Elon Musk fabricated allegations about a British cave rescuer he called a “pedo guy” and oversaw the attempted leak of that unproven information to the press, according to a set of stunning accusations in an ongoing defamation lawsuit against the Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO.
In documents released on Monday night, Vernon Unsworth, a Brit who aided in the rescue of a boy’s soccer team from a Thailand cave system in July 2018, accused Musk of knowingly defaming him and orchestrating “a malicious, false, and anonymous leak campaign in the UK and Australian press” intended to destroy his reputation. Lambasting the Tesla CEO as “a thin-skinned billionaire” with “a history of vindictively and intentionally ignoring truth,” Unsworth argued that Musk knew his allegations of pedophilia against the cave expert were false but continued to assert them anyway after the caver criticized Musk’s involvement in the rescue effort.
Last month, Musk’s legal team filed to have Unsworth’s suit dismissed on the grounds that the Tesla chief executive did not initially mean for “pedo guy” to be taken factually and that he was simply asking questions when he hired a private investigator to look into Unsworth. The cave rescuer is seeking at least $75,000 in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages to be determined by a court.
Unsworth’s filing on Monday called Musk’s statements, made in depositions and court documents, “replete with untruths and misrepresentations” and includes a bevy of embarrassing revelations obtained in discovery. In one email to an outside public relations consultant, for example, Musk calls himself a “fucking idiot” for emailing a BuzzFeed News reporter in August 2018 with unverified information to suggest the reporter begin an investigation.
Unsworth’s lawyer, Lin Wood, declined to comment on the filing, which was submitted late Monday in a California federal court. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, 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.”
While Musk first suggested Unsworth was a pedophile in a July 2018 tweet, the cave rescuer’s main complaints stem from claims that the billionaire made in emails with a BuzzFeed News reporter later that summer. That August, Musk embellished his earlier claims, and emailed a reporter stating that Unsworth was a “child rapist” who took “a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.”
Musk, in recent statements submitted to the court, claimed that those statements were made based on information provided to one of his employees by a contracted private investigator. Unsworth’s lawyers dispute this, claiming that the investigator — who BuzzFeed News revealed to be a convicted fraudster named James Howard-Higgins — never expressed to Jared Birchall, the head of Musk’s family office tasked with communicating with the investigator, that Unsworth’s Thai partner was 12 years old when they supposedly married.
Nevertheless, Musk stated that in an email to a reporter anyway, despite concerns from Birchall that the investigator was “waffling” on his information and Howard-Higgins’ own admission that what he had gathered was largely unverified.
“On August 24, 27, and 30, Musk received separate written reports stating that Unsworth met [his partner] when she was at least 18 or 19 years old (and married her some years after that) – but less than 8 hours after getting the last such report, Musk nonetheless told the BuzzFeed reporter that Unsworth is a child rapist who married a 12-year-old child bride,” the cave rescuer’s lawyers wrote.
Unsworth’s representatives also used the filing to state that the investigator’s information was factually incorrect, noting that their client met his partner, Woranan “Tik” Ratrawiphukkun, to whom he is not legally married, in 2011 when she was 32.
Beyond the investigator’s basic background research for which he was paid $52,000, Birchall also offered Howard-Higgins a $10,000 bonus “for successful confirmation of nefarious behavior” and asked that the hired gun help orchestrate a leak campaign about Unsworth in the UK and Australian press. Using email addresses with the names “bangkokjohn” and “bangkokhilton,” Howard-Higgins messaged journalists at places like the Sun with an email template composed by Birchall about Thailand as “the world capital of pedophilia” and Unsworth’s supposed meetups with teenagers.
“We would like you to immediately move forward with ‘leaking’ this information to the UK press,” Birchall wrote to Howard-Higgins around Aug. 28, 2018. “Obviously must be done very carefully.”
Unsworth’s filing also highlights the extent by which Musk admits that his involvement in the spat was unnecessary. In a Sept. 4, 2018 email to a public relations consultant named Juleanna Glover, Musk calls himself “a fucking idiot” for providing a BuzzFeed News reporter with unverified information that he hoped would lead them to “investigate and come to their own conclusions” and “not publish my email directly.”
“It was still one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done,” he added.
Musk similarly admits that he was duped by the Howard-Higgins, the supposed private investigator. Having emailed Musk and his employees out of the blue with a promise to dig up dirt on Unsworth, Howard-Higgins was hired with little due diligence and without an examination of a criminal past that included defrauding past business partners out of more than $500,000.
“The investigator who merely was, in retrospect, just taking us for a ride,” Musk said in his deposition. BuzzFeed News recently reported that Howard-Higgins is back in jail for violating the terms of his parole.
Perhaps the most biting part of the filing, however, is a section that deals with Musk and his team’s behavior during the rescue of the Thai soccer team in July 2018. Having involved themselves at the time by offering to build a custom submarine to extract the boys from a flooded cave, Musk and his engineers came under criticism from a Thai regional governor that their plan wouldn’t work.
“On July 10th, before the Boys were all rescued, Musk and members of his team that were supposed to be engaged in developing the Tube were instead enlisting the Thai government (including the Thai Prime Minister) to publicly reverse a statement by the Thai regional governor’s statement that the Tube was not practical and did not fit the mission,” the filing read, citing depositions.
Unsworth in a CNN interview would later declare Musk’s involvement a publicity stunt, noting that Musk’s submarine wasn’t used in the rescue and was impractical for the purposes of navigating a tight cave. Upon seeing that interview, Musk would lash out on Twitter, setting the current debacle in motion.
These days, Musk is seeing things a little differently, according to a recent deposition.
“I can see how this would look like a ‘narcissistic PR stunt,’” he said.