For the reality-bending entrepreneur, there was no other possible outcome.
Tesla’s billionaire CEO fought a lawsuit over his own bad behavior and won. For the reality-bending entrepreneur, there was no other possible outcome.
Alex Spiro was on a roll. The 6-foot-something attorney stood imposingly at the lectern in the Los Angeles federal court with the confidence of a guy compelled to remind people he lettered in high school varsity basketball for four years and almost walked onto his college team. His demeanor was casual — he dropped a few “dudes” that belied his Harvard law degree — but forceful. His only obvious weakness seemed to be the brace on his right foot, the result of an injury sustained during a pickup game.
A high-profile trial lawyer who worked for the CIA before assembling a client list that included New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Mick Jagger, and Jay-Z, Spiro was on the clock for another billionaire defendant on a Friday last December. And having lured the jury in with a fantastical closing argument about his client’s supposed generosity and heroics, Spiro threw in some flattery for the person paying his bills.
“[The plaintiff] can say whatever he wants about Elon Musk,” he said. “No one can bring people together like he can to do the impossible.”
Over the past few decades, Musk promised to land a reusable rocket on a robotic ocean barge, and then he went and did it. He dreamed up a tunnel under Los Angeles to counter the city’s congested highways, and then founded a company to dig it. He’s also mapped out an electric car future and is well on his way toward achieving it. His admirers laud him as the real-life Tony Stark, a once-in-a-generation genius with a force of will that can make the seemingly impossible possible. But as a judge, eight jurors, two sizable legal teams, a dozen reporters, and I learned late last year, Musk’s uncanny ability to transform far-fetched ideas into attainable ones can cut both ways.
We spent a week in the courtroom listening to a legal case as absurd as one of Musk’s wildest moon shots. How did we get there? A quick recap: In July 2018, Musk tweeted that a British cave explorer was a “pedo guy,” faced a wave of criticism, kind of apologized, received a legal threat, doubled down on the accusation, sent a reporter (me) an email suggesting the Brit was a “child rapist,” hired a phony private investigator to prove it, got sued, and, after more than a year of legal wrangling, ended up in court. Never mind that some legal experts thought the case was a clear example of defamation, that his advisers told him to settle, and that he had far better things to do with his time. Musk was going to fight.
In doing so, the billionaire entrepreneur brought the same drive that pushed electric cars into the mainstream to a legal dispute over his own bad behavior. And in typical fashion, Musk defied the odds. He won.
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Musk’s legal victory over Vernon Unsworth – a previously unknown Brit who became a legitimate hero while helping rescue a boys soccer team and their coach from a Thailand cave — will rank low on his list of achievements. But in many ways, it is far more revealing of Musk than any of the technological feats that land him in the headlines.
The weeklong trial showcased Musk’s bending of reality, a skill that’s part of his mythology but rarely seen outside his work. It’s something he uses to convince an engineer to perfect a car part for days on end or push a public relations staffer to disappear a bad story, and it’s often rescued him from the brink of failure. In Elon’s world, there is only Elon’s way. “You can always tell when someone’s left an Elon meeting: they’re defeated,” an anonymous SpaceX employee wrote on Quora in 2016. “The reason for this is that Elon’s version of reality is highly skewed.”
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was renowned for his “reality distortion field,” an unusual ability to persuade employees and followers that his seemingly impossible visions were worth realizing. Musk has one too; in the case of Unsworth, he used it to convince himself that a critic was a pedophile simply because he happened to be an older white man living in Thailand. Then, when threatened with a defamation lawsuit, Musk and his lawyers built out an alternate reality: one where he played a key role in the cave rescue, where “pedo guy” was a common playground insult, and where he did not attempt to destroy a hero who had criticized him.
“Elon has an uncanny ability to tell a story he wants to be true, convince himself that it has to be true, and then convince others,” one former Tesla executive told me after the trial.
That’s exactly what happened in Vernon Unsworth v. Elon Musk. Though a simple online search suggests that Unsworth’s name might be forever linked to pedophilia, Musk won the case by arguing that his “pedo guy” attacks on the caver didn’t explicitly mention his name, and therefore could not constitute defamation. Musk and Spiro declined to comment for this story.
It took the jury less than hour to return a verdict. As reporters rushed back into the courtroom, where phones were banned, I watched from outside, waiting to tweet the decision. Before the judge could strike his gavel, a gaggle of TV producers rushed out of the court’s double doors yelling. Unsworth sat stone-faced, his attorneys slumped in their chairs. Spiro stood with a half-blank stare, almost as if he couldn’t believe he had pulled it off.
Musk rose, nodding.
“Elon Musk is not liable for damages,” I tweeted, watching the billionaire through the glass. “He won.”
On July 13, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek published an interview with Musk in which he promised to behave better. Remarking on his Twitter account, on which he had attained a new level of bombast in the preceding months, the Tesla CEO admitted he should probably stop engaging with his critics.
“I have made the mistaken assumption — and I will attempt to be better at this — of thinking that because somebody is on Twitter and is attacking me that it is open season,” he said. “That is my mistake. I will correct it.”
