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Elon Musk Can’t Lose

Elon Musk Can’t Lose

Alex Spiro was on a roll. The 6-foot-something lawyer stood imposingly on the lectern within the Los Angeles federal court docket with the boldness of a man compelled to remind folks he lettered in highschool varsity basketball for 4 years and virtually walked onto his faculty workforce. His demeanor was informal — he dropped just a few “dudes” that belied his Harvard legislation diploma — however forceful. His solely apparent weak spot appeared to be the brace on his proper foot, the results of an harm sustained throughout a pickup sport.

A high-profile trial lawyer who labored for the CIA earlier than assembling a shopper listing that included New England Patriots proprietor Robert Kraft, Mick Jagger, and Jay-Z, Spiro was on the clock for an additional billionaire defendant on a Friday final December. And having lured the jury in with a fantastical closing argument about his shopper’s supposed generosity and heroics, Spiro threw in some flattery for the particular person paying his payments.

“[The plaintiff] can say whatever he wants about Elon Musk,” he stated. “No one can bring people together like he can to do the impossible.”

Over the previous few many years, Musk promised to land a reusable rocket on a robotic ocean barge, after which he went and did it. He dreamed up a tunnel underneath Los Angeles to counter town’s congested highways, after which based an organization to dig it. He’s additionally mapped out an electrical automotive future and is effectively on his means towards reaching it. His admirers laud him because the real-life Tony Stark, a once-in-a-generation genius with a drive of will that may make the seemingly not possible potential. But as a decide, eight jurors, two sizable authorized groups, a dozen reporters, and I realized late final 12 months, Musk’s uncanny capability to rework far-fetched concepts into attainable ones can lower each methods.

We spent every week within the courtroom listening to a authorized case as absurd as one in every of Musk’s wildest moon pictures. How did we get there? A fast recap: In July 2018, Musk tweeted that a British cave explorer was a “pedo guy,” confronted a wave of criticism, sort of apologized, obtained a authorized menace, doubled down on the accusation, despatched a reporter (me) an e mail suggesting the Brit was a “child rapist,” employed a phony non-public investigator to show it, bought sued, and, after greater than a 12 months of authorized wrangling, ended up in court docket. Never thoughts that some authorized specialists thought the case was a transparent instance of defamation, that his advisers instructed him to settle, and that he had much better issues to do together with his time. Musk was going to battle.

In doing so, the billionaire entrepreneur introduced the identical drive that pushed electrical vehicles into the mainstream to a authorized dispute over his personal unhealthy conduct. And in typical trend, Musk defied the percentages. He received.

Musk’s authorized victory over Vernon Unsworth – a beforehand unknown Brit who turned a official hero whereas serving to rescue a boys soccer workforce and their coach from a Thailand cave — will rank low on his listing of achievements. But in some ways, it’s much more revealing of Musk than any of the technological feats that land him within the headlines.

The weeklong trial showcased Musk’s bending of actuality, a ability that’s a part of his mythology however hardly ever seen outdoors his work. It’s one thing he makes use of to persuade an engineer to good a automotive half for days on finish or push a public relations staffer to vanish a nasty story, and it’s typically rescued him from the brink of failure. In Elon’s world, there may be solely Elon’s means. “You can always tell when someone’s left an Elon meeting: they’re defeated,” an nameless SpaceX worker wrote on Quora in 2016. “The reason for this is that Elon’s version of reality is highly skewed.”

“Elon’s version of reality is highly skewed.”

Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was famend for his “actuality distortion discipline,” an uncommon capability to steer staff and followers that his seemingly not possible visions had been value realizing. Musk has one too; within the case of Unsworth, he used it to persuade himself that a critic was a pedophile just because he occurred to be an older white man residing in Thailand. Then, when threatened with a defamation lawsuit, Musk and his legal professionals constructed out an alternate actuality: one the place he performed a key function within the cave rescue, the place “pedo guy” was a standard playground insult, and the place he didn’t try to destroy a hero who had criticized him

“Elon has an uncanny ability to tell a story he wants to be true, convince himself that it has to be true, and then convince others,” one former Tesla government instructed me after the trial.

That’s precisely what occurred in Vernon Unsworth v. Elon Musk. Though a easy on-line search means that Unsworth’s identify could be eternally linked to pedophilia, Musk received the case by arguing that his “pedo guy” assaults on the caver didn’t explicitly point out his identify, and due to this fact couldn’t represent defamation. Musk and Spiro declined to remark for this story.

