Tesla CEO Elon Musk has renewed his attacks against a British man who played a key role in the rescue of a youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand.
Musk last month apologized for accusing Vernon Unsworth of pedophilia after the diver questioned the value of Musk’s contribution to the rescue, a small submarine that ultimately went unused. But in a series of emails to BuzzFeed News, Musk repeated his original attacks on Unsworth — and made new and specific claims, lambasting the rescuer as a “child rapist” who had moved to the Southeast Asian country to take a child bride. Unsworth denied Musk's accusations through his attorney.
Though Musk prefaced one email with “off the record,” BuzzFeed News did not agree to that condition of the correspondence. (Per common journalistic practice, a conversation is off the record only if both parties agree to the terms. )
BuzzFeed News first emailed Musk last Wednesday to ask for comment regarding a legal threat made by Unsworth’s lawyer in August after the Tesla CEO renewed his apparently evidenceless criticism of the rescuer in a Twitter argument the day before. Musk responded without addressing the substance of the legal threat. BuzzFeed News followed up twice, once on Wednesday and once on Thursday, and Musk responded with two separate emails.
“I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole.”
“I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole,” Musk wrote in the first message. “He’s an old, single white guy from England who’s been traveling to or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.”
“As for this alleged threat of a lawsuit, which magically appeared when I raised the issue (nothing was sent or raised beforehand), I fucking hope he sues me,” he added.
It is unclear why Musk believes the allegations against Unsworth or what evidence he has to support them. Musk did not provide proof of his claims to BuzzFeed News, and BuzzFeed News could not verify any of the claims after reporting on Unsworth’s background.
The Tesla CEO’s continued campaign against Unsworth offers a glimpse into the new ability of some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful figures to directly attack private citizens who cross them — and will test the capacity of traditional legal tools against them.
“Elon Musk can tweet his vindictive and vicious lie about Mr. Unsworth a hundred times and it will still be a lie,” Unsworth’s lawyer, L. Lin Wood, wrote in a statement. “After deleting the initial accusation and tweeting an apology, Mr Musk has continued to republish his false and unsupportable accusation. His conduct demonstrates that his recklessness is intentional and designed to harm Mr. Unsworth.”
A spokesperson for Tesla did not immediately return a request for comment on Musk's newest allegations, and referred to a previous statement issued by the board in response to a question about its support for the company's CEO.
The feud began in July when Musk tweeted that Unsworth was “a pedo guy” after the rescuer called the billionaire’s attempt to use a custom-designed submarine in the rescue effort a “publicity stunt.” Musk later apologized and deleted this tweets, but revisited the claim last week in an argument on Twitter, asking why Unsworth hadn’t sued yet if the accusations were indeed untrue. BuzzFeed News then reported that Wood had actually sent Musk a letter warning of a possible defamation suit in early August.
Musk’s renewed attacks on Unsworth come after a series of erratic public gestures, notably a widely publicized suggestion that he would take Tesla private and the narration of his home life by the rapper Azealia Banks. And the new accusations leveled at Unsworth threaten to undermine a recent charm offensive intended to frame the CEO’s erratic behavior as the actions of an overworked luminary struggling to maintain his world-changing businesses. It’s been a particularly difficult summer for the billionaire, marked by Tesla’s missed production goals, clashes with reporters, and his failed attempt to take his car company private.
Despite that, Musk still managed to maintain a dispute with Unsworth, a 63-year-old cave explorer and diver, whom he has now accused of taking a child bride.
BuzzFeed News could find no evidence to support that claim, and Musk did not provide any documentation to support his accusations. Publicly available legal documents do nothing to support Musk’s claims: BuzzFeed News could not immediately locate any criminal records for Unsworth in the UK.
Separately, a Thai immigration official named Ploy Pailin told BuzzFeed News that an individual on a visa would likely not have it renewed if they had been found guilty of criminal activity in the country. Pailin also said that while foreigners applying for visas in Thailand do not undergo mandatory background checks, those who are found guilty of serious crimes are often blacklisted by the government and can be removed from the country.
BuzzFeed News also spoke with Woranan Ratrawiphukkun, a Thai woman who is Unsworth’s longtime girlfriend. She said she had been with Unsworth for more than seven years and has posted numerous photos about their relationship on social media dating back several years. Unsworth, she added, spends part of the year in Thailand and part of the time in the UK.
Ratrawiphukkun, who said she is 40, declined to comment on Musk’s allegations against Unsworth, and referred a reporter to his lawyers.
Among Musk’s other claims about Unsworth is that he was not part of the actual dive team in the Thailand cave rescue. While Unsworth did not dive for the mission, media reports and other people who were part of the rescue cited the Brit as instrumental to the effort, as he had previously mapped and explored some of the cave system and recruited some of the divers who went into the cave.
“He may claim to know how to cave dive, but he wasn’t on the cave dive rescue team and most of the actual dive team refused to hang out with him,” Musk wrote in one email. In another email in which Musk wrote “on background” — BuzzFeed News again did not agree to these terms — the Tesla CEO said, “Never saw Unsworth at any point. Was told he was banned from the site.”
A British diver on the rescue mission who had previously been in contact with Musk, Rick Stanton, denied those claims.