It took less than two days for Musk to break that promise. On the morning of the 15th, he awoke early, opened Twitter, and clicked a link to a video interview from CNN. Musk hit play.
“He can stick his submarine where it hurts,” a man named Vernon Unsworth said of Musk. Unsworth, a Brit living in Thailand and an expert on the country’s Tham Luang cave system, was talking about the metal tube Musk had built to rescue members of a Thai boys soccer team who had been trapped in the cave for 18 days. Unsworth was convinced it couldn’t work and was irked at what he viewed as opportunism. “Just a PR stunt,” he said.
Musk watched the 43-second clip again, and again — growing increasingly angry that a man he’d never met had mocked what he viewed as a good faith effort to aid children in mortal danger. He was particularly sensitive to Unsworth’s remarks because he’d faced similar criticism on Twitter already. And he was in a particularly foul mood because his contributions to Republican lawmakers had recently dragged the company into another lousy news cycle. Musk typed Unsworth’s name into Google, followed it with a search for “Chiang Rai” — a locale near the site of the rescue — and reviewed the results. Then he tapped out a thread on Twitter, where he had some 22 million followers at the time.
“Never saw this British expat guy who lives in Thailand (sus) at any point when we were in the caves,” he wrote in a response to one critic, before saying that he would make a video showing his “mini-sub” was fully operational. “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”
To understand Musk’s crass and disproportionate response to Unsworth’s quip, you have to go back to that spring — a particularly rough one for the Tesla CEO. The company was in the middle of what Musk had sagaciously predicted would be “production hell,” and things had not been going smoothly. The crushing pressure to ship cars led to reported missteps — substandard factory conditions, high rates of worker injury, wasted materials, executive departures. And those missteps led to investigations by the likes of BuzzFeed News and plenty of unwanted media coverage.
The scrutiny put Musk in a foul mood, according to three people who worked with him at the time, and his increasingly acidic stream of consciousness bled out into real-life interactions. He called an analyst “boneheaded” on an earnings call. He tried to personally destroy an employee who leaked information about the company. And when he wasn’t working he retreated to Twitter, a place where he could “bypass journo bs,” dish on supposed Big Oil conspiracies, and flirt with the idea of a site to rate reporters.
“It started to spiral out of control,” said one person close to Musk as he quadrupled his tweeting that May. That activity, the person said, was compounded by his time in “production hell” where he put in long hours and slept in a factory conference room to meet projections.
Musk learned about the catastrophe in Thailand through Twitter. On June 23, 12 young soccer players and their coach became trapped in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave system after heavy rains flooded it. Some 12 days later, divers called in by Unsworth, who had spent years exploring the caves and was among the first on the scene, found them alive, trapped in an air pocket.
In court, Musk testified that “dozens of people” on Twitter had asked him to assist in the rescue. He initially turned down the requests, thinking the Thai government had it under control. But on July 6, Musk committed to sending engineers from SpaceX and the Boring Company, his tunneling startup, to Thailand after what he described as “active conversations with the Thai government.”
Following an email exchange with a British diver on-site named Rick Stanton, Musk proposed rescuing the boys in a rigid metallic tube, or mini submarine, large enough to tightly enclose “a 15-year-old boy.” But by the time he tweeted footage of the device being tested in a California swimming pool, the main effort to extract the boys, which involved sedating them and swimming them out, was well underway. Nevertheless, Rick Stanton — a diver on the scene who gave Musk some rough specifications — urged the billionaire to continue development as a just-in-case measure.
Later, after the trial, Stanton would say it wasn’t until he saw photos and video of the tube in action that he thought it had no chance of working. Reviewing footage of a test that happened in a sunny California pool, he noticed issues with buoyancy and air capacity. Compounding these concerns, the testing conditions were not at all comparable to the narrow, murky conditions of the cave.
“I think [Musk] had worrying intentions,” said Stanton, who had been prevented from discussing the tube at length on the stand in December. “Surely, there must have been a point when these engineers decided it was not possible … and he decided to bring it on-site anyway and showboat.”
On July 9, Musk dropped off the mini sub in Thailand. He took a tour of the caves before departing for his hotel and eventually heading to Shanghai for business. Musk never met Unsworth or Stanton. The tube was never tested on-site and was ultimately never used.
But shortly after the last boys were extracted, the tube became a lightning rod for renewed criticism. And Musk didn’t take it well. When Narongsak Osatanakorn, a provincial governor who oversaw part of the rescue, said the tube didn’t really fit with the mission, Musk dismissed Osatanakorn, tweeting that he wasn’t a true rescue expert. (Musk’s staff later unsuccessfully pressured the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles to lobby Osatanakorn to reverse his statement.)
By the time he watched Unsworth’s CNN interview, Musk had been getting blasted online for the mini sub for five days straight. His tweets about the British caver took that vitriol to another level. “Cave Diver Criticizes Musk’s Kid-Sub Rescue Plan. Musk Suggests He’s A Pedophile,” read one headline from the Los Angeles Times, while Bloomberg News went with “Musk Labels U.K. Diver As Pedophile In Spat Over Thai Rescue.” To hundreds of publications around the world, the target of Musk’s ire and the implication of his comment seemed quite clear.
