When Elon Musk publicly called a British cave rescuer who had insulted him a “pedo guy” last year, the billionaire entrepreneur had no evidence to back up his claims. And while he later apologized for the outburst, the Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO went on to hire a private investigator to dig up dirt that might support his unsubstantiated accusation.
BuzzFeed News has found that the self-proclaimed private investigator whom Musk hired was a convicted felon and scammer.
Public records and interviews reveal that the man Musk contracted, James Howard-Higgins, stole money from his business partners and was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud. Past associates of the man described the Englishman to BuzzFeed News as a “Walter Mitty character” who repeatedly defrauded a company he cofounded despite disciplinary actions that were meant to keep him in check.
Recently released court documents from a defamation case in US federal court show that Musk retained Howard-Higgins after the self-proclaimed investigator cold-emailed him offering to “dig deep” into Vernon Unsworth, a British expat who played a key role in the rescue of a boys soccer team from a Thailand cave system in July 2018. Unsworth, who had criticized Musk’s efforts to involve himself in the cave rescue, is now suing the billionaire for publicly calling him a pedophile and “child rapist,” an allegation partly based on unsubstantiated information given to him by Howard-Higgins.
Musk’s failure to effectively vet a private investigator he hired and his willingness to repeat serious and unfounded allegations against Unsworth are the latest in a series of public blunders for Tesla’s CEO, whose win-at-all-costs mentality has drawn him into a number of high-profile fights with regulators, former employees, and shareholders. And it has renewed the concerns of institutional investors, some of whom have sued to keep Musk from engaging in reputationally damaging arguments on Twitter.
"If I’m sitting on that board, I’d say, 'Wow, does he take similar impulsive moves when he’s working on our company’s strategy?'"
Public company executives should have “thicker skin,” said Columbia Business School adjunct professor William Klepper, noting that Musk has a fiduciary duty not to jeopardize billions of dollars of investment in his companies by acting like a “loose cannon.”
“If I’m sitting on that board, I’d say, ‘Wow, does he take similar impulsive moves when he’s working on our company’s strategy?” he said.
Musk and members of his staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
With Musk facing a defamation suit from Unsworth, court documents prepared for his defense show that he and the head of his family office explicitly retained Howard-Higgins to find information that might support Musk’s claims that the cave rescuer was a pedophile. But these same documents also show that the billionaire entrepreneur’s staffers did little to vet the investigator, a 47-year-old man from Dorset in southwest England, who served 18 months of his three-year sentence in October 2016 for stealing more than £426,000 (about $525,000) from his company, Orchid Maritime Security Ltd.
As a cofounder of Orchid Maritime, a private maritime security company based in the English seaside town of Poole, Howard-Higgins worked on sales and marketing, according to former business associates. Those associates told BuzzFeed News they noticed large amounts of money missing from company accounts and suspected Howard-Higgins was responsible.
They were right. A local press report describing the incident noted that Howard-Higgins confessed to stealing around £260,000 ($320,000), though the company forgave their cofounder and absorbed the debt he’d accumulated.
Following that incident, Howard-Higgins opened a credit card for the business under another person’s name and began racking up debt again, according to the report. After Orchid Maritime busted and disciplined him a second time, Howard-Higgins began directing company funds into a personal account.
“James Howard-Higgins systematically stole from his business partner over a sustained period of time despite being caught in the act and given numerous second chances,” a detective constable wrote at the time of his arrest in 2016. “He selfishly abused his position of trust.”
Charged with 14 counts of fraud, Howard-Higgins pleaded guilty to seven. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Mark Wood, another Orchid Maritime cofounder, likened his former business partner to Walter Mitty, a fictional character known for indulging in fantastic daydreams about himself, and called him “manipulative, persuasive and coercive.”
“The enormity of his deception and fraudulent actions within the business led me to call in the police,” he said.
“With a prison record it ought to be difficult to continue in this same line of business,” Wood added. “Sadly it appears not to be the case."
“You May Want to Dig Deep”
After being released from prison and barred from directorship of any UK-registered company for 10 years, Howard-Higgins revived an old venture he called Jupiter Military & Tactical Systems. There is no UK registration for the company, and sources close to Howard-Higgins described Jupiter as little more than an email account and a website.