“I've no idea what gave you those concerns about Vern,” Stanton wrote over Facebook Messenger. “They are completely unfounded. He was never kicked off site by anyone and worked continuously on the rescue for the full duration. He was pivotal to the entire operation.”
Two Australian specialists who were brought in by the Thai government to aid the Thai cave rescue operation, Richard Harris and Craig Challen, also rejected Musk’s allegation.
“Vern seemed like an excellent guy and absolutely vital to the mission,” said Harris, who, with Challen, helped in the sedation of the Thai boys before they were brought out of the cave by the British divers. “You must be confusing him with someone else.”
“He was pivotal with his knowledge of the cave. [The] rescue wouldn’t have happened without him recommending the Brits were called,” Harris said.
Photos and videos posted on Facebook by Woranan and members of the local Thai news media show Unsworth at the site through the duration of the operation, which lasted more than two weeks in the country’s Chiang Rai province. Some of those photos show Unsworth posing with other British members involved with the rescue.
In his second email to BuzzFeed News, Musk commented on Unsworth’s interview with CNN.
“Unsworth also said I was asked to leave by the Thai govt, which is utterly false. Thai Prime Minister thanked me personally per attached docs. I went all the way to area 3 with the Thai SEAL team, who were awesome.”
Unsworth did say that Musk was asked to leave the cave in the interview, but did not specify who had asked him.
Musk also supplied a letter to BuzzFeed News from the Thai prime minister thanking him for his team’s involvement in the rescue. “I wish to convey my deep appreciation to you and your engineering team for your expeditious and extraordinary efforts in constructing the Space-X mini-submarine 'Wild Boar' to assist the rescue operation of the Moo Pa Academy Football team trapped in Tham Luang Cave, Chiang Rai province,” wrote General Prayut Chan-o-cha.
In addition, Musk claimed that the mini-sub, which ultimately was not used in the rescue, was built to Stanton’s specifications, and that it was not deployed only because too much water had been drained from the cave. Stanton, however, denied that was the reason, and said he did not recall providing exact specifications to Musk.
“We didn't use the tube because rescue operations were already well underway and it didn't have the necessary life support systems,” Stanton said to BuzzFeed News on Facebook Messenger. “Essentially, it wasn't developed enough. I do think it has promise in certain situations and I hope they keep working on it to get it in shape for evaluation and to be considered as a viable alternative in future underwater rescue scenarios.”
In another claim, Musk noted that “the alleged threat of a lawsuit” from Unsworth “magically appeared when I raised the issue” on Twitter last week and that nothing had been sent prior to his outburst. L. Lin Wood, Unsworth’s lawyer, provided BuzzFeed News with confirmation showing that he had sent a note titled “Fwd: Defamation of Vernon Unsworth” containing the legal letter to the appropriate email address for Musk’s office at SpaceX on Aug. 6.
BuzzFeed News corresponded with the Tesla and SpaceX CEO at a separate, personal email address that two sources confirmed belonged to Musk. One source, who had previously worked for Musk, noted that the email address can be accessed by the billionaire and his assistants. The source noted that it was not uncommon for Musk to personally respond to reporters and other people through that account.
Wood did not respond to questions asking him to more specifically address each of Musk’s accusations, but suggested that he was moving closer to legal action.
“Today the rich and powerful seem all too ready to tweet falsities in the hope and expectation that their wealth and position will protect them,” he wrote in a statement. “Pedophilia is too serious an issue to leave unchallenged. If Mr. Musk believes his wealth affords him protection from his lies and Twibels, he is sadly mistaken.”
Here are the emails Elon Musk sent to BuzzFeed News reporter Ryan Mac
From: Elon Musk < redacted >
Date: Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 6:43 PM
Subject: RE: BuzzFeed News: Unsworth legal letter
Off the record
I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole. He’s an old, single white guy from England who’s been traveling to or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time. There’s only one reason people go to Pattaya Beach. It isn’t where you’d go for caves, but it is where you’d go for something else. Chiang Rai is renowned for child sex-trafficking.
He may claim to know how to cave dive, but he wasn’t on the cave dive rescue team and most of the actual dive team refused to hang out with him. I wonder why ...
As for this alleged threat of a lawsuit, which magically appeared when I raised the issue (nothing was sent or raised beforehand), I fucking hope he sues me.
From: Elon Musk < redacted >
Date: Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 7:16 PM
Subject: Fwd: Letters
Unsworth also said I was asked to leave by the Thai govt, which is utterly false. Thai Prime Minister thanked me personally per attached docs. I went all the way to area 3 with the Thai SEAL team, who were awesome. Never saw Unsworth at any point. Was told he was banned from the site.
It is also total bs that the mini-sub wouldn’t fit through the caves. It was designed and built to specifications provided to me directly by Stanton and the actual dive team. The only reason it wasn’t used was that they were able to drain almost all the water out of the caves, so the underwater portion was very short, and the monsoon arrived later than expected.
Those pumps were critical. Some of the Tesla team helped with electrical power, but major credit to whoever provided those pumps. They were amazing. I’m told they were from some company in India.
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Ryan Mac is a senior tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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John Paczkowski is a technology and business editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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