It took the jury lower than hour to return a verdict. As reporters rushed again into the courtroom, the place telephones had been banned, I watched from outdoors, ready to tweet the choice. Before the decide may strike his gavel, a gaggle of TV producers rushed out of the court docket’s double doorways yelling. Unsworth sat stone-faced, his attorneys slumped of their chairs. Spiro stood with a half-blank stare, virtually as if he couldn’t imagine he had pulled it off.

Musk rose, nodding.

“Elon Musk is not liable for damages,” I tweeted, watching the billionaire by the glass. “He won.”


Nurphoto / Getty Images

Musk speaks at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, on Oct. 10, 2019.

On July 13, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek revealed an interview with Musk wherein he promised to behave higher. Remarking on his Twitter account, on which he had attained a brand new stage of bombast within the previous months, the Tesla CEO admitted he ought to most likely cease partaking together with his critics.

“I have made the mistaken assumption — and I will attempt to be better at this — of thinking that because somebody is on Twitter and is attacking me that it is open season,” he stated. “That is my mistake. I will correct it.”

It took lower than two days for Musk to interrupt that promise. On the morning of the 15th, he awoke early, opened Twitter, and clicked a hyperlink to a video interview from CNN. Musk hit play.

“He can stick his submarine where it hurts,” a person named Vernon Unsworth stated of Musk. Unsworth, a Brit residing in Thailand and an skilled on the nation’s Tham Luang cave system, was speaking concerning the steel tube Musk had constructed to rescue members of a Thai boys soccer workforce who had been trapped within the cave for 18 days. Unsworth was satisfied it couldn’t work and was irked at what he considered as opportunism. “Just a PR stunt,” he stated.

Musk watched the 43-second clip once more, and once more — rising more and more offended that a man he’d by no means met had mocked what he considered as an excellent religion effort to assist kids in mortal hazard. He was notably delicate to Unsworth’s remarks as a result of he’d confronted related criticism on Twitter already. And he was in a very foul temper as a result of his contributions to Republican lawmakers had not too long ago dragged the corporate into one other awful information cycle. Musk typed Unsworth’s identify into Google, adopted it with a seek for “Chiang Rai” — a locale close to the positioning of the rescue — and reviewed the outcomes. Then he tapped out a thread on Twitter, the place he had some 22 million followers on the time.

“Never noticed this British expat man who lives in Thailand (sus) at any level once we had been within the caves,” he wrote in a response to at least one critic, earlier than saying that he would make a video exhibiting his “mini-sub” was absolutely operational. “Sorry pedo man, you actually did ask for it.”

To perceive Musk’s crass and disproportionate response to Unsworth’s quip, you must return to that spring — a very tough one for the Tesla CEO. The firm was in the course of what Musk had sagaciously predicted can be “production hell,” and issues had not been going easily. The crushing stress to ship vehicles led to reported missteps — substandard manufacturing unit circumstances, excessive charges of employee harm, wasted supplies, government departures. And these missteps led to investigations by the likes of BuzzFeed News and loads of undesirable media protection.

The scrutiny put Musk in a foul temper, in accordance with three individuals who labored with him on the time, and his more and more acidic stream of consciousness bled out into real-life interactions. He referred to as an analyst “boneheaded” on an earnings name. He tried to personally destroy an worker who leaked details about the corporate. And when he wasn’t working he retreated to Twitter, a spot the place he may “bypass journo bs,” dish on supposed Big Oil conspiracies, and flirt with the thought of a website to price reporters.

“It started to spiral out of control,” stated one particular person near Musk as he quadrupled his tweeting that May. That exercise, the particular person stated, was compounded by his time in “production hell” the place he put in lengthy hours and slept in a manufacturing unit convention room to fulfill projections.


Linh Pham / Getty Images

Thai officers supervise the rescue mission inside Tham Luang Nang Non collapse Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 28, 2018.

Musk realized about the disaster in Thailand by Twitter. On June 23, 12 younger soccer gamers and their coach turned trapped in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave system after heavy rains flooded it. Some 12 days later, divers referred to as in by Unsworth, who had spent years exploring the caves and was among the many first on the scene, discovered them alive, trapped in an air pocket.

In court docket, Musk testified that “dozens of people” on Twitter had requested him to help within the rescue. He initially turned down the requests, considering the Thai authorities had it underneath management. But on July 6, Musk dedicated to sending engineers from SpaceX and the Boring Company, his tunneling startup, to Thailand after what he described as “active conversations with the Thai government.”