On July 17, 2018, the same day Musk had declared Unsworth a “pedo guy” for calling a mini submarine the billionaire contributed to the Thai cave rescue effort “a PR stunt,” Howard-Higgins reached out to the Tesla CEO from a Jupiter email address.
“You may want to dig deep into Mr. Unsworth[‘s] past to prepare for his defamation claim,” he wrote in a note that was forwarded to Musk’s personal assistant and then his chief of staff, Sam Teller. Omitting his full last name, Howard-Higgins identified himself as James Howard, CEO of Jupiter Military & Tactical Systems.
“No smoke without fire!” he added.
In early August of that year, Musk received a legal threat from Lin Wood, an attorney representing Unsworth, notifying the billionaire that the cave rescuer had retained counsel and was preparing a libel suit. Shortly thereafter, around Aug. 15, Musk directed Jared Birchall, the head of his family office, Excession LLC, to retain “James Howard” according to Birchall’s sworn declaration in the Unsworth defamation case.
Musk claims to have never directly spoken with the private investigator. But in a deposition, he said he thought Howard-Higgins “appeared to be credible” based on information given to him by Birchall, who was communicating with the investigator using the alias “James Brickhouse.” In emails sent by Howard-Higgins to Birchall, he claims to have spent 11 years in the UK special forces and two years with the United Kingdom’s security services with additional work for the likes of billionaires George Soros and Paul Allen.
A representative for Soros found no evidence that Howard-Higgins had done work for the financier or his related companies. One former colleague said the only connection between Howard-Higgins and Soros was that his uncle had done “property work” for the Hungarian American billionaire. Vulcan Inc., the investment and philanthropy office of the now-deceased Allen, did not respond to a request for comment.
Former colleagues disputed Howard-Higgins’ characterization of his military record. Mark Wood, his former business partner, said, “[Howard-Higgins] categorically never served in the police, military or any intelligence services.” The UK’s Home Office did not respond to questions about Howard-Higgins.
According to a web archive from August 2018, Jupiter’s now-defunct website — which featured a black and white phoenix symbol used by several gamers and a London-based electronic music producer — said the company provided bespoke “Government Police and Military Training Solutions,” and listed a PO box in Doha, Qatar, and an address in Berkeley Square, an upmarket area of Mayfair in London. In reality, the UK address is used by one of Howard-Higgins’ former business associates, who told BuzzFeed News the location is the registered headquarters of his current company, and not linked to Howard-Higgins.
It appears that Birchall and Musk were not aware of any of this. After reviewing documents and supposed past work provided by Howard-Higgins, Birchall “believed Mr. Howard to be a capable and credible investigator” and agreed to hire him for around $50,000. Meanwhile, Howard-Higgins was already feeding him unsubstantiated theories about Unsworth.
“The target is unlikely to have a history of offending in the UK as this would already have come to the surface but I think like others that his motivations for residing in Thailand may unearth some unsavoury practises and relationships,” Howard-Higgins wrote to Birchall.
The pair began regular contact on what they called “Project Rowena” — according to two sources, Howard-Higgins’ girlfriend is named Rowena. Birchall, posing as Brickhouse, would call or email Howard-Higgins, and relay whatever information he was given back to Musk.
In email correspondence detailed in the court documents, Howard-Higgins’ made innuendo-laden claims about Unsworth and his associates, without providing any evidence to back them up.
"We aren’t looking to frame anyone"
“Early feedback on the target is there is indeed an unpleasant undertone to some of his lifestyle choices,” he wrote in an Aug. 17, 2018, email to Birchall. “There is no question that the target 'associates' locally with Europeans who enjoy 'Thai comforts' that are not acceptable in a developed society.”
Birchall then followed with an email on Aug. 27, according to legal exhibits, asking for more explicit and exact details on Unsworth. Claiming that there were “planned attacks in the media and/or a lawsuit,” he sent a list of 14 specific questions asking for information about a possible divorce in the UK and whether Unsworth’s Thai partner was “the 10th teenage girl he met before he decided to settle.”