A few days later, Musk deleted the tweets and issued a half-hearted apology. But the damage was done. His posts had been screenshotted, shared, written up, and seen by millions. He couldn’t take them back.
In December, as court commenced on a Tuesday in balmy Southern California — 506 days after Musk’s “pedo guy” tweet — the only thing missing in Vernon Unsworth v. Elon Musk was the defendant. Ten floors below the courtroom, photographers and TV reporters had spent the morning jostling for position only to be disappointed when the billionaire failed to show up for opening arguments.
For Musk’s critics, the defamation trial was a barometer: Could a powerful man with virtually unlimited resources be held accountable for his shitty behavior? A little more than a year ago, Musk had been accused of lying about having the necessary funding to take his electric car company private at $420 a share; he had pushed misleading projections about Model 3 deliveries and was being investigated for discouraging workers from unionizing. Around that time, Tesla was also undercounting workers’ injuries at its factories.
Musk walked away from all that with a half-hearted spanking: a $20 million fine (he’s currently worth $34 billion) and an order to relinquish his role as Tesla chair (he remains CEO). In Unsworth’s civil case, former employees who’d been treated unfairly, short sellers who were out for blood, and aspiring Tesla owners still waiting for their car, saw the chance for catharsis. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley wondered how the hell the case had gotten this far. It seemed a senseless waste of time and bandwidth for someone who rarely had either.
Jury selection was a case study in Musk’s influence. Of the 40 or so prospective jurors, about a fifth were dismissed for having some connection to the billionaire. Among those who departed was a man with an upcoming interview at SpaceX. Among those who remained included an owner of two Teslas.
Judge Stephen V. Wilson’s instructions to the three-man, five-woman jury were straightforward. Defamation, among the hardest allegations to prove in a US court, could only be established if Musk’s tweets met five criteria:
1) Whether he said his statements to more than one person other than Unsworth.
2) Whether a reasonable person could understand the tweets were about Unsworth.
3) Whether a reasonable person understood the tweets meant Unsworth was a pedophile.
4) Whether the statements were false.
5) Whether the Tesla CEO failed to use reasonable care when determining the truth or falsity of the statements.
In opening arguments, only the defense seemed to take the judge’s jury instructions to heart. The plaintiff trotted out a junior member of the legal team who gave a dry, matter-of-fact explanation of what had happened and asserted that “pedo guy” was a clear accusation of sexual activity with children. Arguing for the defense, Spiro took a different approach. This was “an argument between two men,” he said, with “insults understood as insults, not literal statements of fact.” He even had a nice acronym for the main offending tweet: JDART, a “joking, deleted, apologized for, responsive tweet.”
After opening arguments, Musk arrived, entering court accompanied by four guards to take the stand. Elevated in the witness box, he spoke with a halting, childish nervousness, crossing and uncrossing his arms and pursing his lips as the plaintiff’s lead attorney, L. Lin Wood, began his questioning.
“Twitter is a free-for-all where there’s all sorts of things that sort of aren’t true, untrue, half-true, uh, where people engage in sort of verbal combat effectively,” Musk said. “Uh, yeah. I mean, there’s everything on Twitter.”
There was a Trumpian quality to Musk’s answers that recalled what his former business partner Peter Thiel said about then-candidate before the 2016 presidential election: Take him “seriously, but not literally.” Musk has used his Twitter seriously, and the company listed the account as a source for information in a 2013 financial filing. He frequently publishes projections for Tesla. But any reasonable sampling of his tweets would also include dumb jokes, memes, and the conversational detritus for which Twitter is known. That stuff is often a convenient foundation for the “I was just joking” defense used by so many people walking back missteps on the modern web. It certainly was for Musk.
“Just as he was using an idiomatic phrase, and I assume he did not literally mean to sodomize me with a submarine, then I also did not literally mean he was a pedophile,” he said. “I just meant he was a creep.”
As Wood — an experienced defamation lawyer who had represented the likes of wrongly accused Atlanta Olympics security guard Richard Jewell and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson — tried to pin responsibility on Musk, the billionaire dodged, his voice soft against the attorney’s aggressive Georgian drawl: Are you one of the most influential people in the world? Not really, the president didn’t take my advice to remain in the Paris climate accords. Do you choose your words carefully for the public? Not everything I say is thoughtful. Do you have a large number of public relations professionals who work for you? I have no PR team personally, and we don’t really have much of a public relations team at Tesla.
The journalists covering the trial looked up quizzically. Some had corresponded with Tesla communications members in recent weeks. In the galley, a staffer, who had fielded press requests for Musk’s tunneling startup and served as his de facto handler for the trial, watched, unblinking.