Following an e mail alternate with a British diver on-site named Rick Stanton, Musk proposed rescuing the boys in a inflexible metallic tube, or mini submarine, giant sufficient to tightly enclose “a 15-year-old boy.” But by the point he tweeted footage of the system being examined in a California swimming pool, the primary effort to extract the boys, which concerned sedating them and swimming them out, was effectively underway. Nevertheless, Rick Stanton — a diver on the scene who gave Musk some tough specs — urged the billionaire to proceed growth as a just-in-case measure.

Later, after the trial, Stanton would say it wasn’t till he noticed images and video of the tube in motion that he thought it had no likelihood of working. Reviewing footage of a take a look at that occurred in a sunny California pool, he seen points with buoyancy and air capability. Compounding these issues, the testing circumstances had been by no means akin to the slender, murky circumstances of the cave.

“I think [Musk] had worrying intentions,” stated Stanton, who had been prevented from discussing the tube at size on the stand in December. “Surely, there must have been a point when these engineers decided it was not possible … and he decided to bring it on-site anyway and showboat.”

On July 9, Musk dropped off the mini sub in Thailand. He took a tour of the caves earlier than departing for his lodge and finally heading to Shanghai for enterprise. Musk by no means met Unsworth or Stanton. The tube was by no means examined on-site and was finally by no means used.

But shortly after the final boys had been extracted, the tube turned a lightning rod for renewed criticism. And Musk did not take it effectively. When Narongsak Osatanakorn, a provincial governor who oversaw a part of the rescue, stated the tube didn’t actually match with the mission, Musk dismissed Osatanakorn, tweeting that he wasn’t a real rescue skilled. (Musk’s workers later unsuccessfully pressured the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles to foyer Osatanakorn to reverse his assertion.)

By the time he watched Unsworth’s CNN interview, Musk had been getting blasted on-line for the mini sub for 5 days straight. His tweets concerning the British caver took that vitriol to a different stage. “Cave Diver Criticizes Musk’s Kid-Sub Rescue Plan. Musk Suggests He’s A Pedophile,” learn one headline from the Los Angeles Times, whereas Bloomberg News went with “Musk Labels U.K. Diver As Pedophile In Spat Over Thai Rescue.” To a whole lot of publications world wide, the goal of Musk’s ire and the implication of his remark appeared fairly clear.

A number of days later, Musk deleted the tweets and issued a half-hearted apology. But the harm was performed. His posts had been screenshotted, shared, written up, and seen by tens of millions. He couldn’t take them again.


Apu Gomes / Getty Images

Vernon Unsworth (heart) and his attorneys, Mark Stephens (left) and L. Lin Wood (proper), communicate to reporters outdoors the US district courthouse in Los Angeles, Dec. 6, 2019.

In December, as court docket commenced on a Tuesday in balmy Southern California — 506 days after Musk’s “pedo guy” tweet — the one factor lacking in Vernon Unsworth v. Elon Musk was the defendant. Ten flooring under the courtroom, photographers and TV reporters had spent the morning jostling for place solely to be dissatisfied when the billionaire failed to indicate up for opening arguments.

For Musk’s critics, the defamation trial was a barometer: Could a robust man with just about limitless assets be held accountable for his shitty conduct? A bit greater than a 12 months in the past, Musk had been accused of mendacity about having the mandatory funding to take his electrical automotive firm non-public at $420 a share; he had pushed deceptive projections about Model three deliveries and was being investigated for discouraging employees from unionizing. Around that point, Tesla was additionally undercounting employees’ accidents at its factories.

Musk walked away from all that with a half-hearted spanking: a $20 million superb (he’s presently value $34 billion) and an order to relinquish his function as Tesla chair (he stays CEO). In Unsworth’s civil case, former staff who’d been handled unfairly, brief sellers who had been out for blood, and aspiring Tesla house owners nonetheless ready for his or her automotive, noticed the possibility for catharsis. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley questioned how the hell the case had gotten this far. It appeared a mindless waste of time and bandwidth for somebody who hardly ever had both.

Jury choice was a case research in Musk’s affect. Of the 40 or so potential jurors, a few fifth had been dismissed for having some connection to the billionaire. Among those that departed was a person with an upcoming interview at SpaceX. Among those that remained included an proprietor of two Teslas.

Judge Stephen V. Wilson’s directions to the three-man, five-woman jury had been simple. Defamation, among the many hardest allegations to show in a US court docket, may solely be established if Musk’s tweets met 5 standards:

1) Whether he stated his statements to multiple particular person apart from Unsworth.

2) Whether an inexpensive particular person may perceive the tweets had been about Unsworth.

three) Whether an inexpensive particular person understood the tweets meant Unsworth was a pedophile.

four) Whether the statements had been false.

