bid to get a media campaign against Unsworth going.
In fact, according to Unsworth’s lawyers, the diver met his partner in London when she was 32 years old, and they never married but are living together. Musk admitted in his deposition that the investigator “merely was, in retrospect, just taking us for a ride”. BuzzFeed reports that Howard-Higgins is currently back in jail for breaching his parole conditions.
“Musk admitted that when he emailed information to BuzzFeed on August 30, he was ‘not sure that it was accurate.’ And he did not know if the information he received from Howard ‘was true or not or had been verified,” reads Unsworth’s lawsuit.
In an email cited in the court filings, Musk said he was a “f***ing idiot” for providing the BuzzFeed reporter with unproven information that he hoped would prompt them to “investigate and come to their own conclusions” and “not publish my email directly.” Musk says the email was sent “off the record,” but the reporter never agreed with that condition and published it soon after receiving.
In a statement to BuzzFeed, Musk’s lawyer Alex Spiro said, “This case is nothing but a money-grab in which Unsworth has pursued profit and self-promotion at every turn.”
The cave rescuer is seeking at least $75,000 in damages and an injunction to stop Musk from making further allegations. The trial is set to begin on 2 December.