While BuzzFeed News interviewed former staffers at Tesla and SpaceX for a May 2018 story about Musk’s combative relationship with the press, many people remarked on his thin skin. Some of them recalled being woken up in the middle of the night to respond to a blog post or tweet critical of a Musk company. On the stand, Musk admitted to having a Google alert for his own name to track headlines about himself. Others noted that Musk sometimes tweeted about unfinished features or plans that hadn’t been shared, forcing fire drills to finish or manage them. “He tweets it, therefore it is,” a former staffer told one of my colleagues, while we were reporting the story.
Musk’s claim that “pedo guy” was not an accusation of pedophilia came 13 months after his tweet, and four months before the trial. When he deleted the insult a few hours after posting it on July 15, 2018, he didn’t claim it was a joke or benign. In a tweet a few days later, the Tesla chief only said he had written the words “in anger” and that Unsworth’s criticism did “not justify my actions against him.”
But at his pretrial deposition in August 2019, Musk began claiming that the phrase was from his South African upbringing, a slang term for a “creepy old white guy.” He would continue that argument on the stand, telling Wood he hadn’t explained the meaning of his tweets before August because no one had asked him.
Three people who worked with Musk in July 2018 and spoke with me on the condition of anonymity said they had had never heard the Tesla CEO use that argument prior to his deposition. Online, a number of South Africans also disagreed with the notion that “pedo guy” was slang, while reporters found little evidence that it was a common phrase in the country or anywhere else on the internet. Urban Dictionary’s first entry for “pedo guy” didn’t appear until after Musk’s tweets.
As an argument for Musk’s defense, characterizing “pedo guy” as a playground insult seemed shaky at best, ludicrous at worst. Either way, it was an opportunity for Wood to knock some wind out of the defendant. But he rarely seemed to land a solid punch. At times, he stumbled with his own evidence, misreading emails or demonstrating a poor understanding of the mechanics of Twitter. On more than a few occasions, his argumentative exchanges with Musk resulted in objections from Spiro and reprimands from the judge, who became increasingly hostile to the plaintiff’s attorney as the trial wore on.
One of Wood’s biggest failures was his inability to speak to Wilson’s directive on whether “a reasonable person” would interpret Musk’s “pedo guy” insult as an accusation of pedophilia. No evidence or witnesses were brought in to dispute the notion that the phrase was common in South Africa or on the internet prior to Musk using it. And while Wood later brought in an academic as an expert witness to testify to how many headlines the phrase had generated around the world, Spiro neutered the evidence in pretrial motions and prevented the witness from talking about their impact. No specific articles showing how news outlets interpreted the tweets were allowed by the judge either.
It seemed to be an oversight, more so given Wood’s decision to pursue Unsworth’s claim on Musk’s tweets, and not on other potentially damning communications that had been offered as supplementary evidence. The plaintiff’s attorneys presented those communications in court, but Wilson advised the jury it could only be used to help assess Musk’s state of mind.
As Wood started to read that evidence — including an email in which Musk suggested Unsworth was a “child rapist” who took a 12-year-old bride — into the record, I felt a few gazes shift in my direction. One of Unsworth’s lawyers turned and gave me a weak smile, which I pretended not to notice as I scribbled notes. Musk had written the emails to me.
“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.”
The opening words of Musk’s email to me were so confusing that I checked the sender twice to make sure it was actually from him. It was only the second email he’d ever sent me. I had never met the billionaire nor talked to him on the phone; save for a few trolling interactions on Twitter, I had not interacted with him prior to this email chain.
I reached out Aug. 29, 2018, after Musk had wondered aloud on Twitter why Unsworth hadn’t sued him yet over his “pedo guy” comment. That morning, I had learned an attorney for Unsworth had sent Musk a letter earlier that month suggesting he would take legal action if he didn’t properly apologize, and I sought comment. In an email with the subject “BuzzFeed News: Unsworth legal letter,” I asked about the “British diver” in the second sentence.
“Have you actually done any research at all?” Musk responded. “For example, you incorrectly state that he is a diver, which shows that you know essentially nothing and have not even bothered to research basic facts.”
I brushed off his criticism, which didn’t answer the basics of my inquiry around the letter. I sent him a response noting that Unsworth had done some cave diving in the past and again asked for comment. When he didn’t reply, I tried again the next day. He replied shortly thereafter on Aug. 30 in a diatribe he prefaced with “off the record” — a term we had not previously discussed or agreed to.
Sometimes people think the words “off the record” are a magic command and, once uttered, immediately go into effect to hide what comes after. But in reality, a journalist and their source have to both agree to that condition before it can be established. Musk and I did not.
“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. “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 included a link to a Google search for “chiang rai child trafficking” and ended his message by suggesting the Aug. 6 letter from Unsworth’s lawyer was a response to his tweet the day before.
“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 concluded.
I read the emails again and texted my editors: “Holy shit.”
Less than an hour later, he emailed again. This time he topped his message with “on background,” suggesting he thought I could use the material if it wasn’t attributed to him. Again, we had no prior agreement. Attached to the email was a signed letter from the Thai prime minister thanking Musk for the construction of the mini sub.
“Unsworth also said I was asked to leave by the Thai govt, which is utterly false,” Musk wrote. “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.”