5) Whether the Tesla CEO failed to make use of cheap care when figuring out the reality or falsity of the statements.

In opening arguments, solely the protection appeared to take the decide’s jury directions to coronary heart. The plaintiff trotted out a junior member of the authorized workforce who gave a dry, matter-of-fact rationalization of what had occurred and asserted that “pedo guy” was a transparent accusation of sexual exercise with kids. Arguing for the protection, Spiro took a unique strategy. This was “an argument between two men,” he stated, with “insults understood as insults, not literal statements of fact.” He even had a pleasant acronym for the primary offending tweet: JDART, a “joking, deleted, apologized for, responsive tweet.”

After opening arguments, Musk arrived, coming into court docket accompanied by 4 guards to take the stand. Elevated within the witness field, he spoke with a halting, infantile nervousness, crossing and uncrossing his arms and pursing his lips because the plaintiff’s lead lawyer, L. Lin Wood, started his questioning.

“Twitter is a free-for-all where there’s all sorts of things that sort of aren’t true, untrue, half-true, uh, where people engage in sort of verbal combat effectively,” Musk stated. “Uh, yeah. I mean, there’s everything on Twitter.”

There was a Trumpian high quality to Musk’s solutions that recalled what his former enterprise accomplice Peter Thiel stated about then-candidate earlier than the 2016 presidential election: Take him “seriously, but not literally.” Musk has used his Twitter critically, and the corporate listed the account as a supply for data in a 2013 monetary submitting. He continuously publishes projections for Tesla. But any cheap sampling of his tweets would additionally embrace dumb jokes, memes, and the conversational detritus for which Twitter is understood. That stuff is usually a handy basis for the “I was just joking” protection utilized by so many individuals strolling again missteps on the trendy net. It actually was for Musk.

“Just as he was using an idiomatic phrase, and I assume he did not literally mean to sodomize me with a submarine, then I also did not literally mean he was a pedophile,” he stated. “I just meant he was a creep.”

As Wood — an skilled defamation lawyer who had represented the likes of wrongly accused Atlanta Olympics safety guard Richard Jewell and on line casino magnate Sheldon Adelson — tried to pin accountability on Musk, the billionaire dodged, his voice comfortable in opposition to the lawyer’s aggressive Georgian drawl: Are you one of the vital influential folks on the earth? Not actually, the president didn’t take my recommendation to stay within the Paris local weather accords. Do you select your phrases fastidiously for the general public? Not all the things I say is considerate. Do you may have numerous public relations professionals who give you the results you want? I’ve no PR workforce personally, and we don’t actually have a lot of a public relations workforce at Tesla.

The journalists protecting the trial appeared up quizzically. Some had corresponded with Tesla communications members in current weeks. In the galley, a staffer, who had fielded press requests for Musk’s tunneling startup and served as his de facto handler for the trial, watched, unblinking.

While BuzzFeed News interviewed former staffers at Tesla and SpaceX for a May 2018 story about Musk’s combative relationship with the press, many individuals remarked on his skinny pores and skin. Some of them recalled being woken up in the course of the evening to answer a weblog publish or tweet vital of a Musk firm. On the stand, Musk admitted to having a Google alert for his personal identify to trace headlines about himself. Others famous that Musk generally tweeted about unfinished options or plans that hadn’t been shared, forcing fireplace drills to complete or handle them. “He tweets it, therefore it is,” a former staffer instructed one in every of my colleagues, whereas we had been reporting the story.


Musk’s declare that “pedo guy” was not an accusation of pedophilia got here 13 months after his tweet, and 4 months earlier than the trial. When he deleted the insult just a few hours after posting it on July 15, 2018, he didn’t declare it was a joke or benign. In a tweet just a few days later, the Tesla chief solely stated he had written the phrases “in anger” and that Unsworth’s criticism did “not justify my actions against him.”

But at his pretrial deposition in August 2019, Musk started claiming that the phrase was from his South African upbringing, a slang time period for a “creepy old white guy.” He would proceed that argument on the stand, telling Wood he hadn’t defined the that means of his tweets earlier than August as a result of nobody had requested him.

Three individuals who labored with Musk in July 2018 and spoke with me on the situation of anonymity stated that they had had by no means heard the Tesla CEO use that argument previous to his deposition. Online, quite a few South Africans additionally disagreed with the notion that “pedo guy” was slang, whereas reporters discovered little proof that it was a standard phrase within the nation or anyplace else on the web. Urban Dictionary’s first entry for “pedo guy” didn’t seem till after Musk’s tweets.