“With that said, we aren’t looking to frame anyone,” Birchall added.
There is no evidence to suggest that Unsworth or his friends in Thailand behaved in the ways Howard-Higgins alleged.
Birchall did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
In his statement to the court, Birchall recalled that shortly after he retained Howard-Higgins, the investigator told him there was a Thai news article that claimed Unsworth’s Thai partner said she first met him when she was 11 or 12. Birchall said he reported those details to Musk.
But court documents include no evidence of the Thai news clipping Howard-Higgins allegedly described to Birchall, and BuzzFeed News was unable to find it. Moreover, two documents Howard-Higgins sent to Birchall explicitly note that the investigator had not confirmed the age of Unsworth’s partner. In an Aug. 27 email, for example, Howard-Higgins color-codes her age as something he is “in the process of verifying.”
“Mr Unsworth is 63 years old,” Howard wrote in a different, more formal report dated on Aug. 30, 2018 that was included in the defamation case’s filings. “His wife we believe is 30, (we will confirm this in the next 48hrs) which would have put her at 18/19 when they first met. The target would have been 52 yrs old at the time.”
In September of last year, Unsworth’s longtime partner, Woranan Ratrawiphukkun, told BuzzFeed News she was actually 40. Lin Wood, Unsworth’s attorney, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the cave rescuer is not technically married to Woranan, but that he considers her his “partner and companion.”
"I have faith in what Jared was conveying to me was an accurate retelling of this guy."
It is not yet clear if Howard-Higgins ever managed to establish the true age of Unsworth’s partner. But it is obvious that the unsubstantiated, caveated claims he fed to Birchall made their way to Musk, who viewed it as proof of his allegations and eventually told a BuzzFeed News reporter over email that Unsworth was a “child rapist” who took a child bride. Attorneys for Musk and Unsworth have both requested testimony from BuzzFeed News.
“I have faith in what Jared was conveying to me was an accurate retelling of this guy,” Musk said in a deposition earlier this summer. In further questioning by Unsworth’s lawyers, the billionaire also made it clear he never verified the information before relaying it to a reporter.
“I just — I’d just been informed of a bad fact pattern,” he said. “It seems like if a journalist cares about finding what’s going on, they should go find out what’s going on. This is what I’ve been told. May or may not be true; please investigate.”
Musk sent the email with supposed information about Unsworth to a BuzzFeed News reporter on Aug. 30, 2018.
“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 wrote. “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.”
Musk has since defended his behavior by claiming “pedo guy” is South African slang for a creepy guy (though that’s been disputed) and arguing that he went after Unsworth because he feared he might be another Jeffrey Epstein. BuzzFeed News and Vanity Fair have since reported that Musk had been to several events with Epstein following the financier's 2008 guilty plea for soliciting prostitution from an underage girl, and visited his house “several years ago.”
Unsworth’s lawyer said in a statement that the documents released thus far in the case only tell Musk’s side, and that cave rescuer’s response to the defense’s motion for a dismissal of the case will reveal much more about “the falsity of his public statements.”
“Mr. Unsworth’s response will focus on the actual sworn testimony and documents developed in this case rather than the manufactured misrepresentations, half-truths, omissions and smear tactics presented by Musk in his motion,” Wood said. “In sum, Musk had no credible or verified information at any time that supported his false accusations that Mr. Unsworth was a pedophile, a child rapist who married a 12-year old child bride or lived for 30 years in Pattaya Beach.”
With their response to Musk’s motion to dismiss the case for summary judgment expected next week, Unsworth’s legal team has dug in, seeking depositions from current and former executives at the billionaire’s companies and close confidants. Meanwhile, little has been heard from Howard-Higgins. In a statement, Wood said he has been unable to locate the British man for questioning.
Photos posted to his girlfriend’s private Instagram account after Musk was sued last fall show Howard-Higgins traveling through the Middle East, visiting Wimbledon, staying at resorts, and eating at steakhouses. That lifestyle, however, seems to have come to an end.
According to multiple sources, Howard-Higgins also recently violated the terms of his parole. Musk's private investigator is back in jail serving the remainder of his three-year sentence.