My editors and I discussed Musk’s messages and determined they were fair game to publish. They were newsworthy — showing a powerful billionaire setting out to destroy a man over some offhand criticism. And, without an established agreement between reporter and subject, they were on the record, as Musk, who’s had decades’ worth of press encounters, should have known. More importantly, the billionaire seemed to be alleging Unsworth was a pedophile without a shred of supporting evidence. He was essentially suggesting I investigate his tip.
We spent Labor Day weekend reporting on Musk’s claims. We spoke to rescuers who’d worked with Unsworth, including some who swam some of the boys out of the cave. We interviewed Rick Stanton, the British diver who had corresponded with Musk. We reached out to government officials in the United Kingdom and Thailand and tracked down Unsworth’s social media accounts. Eventually, I tracked down the Facebook page for the business of Unsworth’s partner, Woranan “Tik” Ratrawiphukkun, who confirmed to me that she was Unsworth’s longtime girlfriend. Calling him “Vern,” she said they had dated seven years, something supported by photos of them together on their Facebook and Instagram accounts. She was 40, she said. And when asked about Musk’s tweets, Tik declined to comment, telling me to talk to Unsworth’s lawyers.
By the morning of Sept. 4, we had finished our story. I reached out to Musk to offer him a chance to comment on our reporting.
“We haven’t had a conversation at all,” Musk replied.” “If you want to publish off the record comments and destroy your journalistic credibility, that’s up to you.”
We published our article later that day, despite a Tesla spokesperson’s efforts to kill it. Unsworth officially sued Musk for defamation two weeks later, using Musk’s tweets and his emails to me as the basis of his complaint. Discovery in the case would later surface an email sent to an adviser at the time in which Musk described himself as “a fucking idiot” for messaging a reporter without establishing an off-the-record agreement first.
Still, the fact that he sent the emails, a move so sloppy and risky, never sat right with me, and I never understood where he was coming from. It wasn’t until after months of legal motions and discovery that the shady origins of those accusations became clear.
In July 2018, a man identifying himself as James Howard emailed Musk’s personal assistant claiming to be a private investigator, according to court documents. “You may want to dig deep into Mr. Unsworth[‘s] past to prepare for his defamation claim,” the mysterious sender wrote in a note that was forwarded to Musk’s chief of staff. “No smoke without fire!”
The following month, after Wood had sent Unsworth’s initial legal threat, Musk directed Jared Birchall, the head of his family office, to retain Howard, who had subsequently claimed to have worked for billionaire George Soros and the late Microsoft founder Paul Allen. Birchall hired the man and wired him some $52,000 to begin investigating Unsworth. He made no effort to verify Howard’s credentials or claims, which a BuzzFeed News investigation later found to be false. He wasn’t a PI. He was James Howard-Higgins, a convicted felon who BuzzFeed News later found had spent time in prison for defrauding his business partners.
By mid-August, Howard-Higgins was feeding Birchall dubious information and suggested he had boots on the ground tracking the caver in the UK and Thailand. “Early feedback on the target is there is indeed an unpleasant undertone to some of his lifestyle choices,” Howard-Higgins 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.” In court, Wood would also show email exchanges in which Birchall asked the supposed private investigator to leak information to the UK press to sully Unsworth.
On Aug. 27, Birchall emailed Howard-Higgins requesting more explicit information about the British caver. Claiming there were “planned attacks in the media and/or a lawsuit,” he provided a list of 14 specific questions for Howard-Higgins. Among them: inquiries about a possible divorce in the UK, whether Unsworth had met “his wife” in Thailand, and whether his Thai partner was “the 10th teenage girl he met before he decided to settle.” Howard-Higgins replied with a dossier on Unsworth, which, among other things, suggested that he met his wife when she was 18 or 19. This information, according to that document, was still being verified.
But all that information was wrong. Unsworth was not married to his Thai partner, who was much older than what Howard-Higgins had suggested to Birchall. Beyond that, there was no mention of the idea that Unsworth had taken a 12-year-old bride, something Musk would later relay to me.
On the stand, Musk, who never directly communicated with the investigator, said he’d heard that information from Birchall. In his testimony, Birchall only said that he told Musk that Unsworth had met his partner when she was 12, not that they got married then. Regardless, there was never any physical documentation of Howard-Higgins saying that Unsworth had married or even met a 12-year-old.
“Unfortunately, it turns out we were tricked,” Musk said on the stand.
Two former Tesla executives would later tell me that Musk’s hiring of an investigator was a perfect example of his reality-warping intentions. At Tesla, sources said, Musk would often convince himself something was possible — production goals, certain self-driving capabilities, skirting legal measures — and would overrule people whose job it was to manage those tasks. Engineers were hired and fired on the basis of their ability to realize an idea that Musk had predetermined had to be possible.
“He hired the PI because he needed to make it true,” one told me. “In the end, people are just working to justify his ego rather than anything else.”