As an argument for Musk’s protection, characterizing “pedo guy” as a playground insult appeared shaky at greatest, ludicrous at worst. Either means, it was a chance for Wood to knock some wind out of the defendant. But he hardly ever appeared to land a stable punch. At instances, he stumbled together with his personal proof, misreading emails or demonstrating a poor understanding of the mechanics of Twitter. On various events, his argumentative exchanges with Musk resulted in objections from Spiro and reprimands from the decide, who turned more and more hostile to the plaintiff’s lawyer because the trial wore on.

“I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole.”

One of Wood’s largest failures was his incapacity to talk to Wilson’s directive on whether or not “a reasonable person” would interpret Musk’s “pedo guy” insult as an accusation of pedophilia. No proof or witnesses had been introduced in to dispute the notion that the phrase was widespread in South Africa or on the web previous to Musk utilizing it. And whereas Wood later introduced in a tutorial as an skilled witness to testify to what number of headlines the phrase had generated world wide, Spiro neutered the proof in pretrial motions and prevented the witness from speaking about their impression. No particular articles exhibiting how information retailers interpreted the tweets had been allowed by the decide both.

It appeared to be an oversight, extra so given Wood’s determination to pursue Unsworth’s declare on Musk’s tweets, and never on different probably damning communications that had been provided as supplementary proof. The plaintiff’s attorneys offered these communications in court docket, however Wilson suggested the jury it may solely be used to assist assess Musk’s frame of mind.

As Wood began to learn that proof — together with an e mail wherein Musk instructed Unsworth was a “child rapist” who took a 12-year-old bride — into the document, I felt just a few gazes shift in my route. One of Unsworth’s legal professionals turned and gave me a weak smile, which I pretended to not discover as I scribbled notes. Musk had written the emails to me.


“I recommend that you name folks you recognize in Thailand, discover out what’s truly happening and cease defending youngster rapists, you fucking asshole.”

The opening phrases of Musk’s e mail to me had been so complicated that I checked the sender twice to ensure it was truly from him. It was solely the second e mail he’d ever despatched me. I had by no means met the billionaire nor talked to him on the telephone; save for just a few trolling interactions on Twitter, I had not interacted with him previous to this e mail chain.

I reached out Aug. 29, 2018, after Musk had questioned aloud on Twitter why Unsworth hadn’t sued him but over his “pedo guy” remark. That morning, I had realized an lawyer for Unsworth had despatched Musk a letter earlier that month suggesting he would take authorized motion if he didn’t correctly apologize, and I sought remark. In an e mail with the topic “BuzzFeed News: Unsworth legal letter,” I requested concerning the “British diver” within the second sentence.

“Have you actually done any research at all?” Musk responded. “For example, you incorrectly state that he is a diver, which shows that you know essentially nothing and have not even bothered to research basic facts.”

I dismissed his criticism, which didn’t reply the fundamentals of my inquiry across the letter. I despatched him a response noting that Unsworth had performed some cave diving previously and once more requested for remark. When he didn’t reply, I attempted once more the subsequent day. He replied shortly thereafter on Aug. 30 in a diatribe he prefaced with “off the record” — a time period we had not beforehand mentioned or agreed to.

Sometimes folks assume the phrases “off the record” are a magic command and, as soon as uttered, instantly go into impact to cover what comes after. But in actuality, a journalist and their supply need to each conform to that situation earlier than it may be established. Musk and I didn’t.

“I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole,” Musk wrote. “He’s an old, single white guy from England who’s been traveling to or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time. There’s only one reason people go to Pattaya Beach. It isn’t where you’d go for caves, but it is where you’d go for something else. Chiang Rai is renowned for child sex-trafficking.”

He included a hyperlink to a Google seek for “chiang rai child trafficking” and ended his message by suggesting the Aug. 6 letter from Unsworth’s lawyer was a response to his tweet the day earlier than.

“As for this alleged threat of a lawsuit, which magically appeared when I raised the issue (nothing was sent or raised beforehand), I fucking hope he sues me,” he concluded.

I learn the emails once more and texted my editors: “Holy shit.”

Less than an hour later, he emailed once more. This time he topped his message with “on background,” suggesting he thought I may use the fabric if it wasn’t attributed to him. Again, we had no prior settlement. Attached to the e-mail was a signed letter from the Thai prime minister thanking Musk for the development of the mini sub.

“Unsworth also said I was asked to leave by the Thai govt, which is utterly false,” Musk wrote. “Thai Prime Minister thanked me personally per attached docs. I went all the way to area 3 with the Thai SEAL team, who were awesome. Never saw Unsworth at any point. Was told he was banned from the site.”

