Elon Musk paid a convicted fraudster to smear a British diving hero who he baselessly called a paedophile, according to court documents.
The billionaire technology entrepreneur allegedly orchestrated a “malicious, false, and anonymous leak campaign” in a bid to trash the reputation of Vernon Unsworth, who helped to rescue a schoolboy football team trapped in a cave in Thailand last year.
The diver launched a defamation lawsuit last year after Mr Musk called him a “peado guy” and “child rapist”. He also suggested he had married a 12-year-old girl.
In documents filed at the US District Court in California, Mr Unsworth’s team described Mr Musk as a “thin-skilled billionaire” who set out to “falsely destroy” their client because he felt insulted by criticism of a submarine the inventor had offered to help the cave rescue.
Mr Unsworth had called the offer a “PR stunt” which had “absolutely no chance of working” and told Mr Musk to “stick his submarine where it hurts”.
“Like the bully that he is, Musk chose to lash out publicly at the criticism only by falsely attacking Unsworth, a relatively unknown individual, and publicly challenging him to sue for libel,” wrote the diver’s lawyer, Lucian Lin Wood, in the court filing.
“Unsworth accepted Musk’s challenge in order to redress the false attacks on his reputation,” he added.
Last month Musk’s legal team sought to have the lawsuit dismissed in a court document which the Space X founder claimed “peado guy” was “a common insult used in South Africa”. He said the expression was synonymous with “creepy old man” and was not meant to “accuse Mr Unsworth of engaging in acts of paedophilia”.
Musk also claimed an August 2018 email to a BuzzFeed News journalist in which he referred to Mr Unsworth as a “child rapist” was based on a private investigator’s report that he did not know at the time was false. He later admitted he was “a f***ing idiot” for sending the email.
Mr Unsworth’s legal team said Musk’s accusations were “false, defamatory, and were published negligently and with actual malice”.
“Musk knows the truth but will not admit it,” Mr Wood wrote.
According to the court filing, Musk paid $52,000 (£43,000) to a supposed “private investigator” who he did not vet for reliability and later described as a “con man” who was “just taking us for a ride”. The investigator, James Howard-Higgins, was jailed in 2016 for stealing more than £420,000 from his maritime company’s accounts.
Mr Howard-Higgins told Mr Musk that Mr Unsworth had met his wife when she was “at least 18 or 19 years old” but the inventor “nonetheless told the BuzzFeed reporter that Mr Unsworth is a child rapist who married a 12-year-old child bride,” noted the document, which added the diver had in fact met his partner when she was 32.
The investigator, who admitted to Mr Musk that none of his information had been verified, was offered a $10,000 (£8,200) bonus for “successful confirmation of nefarious behaviour” by Mr Unsworth, whose lawyers said the bonus was “never paid before no such evidence exists”.
Having failed to uncover dirt on the diver, the court documents allege, Mr Musk ordered Mr Howard-Higgins to “immediately move forward” with leaking information to the UK press “to plant an unflattering story” about Mr Unsworth and young girls “without any disclosure that it was coming from Elon Musk”.
The case is set to go to trial on 22 October.