They also explained Musk’s thought process for emailing me unsubstantiated claims about Unsworth. Musk, the executive said, would sometimes seed information to a third party, like a credulous journalist who might publish it in a story. In turn, he would endorse and share that story with millions of followers, creating a feedback loop of reinforcing opinions.
As the evidence mounted ahead of the trial, Musk refused to give in to what he later termed a “shakedown.” Though he wrangled with a Securities and Exchange Commission probe into his Tesla privatization fiasco, a National Labor Relations Board case on Tesla illegally discouraging workers from organizing, and a NASA safety investigation prompted by him smoking weed during an interview, Musk fought the lawsuit over a 15-month period. During that time, three general counsels and at least three top communications staffers left Tesla. He even fired the first law firm he had hired for the Unsworth case.
Because Musk’s emails to me were part of Unsworth’s initial complaint, I also became entangled in the case. Both sides requested my deposition, and Musk’s requests seemed particularly invasive, asking questions that seemed to get at my newsgathering process and relationships with sources. At one point a process server showed up at BuzzFeed’s San Francisco office while I wasn’t there and sat in our entryway until an editor threatened to call the police.
BuzzFeed News successfully fought off Musk’s subpoena, while Unsworth eventually dropped his. Following that, the plaintiff’s lawyers — who had spent much of the year attempting to build a case partially on Musk’s emails to me — decided they would not use them in court as grounds for defamation, opting to instead sue only over his “pedo guy” tweets.
It was a puzzling choice, abandoning what some experts thought were Musk’s most defamatory statements about the plaintiff. Perhaps Wood had determined Musk’s statements to me hadn’t reached as wide an audience as his original tweets did. Perhaps they worried a discussion about what “on the record” and “off the record” mean would add too much complexity. Wood later declined to answer questions about his legal strategy.
If Musk is the megalomaniac billionaire who dreams of colonizing Mars (and dying there), Unsworth is his antithesis. A quiet man most at home exploring the depths of the Earth, the Brit was unknown until summoned to help the Thai boys soccer team. His public persona since has been defined by media coverage of the rescue, the fallout from the fateful 43-second CNN interview clip, and the few images of him that exist on wire services and are reused with every article. But when I spoke with him at length after the trial he came a bit more into focus.
The first time we spoke, in the presence of one of his lawyers the day after the trial, I expected to find a defeated man. Instead, Unsworth was bright, if not enthusiastic, chiming in to fill the gaps of his lawyer’s laments and exuding a certain Englishness by saying he’d “take the result on the chin.” He appeared happy it was over.
Our conversations, which continued over the phone, countered the image of the rough, emotionless exterior Unsworth displayed in court. We spoke and texted about his interests: his love of caving and Tham Luang; the incredible undefeated streak of his favorite soccer team, Liverpool; and his optimism for Brexit now that the Conservative Party was in control. His texts were liberally punctuated with prayer hands and laughing-crying face emojis that made it feel like I was communicating with an overly enthusiastic teen. But when we talked, it was mainly about the trial, and his worries that the defense’s portrayal would cast doubt on his heroic efforts.
During one of our calls, I Googled Unsworth’s name. The first result was a Dec. 7 article from the Sun titled “Who Is Vernon Unsworth? Thailand Cave Diver Dubbed ‘Paedo Guy’ By Elon Musk.” He sighed when I read it aloud.
“That’s not going to go away,” he said. “The pedo tag is always there. … It’s still difficult to understand why the jury got it so wrong.”
The trial had been particularly difficult for Unsworth. Though he didn’t pay for legal representation — Wood took the case on contingency and funded it with more than $400,000 from his firm’s coffers — the personal cost was quite high. On the stand, the Brit had his personal life exposed and interrogated. He was questioned about his estranged wife and daughter who make up his broken family. And the UK tabloids, who sent staffers to cover every moment of the trial, wrote at length about his life in Thailand with his new partner, Tik.
Defense attorneys also read unflattering texts into the record in which Unsworth disparaged the Thai Navy SEALs for their incompetence. They misrepresented a satirical YouTube video created by a friend to portray him as a fame-seeker hungry for movie deals and diminished his crucial contributions to the cave rescue. Unsworth wasn’t a hero, lead defense attorney Alex Spiro suggested, the true heroes were the divers.
On the stand, Unsworth appeared unprepared for what seemed an obvious and important line of questioning. The caver said he felt “humiliated, ashamed, dirty” by Musk’s label, which he called “a life sentence without parole.” There were times he felt vulnerable, he added, his voice cracking: “I have good days and I have bad days.”
But when Spiro pressed him on that, Unsworth stumbled. Had he sought out a therapist to help temper his emotional anguish? Had Musk’s insult caused him to lose any jobs or friends? Did he discuss it with his family? “I bottled it up,” he said on the stand.
The defense painted Unsworth as a man unharmed by the insult and instead widely lauded in the months following the rescue. In the trial, they showed photographs and videos of Unsworth being congratulated by the UK prime minister, palling with Thai government officials, and smiling while Prince William pinned him with an MBE, an appointment to the Order of the British Empire. It was calculated and effective. If the defense was going to lose the argument around the semantics of “pedo guy,” it would at the very least try to limit damages.