My editors and I mentioned Musk’s messages and decided they had been honest sport to publish. They had been newsworthy — exhibiting a robust billionaire getting down to destroy a person over some offhand criticism. And, with out a longtime settlement between reporter and topic, they had been on the document, as Musk, who’s had many years’ value of press encounters, ought to have identified. More importantly, the billionaire appeared to be alleging Unsworth was a pedophile with out a shred of supporting proof. He was basically suggesting I examine his tip.

We spent Labor Day weekend reporting on Musk’s claims. We spoke to rescuers who’d labored with Unsworth, together with some who swam among the boys out of the cave. We interviewed Rick Stanton, the British diver who had corresponded with Musk. We reached out to authorities officers within the United Kingdom and Thailand and tracked down Unsworth’s social media accounts. Eventually, I tracked down the Facebook web page for the enterprise of Unsworth’s accomplice, Woranan “Tik” Ratrawiphukkun, who confirmed to me that she was Unsworth’s longtime girlfriend. Calling him “Vern,” she stated that they had dated seven years, one thing supported by images of them collectively on their Facebook and Instagram accounts. She was 40, she stated. And when requested about Musk’s tweets, Tik declined to remark, telling me to speak to Unsworth’s legal professionals.

By the morning of Sept. four, we had completed our story. I reached out to Musk to supply him an opportunity to touch upon our reporting.

“We haven’t had a conversation at all,” Musk replied.” “If you want to publish off the record comments and destroy your journalistic credibility, that’s up to you.”

We revealed our article later that day, regardless of a Tesla spokesperson’s efforts to kill it. Unsworth formally sued Musk for defamation two weeks later, utilizing Musk’s tweets and his emails to me as the premise of his grievance. Discovery within the case would later floor an e mail despatched to an adviser on the time wherein Musk described himself as “a fucking fool” for messaging a reporter with out establishing an off-the-record settlement first.

Still, the truth that he despatched the emails, a transfer so sloppy and dangerous, by no means sat proper with me, and I by no means understood the place he was coming from. It wasn’t till after months of authorized motions and discovery that the shady origins of these accusations turned clear.

In July 2018, a person figuring out himself as James Howard emailed Musk’s private assistant claiming to be a personal investigator, in accordance with court docket paperwork. “You may want to dig deep into Mr. Unsworth[‘s] past to prepare for his defamation claim,” the mysterious sender wrote in a word that was forwarded to Musk’s chief of workers. “No smoke without fire!”

The following month, after Wood had despatched Unsworth’s preliminary authorized menace, Musk directed Jared Birchall, the pinnacle of his household workplace, to retain Howard, who had subsequently claimed to have labored for billionaire George Soros and the late Microsoft founder Paul Allen. Birchall employed the person and wired him some $52,000 to start investigating Unsworth. He made no effort to confirm Howard’s credentials or claims, which a BuzzFeed News investigation later discovered to be false. He wasn’t a PI. He was James Howard-Higgins, a convicted felon who BuzzFeed News later discovered had frolicked in jail for defrauding his enterprise companions.

By mid-August, Howard-Higgins was feeding Birchall doubtful data and instructed he had boots on the bottom monitoring the caver within the UK and Thailand. “Early feedback on the target is there is indeed an unpleasant undertone to some of his lifestyle choices,” Howard-Higgins wrote in an Aug. 17, 2018, e mail to Birchall. “There is no question that the target ‘associates’ locally with Europeans who enjoy ‘Thai comforts’ that are not acceptable in a developed society.” In court docket, Wood would additionally present e mail exchanges wherein Birchall requested the supposed non-public investigator to leak data to the UK press to sully Unsworth.

On Aug. 27, Birchall emailed Howard-Higgins requesting extra express details about the British caver. Claiming there have been “planned attacks in the media and/or a lawsuit,” he supplied an inventory of 14 particular questions for Howard-Higgins. Among them: inquiries a few potential divorce within the UK, whether or not Unsworth had met “his wife” in Thailand, and whether or not his Thai accomplice was “the 10th teenage girl he met before he decided to settle.” Howard-Higgins replied with a file on Unsworth, which, amongst different issues, instructed that he met his spouse when she was 18 or 19. This data, in accordance with that doc, was nonetheless being verified.

But all that data was improper. Unsworth was not married to his Thai accomplice, who was a lot older than what Howard-Higgins had instructed to Birchall. Beyond that, there was no point out of the concept Unsworth had taken a 12-year-old bride, one thing Musk would later relay to me.

