SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is reportedly scheduled to take the stand in a Los Angeles federal courtroom this week. Musk has been known to drag his companies into legal trouble—taking a hit of a blunt during a videotaped interview while running a major government contractor or violating securities rules by tweet. This time, though, Musk himself is on trial, defending a claim that he defamed a British man living in Thailand by calling him a pedophile.
The trial, set to begin Tuesday, is the latest of a weird series of events that began in July 2018, when a youth soccer team and their coach became stranded in flooded caves in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. The story quickly captured the attention of the world media, and of Musk, who very publicly tasked a team of SpaceX and Tesla engineers with building a child-size submarine to help extract the soccer team from the caves.
A British expat named Vernon Unsworth worked as a diver in the area, and did not think Musk’s plan was a good one. When asked by a CNN reporter for comment, Unsworth said Musk’s mini-sub scheme wouldn’t work, and that the whole thing was a publicity stunt. Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts,” Unsworth told the reporter.
Musk saw the comments a few days after they aired, according to his deposition in August. Musk said in the deposition that he did a spot of Googling, and saw that Unsworth’s home of Chiang Rai was linked with the sex trade. Then he tweeted that the engineering team was moving forward with the submarine plan, “no problemo.” “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it,” he wrote, referring to Unsworth.
Musk apologized for the “pedo guy” tweet a few days later. But just a few weeks after that, in an email to BuzzFeed News reporter Ryan Mac, the billionaire doubled down, alleging that Unsworth was a “child rapist.” Mac published Musk’s allegations in an article. Unsworth, through his lawyer, has vigorously denied the claim.
Documents later revealed the weird behind-the-scenes moments that led up to the tweets. After Musk had apologized for the tweets, a British man named James Howard-Higgins reached out to Musk claiming that the diver indeed had “skeletons in his cupboard.” Musk then dispatched the head of his family office to meet with Howard-Higgins, which the employee did under an assumed name. The employee later paid Howard-Higgins more than $50,000 to dig into Unsworth’s history.
Musk later said that Howard-Higgins told that employee that Unsworth had married a girl when she was as young as 12, though Unsworth’s lawyers say, based on emails, that Howard-Higgins only said that the the diver met his wife when she was 18 or 19. (In reality, Unsworth’s wife was 32 when they met, the lawyers say.) This appears to be why Musk passed that “tip” on to the BuzzFeed reporter. In another twist, it turned out that Howard-Higgins was a con man with a criminal record, and may have fabricated information altogether.
In September 2018, after the reporter published Musk’s new allegation, Unsworth sued for defamation in California federal court. He is seeking at least $75,000 in damages.