Unsworth’s lawyers, on the other hand, called no witnesses who could have proven Musk’s words harmed their client’s reputation. Wood played a video deposition of Unsworth’s estranged wife seemingly to establish sympathy for the plaintiff, but it only ended up showcasing a broken marriage. And he never called Tik, who could have corroborated his claims of pain and anguish. Spiro called no witnesses for the defense.
After the case concluded, Unsworth bristled at the efforts from the defense to belittle his contributions, including one moment where he had been asked by an attorney whether or not he felt like he needed to apologize to Musk. He spoke of how he and Tik had been investigated by four different sets of Thai authorities, including immigration police, following Musk’s tweets. Unsworth also recalled his embarrassment when Prince William mentioned the altercation during the MBE ceremony.
It’s hard to say if those anecdotes would have made a difference, but it’s worth noting that none of the four jurors I interviewed after the trial found Unsworth to be a particularly sympathetic figure. Two of them agreed with the defense’s position that this was an argument between two men and that Unsworth had started it with his remark on CNN. All four said the caver’s team had done little to establish harm, with one calling that failure the “nail in the coffin for his case.” Another said that they viewed both men, the Brit and the billionaire, as heroes caught up in a juvenile spat.
“That’s where they’re wrong,” Unsworth said. “None of us rescuers or divers — none of us — regard ourselves as heroes. So why is Elon Musk a hero? Look up in the dictionary the definition of ‘hero.’ He’s not done anything that’s worthy of hero status.
“But if there is a hero of either one of us, I’d hope that arrow be pointed at me.”
Musk was playing The Battle Of Polytopia — a mobile game “about ruling the world, fighting evil AI tribes, discovering new lands and mastering new technologies” — when I ran into him in the elevator on the day of the verdict. I hadn’t seen him in court since the day of his testimony.
“Are you allowed to talk about the case?” I asked.
“Are you going to sit for the jury verdict?”
“I… I think so,” he stammered, clearly miffed at being distracted from his mobile game. The elevator door opened before I could follow up, and Musk’s guards cut me off as he exited. I’m still not sure if he knew who I was.
Outside the room, Wood seemed nervous. A day earlier, the Georgia lawyer held court with reporters, twirling a Juul between his fingers as he spoke. “Vernon Unsworth wants a verdict, and we’re going to get him a one, good or bad,” he remarked — an odd thing to say about a case he had taken on contingency. Then he told us he planned to retire at his lake house following the jury’s decision.
Wood was more on message during his closing arguments. With the manner of a Southern Baptist preacher, he declared the rescue of the Thai soccer team “a miracle from God” and compared Musk’s tweets to “a nuclear bomb” that decimated Unsworth and created fallout that would affect him for years to come. He told the jury of his commitment to Unsworth and his faith in the rule of law. He suggested Musk became involved in the cave rescue because “publicity drives attention, attention drives investors” — a remark that certainly went over well with the Tesla critics who’d begun following him on Twitter. He was ruddy with passion; at one point, Wilson asked him to keep his emotions in check. Then it got personal.
“Elon Musk is a liar,” Wood said. “How do I know it? I don’t know Elon Musk. I’ve seen him in his deposition. I’ve seen him a couple of times in the courtroom. He walked by me. I’ve never shaken Elon Musk’s hand. He refused to shake my hand.”
Wood never managed to explain just why he thought Musk was a liar, but the billionaire certainly has a propensity for playing fast and loose with the truth — I’d heard this endlessly from former employees, confidants, and investors. But had Musk lied in court? His legal team’s retelling of events was certainly generous, but if there had been a truly egregious falsehood on the stand, I hadn’t heard it. And Wood had never flagged it. The jury seemed unmoved by his hand-waving.
Wood’s request for damages evoked a similar, if not worse, response. With a giant marker, he wrote a bunch of numbers on a large white poster board: for actual damages, defined as the suffering the plaintiff had experienced, $5 million. For assumed damages, the hypothetical harm the plaintiff could have endured from the defendant’s reckless words, $35 million. And for punitive damages, the amount intended to discourage a man worth tens of billions of dollars from doing this again, $150 million.
I saw one juror struggling to conceal a smirk as Wood wrote out the total. $190 million was an extraordinary number. Had it been granted, it would have been one of the largest-ever awards given in an individual defamation case.
The sum did not go over well with the jury. After the trial, a number of jurors told me they couldn’t understand those eye-popping numbers, particularly with no clear evidence of harm. “I couldn’t put a dollar amount on ‘I have good days and bad days,’” one said. “I have bad days too, but I don’t walk around saying people should give me $2 million.” Another said the jury considered ruling against Musk and then awarding a symbolic $1 to Unsworth.
Outside the courtroom, there was a similar reaction; impressions of the British caver had soured. Twitter users worried about the optics of asking for that much money, while some found Unsworth to be a money-grubber. On a message board used by the Brits living in Thailand — an online community that Unsworth sometimes frequented — members debated the request. “Guilty but not $200m guilty,” wrote one person.
