LOS ANGELES — A British cave explorer who helped rescue a dozen boys and their soccer coach from a flooded Thailand cave last year testified Wednesday that Elon Musk branded him a pedophile and sullied his reputation.
Vernon Unsworth choked up as he described the effect of the “pedo guy” tweet the Tesla CEO fired off in anger after Unsworth belittled the sub Musk built for the rescue that was never used.
“I was effectively given a life sentence with no parole,” Unsworth said. “It feels very raw, I feel humiliated, ashamed, dirtied.”
Unsworth said he had to sue Musk for defamation because if he didn’t the allegation would seem true.
Unsworth is seeking unspecified damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress from the tech entrepreneur who testified that his stock in Tesla and SpaceX is worth around $20 billion.
Musk insisted earlier in the day that he never called Unsworth a pedophile, telling a Los Angeles federal jury that the phrase he tweeted off-the-cuff “was obviously a flippant insult, and no one interpreted it to mean pedophile.”
Unsworth’s lawyer asked the billionaire how the insult was cast in the media worldwide, and Musk said he recalled that news organizations “correctly interpreted it as an insult, not an accusation of pedophilia.”
That wasn’t the interpretation of Unsworth’s lawyer, however, who unsuccessfully tried to introduce headlines compiled by someone at one of Musk’s companies that showed many news outlets perceived the phrase to mean pedophile.
Judge Stephen Wilson said it would be up to jurors to apply the standard of what a reasonable person would think Musk meant, not what journalists think.
“These reporters are taking the word `pedo guy’ and writing their story saying it’s pedophilia,” Wilson said. “That makes a more interesting story than `pedo guy.”’
Musk said he deleted the tweet within hours and apologized on Twitter two days later.
Musk said the insult meant only “creepy old man.”
The spat began when Unsworth ridiculed Musk’s effort to help in the rescue by having engineers at his companies, including Space X and The Boring Co., develop a mini-submarine that could transport the boys. Despite working around the clock to build the sub, Musk arrived in Thailand late in the rescue effort and the craft was never used.
Unsworth called it nothing more than a “PR stunt” and said Musk could stick the sub “where it hurts.”
On cross-examination, Unsworth said his jab at Musk was just an idiomatic expression and not meant to be taken literally. That appeared to score a point for the defense because Musk said the same thing about his tweet.
Musk’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, said Unsworth deserves nothing for what he called “joking, taunting tweets in a fight between men.”
Spiro said in his opening statement that honors Unsworth received in Thailand and Britain undermined his claimed anguish.
But Unsworth said even his investiture as a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II this summer was bitter sweet.
Unsworth said he had lost a lot of self-confidence since Musk’s tweet and didn’t want to attend the ceremony because he knew it would be overshadowed by some mention of “pedo guy.”
A newspaper article that reported on the honor also mentioned the hurtful tweet. He said it was a good day for his mother and other loved ones, but just OK for him.
Musk said he posted his tweets without knowing what role Unsworth played in the rescue.
Unsworth, who lives part-time in Thailand, said he has been exploring Tham Luang cave since 2012 and spends hundreds of hours there a year.
He said he was contacted to help after the boys got lost in June last year and spent three straight days without sleep trying to stem rising water levels with sand bags. Unsworth said he provided information on the extensive system he’s been mapping.
Unsworth also recommended the Thai government reach out to British cave rescue divers who ultimately located and rescued the boys.
The lead cave rescue diver, Rick Stanton of Coventry, testified that Unsworth was essential in providing a detailed map of the cave that helped him locate the boys and eventually bring them to safety after they were trapped more than two weeks.
Stanton downplayed comments he made that some of Unsworth’s advice about the cave only provided a “morale boost.”
Stanton said he encouraged Musk to build his submarine and thought it could be used as a backup if they couldn’t swim the boys out.
Outside court, Stanton said Musk’s contribution was well-intentioned but probably wouldn’t have worked. He said the pod only had half the air supply needed for the 2.5 hour extraction, and other equipment attached to it that he saw in a video could have become tangled on rocks in tight passages.
He said he thought Musk arrived in Thailand with the craft to “showboat.”
During his testimony, Stanton was asked why he had never mentioned Unsworth in the many accounts he’s provided about the dramatic rescue. It was only because interviewers wanted soundbites from him, he said.
He said Unsworth would get his due in the book Stanton plans to release next summer.
“It’s a pivotal part of the book,” he said outside court.
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