Washington - "Pedo guy," the insult Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk notoriously slung at a Thai cave rescuer last summer, doesn't mean what you think it does.
It does not mean that somebody is actually a "pedophile guy," or that he is a criminal pedophile who preys on children, Musk explained in court documents filed Monday.
"Pedo guy" is a "common insult used in South Africa when I was growing up," the billionaire said in a declaration. "It is synonymous with 'creepy old man' and is used to insult a person's appearance and demeanor, not accuse a person of acts of pedophilia."
That's now part of Musk's defence in the federal defamation lawsuit filed against him by the man he called "pedo guy," Vernon Unsworth, a cave explorer who assisted in the famous rescue of a Thai soccer team from the flooded cave in July 2018. Musk, who attempted to assist in the rescue by building a mini submarine, attacked Unsworth on Twitter after the British man insulted Musk's rescue plan in a CNN interview.
Court documents filed Monday reveal the lengths Musk went to prove that he was justified in calling Unsworth a "pedo guy" - including hiring a private investigator to compile a dossier on him. Musk said in a deposition that he started to fear Unsworth could be the next Jeffrey Epstein, basing his conjecture on unsubstantiated information from the private investigator.
"What if we have another Jeffrey Epstein on our hands?" he said he thought.
"When I said 'pedo guy,' I didn't mean that he was literally a pedophile; it was just an insult. But after getting this information from this investigator," Musk said in a deposition, "I was like, well, maybe he is actually a pedophile. Is this possible?"
No, say Unsworth and his attorneys.
"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 attorney, L. Lin Wood, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "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."
The saga began when Unsworth wounded the multibillionaire's pride during a TV interview with CNN, describing Musk's efforts to assist with the cave rescue as "just a PR stunt." Musk had mobilised more than 50 of his best engineers to put together several strategies about how they could reach the 12 members of the Thai boys' soccer team and their coach trapped in the pitch-black cavern, one of which involved evacuating them on a mini submarine, Musk explained in court documents.
Unsworth, who assisted in the rescue on the ground, told CNN that Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts."
"It just had absolutely no chance of working," he said.
Musk said he was shocked by the insult from a person he had never met, so he decided to Google him. He said he found out Unsworth lived in Chiang Rai province in Thailand and read a random article claiming it was a "hot-spot for child prostitution and sex-trafficking."
And that's how Musk decided to send out a tweet that challenged Unsworth's involvement in the cave rescue and concluded, "Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it."
Soon, amid mass internet backlash, Musk got an unsolicited email from a private investigator offering his services to dip into Unsworth's private life, according to court documents. It apparently sounded like a good idea to Musk.
So one of Musk's representatives retained the investigator for more than $50 000.
The investigator dug up dubious information without citing sources or providing detail about how he learned any of it - for example, speculating about the age that Unsworth's younger wife would have been when they met, but cautioning the intel hadn't been verified. Still, the speculation was enough for Musk to email a BuzzFeed News reporter to accuse Unsworth of being a "child rapist" who had taken a "child bride who was about 12 years old at the time." Musk insists now the comments should have been honored as an off-the-record statement.
But BuzzFeed went ahead with the story, saying it did not agree to the conversation being off the record. Unsworth cited those comments to BuzzFeed as part of the defamation case.
Musk's attorneys argue that because he did not intend for those statements to be published, and was only hoping BuzzFeed would investigate them further, it's not defamation. As for "pedo guy," his attorneys argue that Musk's statement should be seen as a "throwaway insult," not a factual assertion.
They admit in their motion for summary judgment filed Monday in the Central District of California that the private investigator's dossier was not based on "solid evidence," but say Musk didn't know that and was justified in basing his "child rapist" statements on the investigator's claims.
"Although it turns out that the investigator lacked solid evidence of Mr. Unsworth's behaviour, that does not matter here," the attorneys wrote.
The case is set for a hearing on October 28 in Los Angeles.