The strange saga of Tesla CEO Elon Musk inserting himself into the rescue of a Thai boys' soccer team from a cave in July 2018 keeps getting stranger, as court documents released Monday night show.
Vernon Unsworth, a member of the cave rescue team, sued Musk in September 2018 for defamation after Musk claimed that Unsworth was a pedophile. Describing Musk as “a thin-skinned billionaire who is obsessed with his public image and has a history of vindictively and intentionally ignoring truth," Unsworth alleges in court docs that Musk knew claiming Unsworth was a pedophile was wrong, but did it anyway as part of a larger smear campaign.
Musk had offered to design and build kid-sized submarines to aid in the rescue effort, however, the Thai government decided not to take him up on the offer when it was shown that the designs wouldn't work in the cave's narrow corridors. Unsworth, a British man who lived in the area and was familiar with the cave structure, was a vocal opponent of Musk's idea. After Unsworth denounced Musk's plans on CNN, Musk fired back at Unsworth, calling him a "pedo guy" on Twitter and suggested that he took a "child bride who was about 12 years old at the time" in emails to a Buzzfeed reporter.
Musk initially tried dismissing the case by arguing that "pedo guy" was not meant to be taken seriously. That being said, after sending those tweets about Unsworth in July 2018, Musk paid over $52,000 to hire a private investigator to dig up compromising information on Unsworth, Buzzfeed reports. Musk also reached out to Buzzfeed reporter Ryan Mac with the unverified "child rapist" claim in August 2018, suggesting that Mac should investigate Unsworth's background.
Musk now claims that the pedophilia allegation was based on information that his family office head James Birchall relayed from private investigator James Howard-Higgins in statements submitted to the court obtained by Buzzfeed. Birchall was in charge of communicating with the investigator, as Musk claims he never made direct contact with Howard-Higgins.
Birchall also offered Howard-Higgins a $10,000 bonus on top of the $52,000 for background research if Howard-Higgins could confirm that Unsworth had engaged in "nefarious behavior," court documents allege. Additionally, the documents state that Howard-Higgins was also asked to participate in a leak campaign to Australian and British press outlets. Buzzfeed explains:
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.
Yet the circumstances around that investigator is its own mess. Howard-Higgins is a convicted felon who previously served a prison sentence for defrauding his business partners of £426,000, which Buzzfeed uncovered but Musk surprisingly didn't at the time of Howard-Higgins' hire. Howard-Higgins is back in jail for violating the terms of his parole, Buzzfeed reports.
Musk's story has changed to place some of the blame for his "pedo guy" statements on Howard-Higgins. “The investigator who merely was, in retrospect, just taking us for a ride,” Musk said in his deposition, as quoted by Buzzfeed.
Unsworth's legal team disputes Musk's timeline with Howard-Higgins, claiming that Howard-Higgins never actually told Birchall that Unsworth's Thai partner was 12 when they married. They claim that Howard-Higgins admitted his information was unverified, and Birchall noted that Howard-Higgins was waffling back and forth about the truth of his information. However, after receiving three unsubstantiated reports from Howard-Higgins placing Unsworth's partner's age as 18 or 19 when they met, Musk sent his emails to the Buzzfeed reporter anyway.
In reality, Unsworth's partner Woranan “Tik” Ratrawiphukkun is not married to him. They met in 2011 at a coffee shop in London when she was 32 years old, per court documents. Unsworth claims he did not even visit Thailand until after meeting meeting Tik.
In a September 2018 email to outside public relations consultant Juleanna Glover cited by Unsworth's legal team, Musk called himself a "f***ing idiot" for reaching out to the Buzzfeed reporter with the unverified pedophilia claims, who then published their email interactions. "It was still one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done,” Musk continued.
On CNN, Unsworth had merely claimed that Musk's submarines wouldn't be able to navigate the tight cave and claimed that Musk's offer was more of a publicity stunt than anything else. Musk has since changed his tune on the decision to offer tiny submarines to use, saying in a recent deposition cited by Buzzfeed, “I can see how this would look like a ‘narcissistic PR stunt.'"
Yet his lawyers haven't changed their tune on the defamation case. Of the case, Musk's lawyer Alex Spiro told Buzzfeed, "This case is nothing but a money-grab in which Unsworth has pursued profit and self-promotion at every turn."
Unsworth is seeking at least $75,000 in compensatory damages as well as punitive damages, the amount of which will be determined by the courts. You can read the filings that were released Monday here and here.