Damages had been Wood’s call, according to the cave rescuer. But for Unsworth, who makes £25,000 a year as a financial adviser, they made sense. How do you sanction a man with seemingly unlimited resources? Any number that sought punitive recourse against a billionaire is going to look preposterous, and they had to outline something for the jury. “[The money] wouldn’t have affected Musk anyway,” Unsworth told me.
Musk’s legal team used the damages request as a cudgel. Noting the reaction in the courtroom, Spiro mocked the sum in his closing argument. “And all of a sudden I hear numbers being thrown out like this is The Price Is Right or something,” he quipped. “They certainly weren’t wedded to any evidence.”
That argument seemed to resonate with the jury, as did a series of rhetorical questions delivered with a steady cadence. “Where’s Tik?” Spiro asked again and again, a reminder that Unsworth hadn’t even called his partner to testify about the emotional and mental impact of Musk’s remark. Then there was contrition: “Listen, Mr. Musk apologized. He doesn’t like those tweets. The shareholders didn’t like the tweets. Elon’s mom didn’t like the tweets. But he didn’t say that this nameless dude committed the crime of pedophilia.”
That last line, an almost throwaway point barely discussed in the days prior ended up being the killshot. Musk’s tweet didn’t mention Unsworth by name, Spiro explained. If the “reasonable person” Wilson described in his instructions to the jury stumbled across Musk’s tweets, how would they know whom he was talking about?
“In no way did I think that the Musk tweet was justified or fair — but on the other hand, well, he didn’t mention Unsworth,” juror Carl Shusterman told me. An immigration lawyer who had admitted during jury selection that he owned two Teslas, Shusterman said that the group of eight considered all of the judge’s five criteria. But once they agreed the average person wouldn’t understand the tweet was about the caver, they had their verdict.
It took less than an hour. They barely had time to finish lunch.
I struggled to understand the logic. If the tweets were analyzed in a vacuum without any context, sure, a reasonable person might have no idea who Musk was writing about. But beyond that vacuum is context accessible within seconds — thousands of news articles and videos, innumerable tweets, and the biggest search engine in the world tying the words “pedo guy” to Unsworth’s name in perpetuity. Spiro’s assertion was convincing on some level, but it was also preposterous. The jury’s decision seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how people use the internet.
“This was a great ‘internet isn’t real life’ moment,” Ken White, a First Amendment lawyer who blogs as Popehat, told me a few weeks after the case. “What people online think is obvious and self-evident … is not how people in the courtroom see it. People were frequently shocked that there was any potential defense of the case, and they felt so strongly about these things that they mistook those feelings for law.”
Musk left the courtroom visibly smug. “My faith in humanity is restored,” he said to a scrum of reporters before disappearing into an elevator surrounded by his security team. That night, Tesla’s general counsel quit — the third to do so in a year. A few days later, Musk blocked me and a handful of other journalists on Twitter.
In the weeks that followed, a buoyant Musk would take to the streets of Los Angeles in his Cybertruck prototype, hang out with Kanye West and the Kardashians, and pal around with presidential hopeful Andrew Yang. He celebrated Tesla’s stock hitting an all-time high with memes about $420, the weed-associated number associated with his attempt to take the company private in 2018. January saw him dancing enthusiastically onstage at a Shanghai factory that became the first to manufacture Model 3s in China. Tesla’s market capitalization recently surpassed the $100 billion mark.
But those who know Musk say they’re not sure the billionaire and his car company will be able to maintain this momentum. “In his mind, he’s emerged unscathed — ‘Tesla’s stock price is up and I’m still in my job’ — but if there’s any one word for that stock, it’s ‘volatility,’” one former executive said. “It just looks like good news because it’s contrasted against a past avalanche of bad news.”
Another person, this one more of a Musk optimist, worried this legal victory would only supercharge one of the billionaire’s most difficult-to-wrangle instincts. “The lawsuit reinforced what he believes is his best strategy: ‘When everyone else is telling me not to do it, I’m going to do it,’” they said.
A week after the trial’s conclusion, Wood inexplicably tweeted an observation that seemed to contradict the arguments he had made in federal court. “The verdict in Unsworth v. Musk spoke the truth,” the lawyer wrote. “While written as possible libel, Elon Musk only intended an insult. Thus, no factual statements were intended. Truth removes any question marks as to Vern’s reputation. Truth wins. So do both parties.”
As critics promptly hammered Wood online and suggested he had left his client out to dry, I wondered if he had just become the latest person to buy into Musk’s reality distortion field. So I asked him whether he still felt the same way about Musk.
“His image has been built to a level that only the most serious of charges could shatter it,” Wood wrote to me. “I hope I am wrong about him. I hope he takes people to Mars one day. But I know what I learned from the evidence.”
I closed Wood’s message and opened my email account. As I did, I saw a reminder to follow up on a note a few days earlier. I had sent it on the final day of the trial, in the blurry hours after the jury let Musk off the hook. “Hey Elon, any thoughts on the verdict?” I had written. He never responded, on or off the record
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