On the stand, Musk, who by no means instantly communicated with the investigator, stated he’d heard that data from Birchall. In his testimony, Birchall solely stated that he instructed Musk that Unsworth had met his accomplice when she was 12, not that they bought married then. Regardless, there was by no means any bodily documentation of Howard-Higgins saying that Unsworth had married and even met a 12-year-old.

“Unfortunately, it turns out we were tricked,” Musk stated on the stand.

Two former Tesla executives would later inform me that Musk’s hiring of an investigator was an ideal instance of his reality-warping intentions. At Tesla, sources stated, Musk would typically persuade himself one thing was potential — manufacturing targets, sure self-driving capabilities, skirting authorized measures — and would overrule folks whose job it was to handle these duties. Engineers had been employed and fired on the premise of their capability to appreciate an concept that Musk had predetermined needed to be potential.

“He hired the PI because he needed to make it true,” one instructed me. “In the end, people are just working to justify his ego rather than anything else.”

They additionally defined Musk’s thought course of for emailing me unsubstantiated claims about Unsworth. Musk, the manager stated, would generally seed data to a 3rd get together, like a credulous journalist who may publish it in a narrative. In flip, he would endorse and share that story with tens of millions of followers, making a suggestions loop of reinforcing opinions.

As the proof mounted forward of the trial, Musk refused to offer in to what he later termed a “shakedown.” Though he wrangled with a Securities and Exchange Commission probe into his Tesla privatization fiasco, a National Labor Relations Board case on Tesla illegally discouraging employees from organizing, and a NASA security investigation prompted by him smoking weed throughout an interview, Musk fought the lawsuit over a 15-month interval. During that point, three normal counsels and at the very least three high communications staffers left Tesla. He even fired the primary legislation agency he had employed for the Unsworth case.

Because Musk’s emails to me had been a part of Unsworth’s preliminary grievance, I additionally turned entangled within the case. Both sides requested my deposition, and Musk’s requests appeared notably invasive, asking questions that appeared to get at my newsgathering course of and relationships with sources. At one level a course of server confirmed up at BuzzFeed’s San Francisco workplace whereas I wasn’t there and sat in our entryway till an editor threatened to name the police.

BuzzFeed News efficiently fought off Musk’s subpoena, whereas Unsworth finally dropped his. Following that, the plaintiff’s legal professionals — who had spent a lot of the 12 months trying to construct a case partially on Musk’s emails to me — determined they’d not use them in court docket as grounds for defamation, opting to as a substitute sue solely over his “pedo guy” tweets.

It was a puzzling selection, abandoning what some specialists thought had been Musk’s most defamatory statements concerning the plaintiff. Perhaps Wood had decided Musk’s statements to me hadn’t reached as extensive an viewers as his authentic tweets did. Perhaps they anxious a dialogue about what “on the record” and “off the record” imply would add an excessive amount of complexity. Wood later declined to reply questions on his authorized technique.


Bloomberg / Getty Images

Vernon Unsworth stands outdoors the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Dec. 6, 2019.

If Musk is the megalomaniac billionaire who goals of colonizing Mars (and dying there), Unsworth is his antithesis. A quiet man most at dwelling exploring the depths of the Earth, the Brit was unknown till summoned to assist the Thai boys soccer workforce. His public persona since has been outlined by media protection of the rescue, the fallout from the fateful 43-second CNN interview clip, and the few photographs of him that exist on wire providers and are reused with each article. But once I spoke with him at size after the trial he got here a bit extra into focus.

The first time we spoke, within the presence of one in every of his legal professionals the day after the trial, I anticipated to discover a defeated man. Instead, Unsworth was shiny, if not enthusiastic, chiming in to fill the gaps of his lawyer’s laments and exuding a sure Englishness by saying he’d “take the result on the chin.” He appeared pleased it was over.

Our conversations, which continued over the telephone, countered the picture of the tough, impassive exterior Unsworth displayed in court docket. We spoke and texted about his pursuits: his love of caving and Tham Luang; the unbelievable undefeated streak of his favourite soccer workforce, Liverpool; and his optimism for Brexit now that the Conservative Party was in management. His texts had been liberally punctuated with prayer fingers and laughing-crying face emojis that made it really feel like I used to be speaking with a very enthusiastic teen. But once we talked, it was primarily concerning the trial, and his worries that the protection’s portrayal would forged doubt on his heroic efforts.

“That’s not going to go away,” he stated. “The pedo tag is always there. … It’s still difficult to understand why the jury got it so wrong.”

