Elon Musk paid a private investigator more than $50,000 to search for compromising information on a British cave explorer that he called “a pedo guy” on Twitter last year after the man criticized the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s involvement in the highly publicized rescue of a boys soccer team from a network of Thailand caves.
On Monday, a federal court in California posted a slew of documents in the ongoing defamation lawsuit between the British caver, Vernon Unsworth, and Musk, revealing that the billionaire hoped to obtain compromising information that suggested Unsworth was a pedophile. In a court filing, Musk asked a judge to throw out the case by arguing that his July 2018 tweet calling Unsworth a “pedo guy” was not meant to be taken factually.
“I did not intend to convey any facts or imply that Mr. Unsworth had engaged in acts of pedophilia,” Musk said in a court filing. “Pedo guy was a common insult used in South Africa when I was growing up. It is synonymous with ‘creepy old man’ and is used to insult a person’s appearance and demeanor, not accuse a person of pedophilia.”
Monday’s events are the latest development in a legal headache for Musk that began as a Twitter insult and has now developed into a contentious defamation lawsuit. In addition to Musk’s call for the case to be dismissed, his attorneys also released excerpts of a deposition in which the Tesla CEO defended his support of an investigation of Unsworth by invoking Jeffrey Epstein, as well as a statement from the head of Musk’s family office, who hired an alleged former British intelligence agent to compile a dossier on the cave rescuer.
In his statement to the court, Jared Birchall, president of Excession LLC, Musk’s family office, wrote that he hired James Howard, a private investigator and president of Jupiter Military & Tactical Systems in August 2018, after Howard reached out to Musk “to provide investigation services.” Using the alias “James Brickhouse” and an associated email, Birchall began to have regular contact with the investigator over “Project Rowena,” their code name for the investigation into Unsworth.
“There is some urgency to the situation,” Birchall wrote in an email on Aug. 27, 2018, to Howard, who claimed to have worked with MI5 and for billionaires including George Soros. “We believe there are planned attacks in the media and/or a lawsuit that are imminent. With that said, we aren’t looking to frame anyone.” In the email, Birchall, also included a list of questions he and Musk wanted answered.
Earlier that August, lawyers representing Unsworth had sent a letter to Musk’s residence asking for Musk to correct the public record regarding his “pedo guy” tweets. The day after Birchall sent the email to Howard, Musk asked on Twitter if “it’s strange” that Unsworth hadn’t sued him yet.
That same day, Unsworth’s attorney, L. Lin Wood, announced he was preparing a civil complaint for libel against Musk. BuzzFeed News would later email Musk questions about the legal threat, prompting the billionaire to claim in emails to this reporter that Unsworth was a “child rapist” who had taken a “child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.”
Howard sent a dossier on Unsworth dated Aug. 30, 2018 to Birchall with largely unverified claims about his activities in Thailand. That dossier, as well as prior conversations between Birchall and the private investigator, became the basis for Musk’s learnings about Unsworth.
“Mr Unsworth is 63 years old,” Howard and his team wrote in the report. “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.”
Howard also attempted to tie Unsworth to Pattaya, a Thai resort city. Unsworth in a sworn deposition has since denied ever visiting the area.
“If this is the case that Mr. Unsworth choose to live in Pattaya Beach before moving to Northern Thailand, then it would be a strong indicator as to his lifestyle interests,” the report read. “If we can establish that Mr Unsworth was a regular visitor to this part of Thailand which is not known for its extensive cave networks then this is something that may support the assumption that he is a ‘Sexpat.’”
In his sworn statement about the report, Birchall noted that when he shared the information with Musk he “did not know or believe that information was untrue.” Birchall and Musk did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
“The motion filed by Elon Musk today is a disgusting and transparent effort to continue falsely smearing Vernon Unsworth without any credible or verified supporting evidence,” Unsworth’s lawyer Wood said in a statement. “Mr. Unsworth’s opposition to Musk’s motion will reveal the whole truth of Musk’s actions and the falsity of his public statements and his motion with respect to Mr. Unsworth will be exposed.”
Unsworth’s legal team deposed Musk last month in Beverly Hills. In his testimony, the billionaire said that his research into the cave rescuer began when he googled “Chiang Rai” following a CNN International appearance in which Unsworth criticized Musk’s involvement in the rescue efforts.
“When I said ‘pedo guy,’ I didn’t mean that he was literally a pedophile; it was just an insult,” Musk said. “But after getting this information from this investigator through Jared, I was like, well, maybe he is actually a pedophile. Is this possible?”
In his deposition, Musk also mentioned Jeffrey Epstein — who by that time had committed suicide while awaiting trial for sex trafficking charges — as a motivation to inform reporters about what he had supposedly learned about Unsworth. It’s since been 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.” Musk said in a statement to Vanity Fair earlier this year that “Epstein is obviously a creep.”
“I am told this information,” Musk said in his deposition. “I don’t know if it is true. But what if we have another Jeffrey Epstein on our hands? And what if he uses whatever celebrity he gains from the cave rescue to shield his bad deed? That would be terrible.”
Musk also noted that he never spoke to the investigator directly, instead relying on Birchall to convey “an accurate retelling.”
“The investigator appeared to be credible,” Musk said. “I did not make these comments on the record. I didn’t mean for them ever to be published in any way, shape, or form.”
BuzzFeed News investigated Musk’s claims at the time and interviewed Unsworth’s longtime girlfriend, who said she was 40, but found no evidence supporting his allegations.
“This is what I’ve been told,” Musk said of his decision to email this reporter with his claims. “May or may not be true; please investigate.”