Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hired a convicted felon with a shady past to investigate Vernon Unsworth, the British diver who was involved in last year’s rescue of a soccer team and their coach from a cave in Thailand. Unsworth is suing Musk for calling him a “pedo” on Twitter.
The saga began in July 2018, as rescuers were carefully crafting a plan to extract 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach who had been trapped in a cave for 17 days with limited food and water. The mission called in experts from around the world, including Unsworth, who lived in Thailand and had detailed knowledge of the cave complex where the Thai boys were located.
Musk traveled to Thailand in July and developed a “kid-sized submarine” to be utilized in the rescue. Unsworth dismissed the gesture as a “PR stunt,” which set in motion the dispute between the diver and the Tesla executive.
Musk in a tweet accused Unsworth of being a “pedo guy” in July 2018. He later apologized to Unsworth and deleted the tweet. In emails to Buzzfeed News in September 2018, Musk also called him a “child rapist” and accused him of moving to Chiang Rai for a “child bride who was about 12 years old.” He added that he “f—ing hope[d]” Unsworth would sue him.
Unsworth filed a defamation suit against Musk in September 2018, alleging that his reputation was tarnished as a result of Musk’s tweets and emails, and he is seeking damages of over $75,000.
Last month, court filings revealed that Musk hired a private investigator to dig up Unsworth’s past after the exchange of words between them. Musk alleged that an aide hired a man named James Howard of the investigation firm Jupiter Military & Tactical Systems, to look into Unsworth. Musk said it was Jared Birchall, the president of Musk’s family office, who relayed information to him from Howard about Unsworth’s alleged relationship with an underage girl, a claim that has not been substantiated.
L. Lin Wood, an attorney representing Unsworth, told Business Insider in September that Howard’s alleged findings are false.
Howard, whose real name is James Howard-Higgins, was actually a scammer who stole money from his business partners and was sentenced to three years in jail for fraud, BuzzFeed News reported on Thursday citing public records and interviews with the man’s former associates.
Court documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News show that Howard-Higgins, who identified himself as the CEO of Jupiter Military & Tactical Systems, emailed Musk and offered to “dig deep” into Unsworth’s past and was retained by Musk for $50,000.
According to BuzzFeed News, Musk and his team did not properly look into Howard-Higgins’ own history before hiring him. The 47-year-old from Dorset, England, served 18 months out of a three-year jail sentence in 2016 for stealing about $525,000 from a company he co-founded called Orchid Maritime Security Ltd. His associates told BuzzFeed News that they noticed large sums of money missing, some of which Howard-Higgins eventually admitted to stealing.
The company forgave Howard-Higgins, according to BuzzFeed News, though he was busted a second time for funneling company funds into a personal account. He was charged with 14 counts of fraud, and pleaded guilty to seven.
Mark Wood, another Orchid Maritime cofounder, told BuzzFeed News that Howard-Higgins was “manipulative” and should never have been able to continue private investigations.
“With a prison record it ought to be difficult to continue in this same line of business,” he said. “Sadly it appears not to be the case.”
Tesla did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
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