Elon Musk on the Stand: ‘Pedo Guy’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Pedophile’

On the top floor of a Los Angeles courthouse, lawyers for a British diver and a billionaire tech CEO sparred over a linguistic dilemma: Does the phrase pedo guy necessarily mean pedophile?

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, had tweeted the insult about Vernon Unsworth, the diver, in July 2018. Unsworth later sued for defamation. But in court on Tuesday, Musk advanced a defense he first made in a deposition in August: Pedo guy, he said, did not actually mean pedophile but the slightly less villainous creepy old man.

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In the deposition, Musk had traced that definition to his childhood in South Africa, where he claimed that pedo guy is a common insult. But in court Tuesday, on the opening day of testimony in Unsworth’s suit, Musk broadened the claim. Pedo guy means creepy not just in South Africa but across the English-speaking world. “This is quite common on the internet,” Musk said. “If you Googled it now, that’s what it would show.”

The bizarre tangle of events stretches back to a high-profile crisis in June 2018, when flooding left a group of 12 young soccer players and their coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. As the days dragged into early July, a Thai Navy Seal died while attempting to rescue the children. Worse, as The Washington Post warned, monsoon rains threatened to flood the cave even further.

Musk, who had been following the news, declared on Twitter that he would step in. Though no one had asked for his help, Musk directed his engineers to craft a submarine the size of a child. But by the time it was ready, Musk was too late. A team of rescue divers—including Unsworth—was in the process of saving the children.

Later that week, CNN asked Unsworth about Musk’s efforts. Unsworth called them a “PR stunt” and told Musk that he “could stick his submarine where it hurts.” In response, Musk, in what he later chalked up to a fit of anger, posted his infamous “pedo guy” tweet. In the same thread, Musk added that he “never saw this British expat guy who lives in Thailand (sus) at any point.” (Musk has since deleted both tweets.)

In court Tuesday, Unsworth’s lawyers asked what’s so suspicious about a British man living in Thailand. Musk reiterated that, at the time, he viewed Unsworth as “a creepy old white guy living in Thailand” and said, “Who knows what he’s doing there?”

The July 2018 Twitter spat also spawned an extracurricular investigation that landed Musk in additional trouble. Soon after his “pedo guy” tweet, a man named James Howard-Higgins, who purported to be an investigator, introduced himself in an email to Musk’s office. Howard-Higgins wrote, “Like Elon I think that Mr. Unsworth has skeletons in his cupboard.” He added, “I can discreetly assist & have a team in Bangkok.” At first, Musk’s didn’t respond.

Then, on August 6, Unsworth’s lawyer sent Musk a letter saying Unsworth intended to sue over the “pedo guy” tweet. On the stand on Tuesday, Musk admitted that the possibility of a lawsuit inspired him to reach back out to Howard-Higgins. “I’d been told about a threatening letter,” Musk said. “That was the reason I decided we should take this investigator up on his offer.”

Using a pseudonym, the head of Musk’s family office enlisted Howard-Higgins, offering to pay him $52,000 in exchange for research into Unsworth’s past. Musk told the jury he didn’t know that his employee was using a pseudonym, although he admitted that the employee said he would “ensure there would not be some embarrassing email of his that would hit the press.”

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