During one in every of our calls, I Googled Unsworth’s identify. The first consequence was a Dec. 7 article from the Sun titled “Who Is Vernon Unsworth? Thailand Cave Diver Dubbed ‘Paedo Guy’ By Elon Musk.” He sighed once I learn it aloud.

“That’s not going to go away,” he stated. “The pedo tag is always there. … It’s still difficult to understand why the jury got it so wrong.”

The trial had been notably tough for Unsworth. Though he did not pay for authorized illustration — Wood took the case on contingency and funded it with greater than $400,000 from his agency’s coffers — the non-public value was fairly excessive. On the stand, the Brit had his private life uncovered and interrogated. He was questioned about his estranged spouse and daughter who make up his damaged household. And the UK tabloids, who despatched staffers to cowl each second of the trial, wrote at size about his life in Thailand together with his new accomplice, Tik.

Defense attorneys additionally learn unflattering texts into the document wherein Unsworth disparaged the Thai Navy SEALs for his or her incompetence. They misrepresented a satirical YouTube video created by a pal to painting him as a fame-seeker hungry for film offers and diminished his essential contributions to the cave rescue. Unsworth wasn’t a hero, lead protection lawyer Alex Spiro instructed, the true heroes had been the divers.

On the stand, Unsworth appeared unprepared for what appeared an apparent and essential line of questioning. The caver stated he felt “humiliated, ashamed, dirty” by Musk’s label, which he referred to as “a life sentence without parole.” There had been instances he felt susceptible, he added, his voice cracking: “I have good days and I have bad days.”

But when Spiro pressed him on that, Unsworth stumbled. Had he sought out a therapist to assist mood his emotional anguish? Had Musk’s insult brought on him to lose any jobs or buddies? Did he talk about it together with his household? “I bottled it up,” he stated on the stand.

The protection painted Unsworth as a person unhurt by the insult and as a substitute broadly lauded within the months following the rescue. In the trial, they confirmed images and movies of Unsworth being congratulated by the UK prime minister, palling with Thai authorities officers, and smiling whereas Prince William pinned him with an MBE, an appointment to the Order of the British Empire. It was calculated and efficient. If the protection was going to lose the argument across the semantics of “pedo guy,” it could on the very least attempt to restrict damages.

Unsworth’s legal professionals, alternatively, referred to as no witnesses who may have confirmed Musk’s phrases harmed their shopper’s repute. Wood performed a video deposition of Unsworth’s estranged spouse seemingly to ascertain sympathy for the plaintiff, but it surely solely ended up showcasing a damaged marriage. And he by no means referred to as Tik, who may have corroborated his claims of ache and anguish. Spiro referred to as no witnesses for the protection.

After the case concluded, Unsworth bristled on the efforts from the protection to belittle his contributions, together with one second the place he had been requested by an lawyer whether or not or not he felt like he wanted to apologize to Musk. He spoke of how he and Tik had been investigated by 4 completely different units of Thai authorities, together with immigration police, following Musk’s tweets. Unsworth additionally recalled his embarrassment when Prince William talked about the altercation in the course of the MBE ceremony.

It’s arduous to say if these anecdotes would have made a distinction, but it surely’s value noting that not one of the 4 jurors I interviewed after the trial discovered Unsworth to be a very sympathetic determine. Two of them agreed with the protection’s place that this was an argument between two males and that Unsworth had began it together with his comment on CNN. All 4 stated the caver’s workforce had performed little to ascertain hurt, with one calling that failure the “nail in the coffin for his case.” Another stated that they considered each males, the Brit and the billionaire, as heroes caught up in a juvenile spat.

“That’s where they’re wrong,” Unsworth stated. “None of us rescuers or divers — none of us — regard ourselves as heroes. So why is Elon Musk a hero? Look up within the dictionary the definition of ‘hero.’ He’s not performed something that’s worthy of hero standing.

“But if there’s a hero of both of us, I’d hope that arrow be pointed at me.”


Mark J. Terrill / AP

Musk (proper) arrives on the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Dec. three, 2019.

Musk was taking part in The Battle Of Polytopia — a cell sport “about ruling the world, fighting evil AI tribes, discovering new lands and mastering new technologies” — once I bumped into him within the elevator on the day of the decision. I hadn’t seen him in court docket because the day of his testimony.

“Are you allowed to talk about the case?” I requested.

“No.”

“Are you going to sit for the jury verdict?”

“I… I think so,” he stammered, clearly miffed at being distracted from his cell sport. The elevator door opened earlier than I may observe up, and Musk’s guards lower me off as he exited. I am nonetheless undecided if he knew who I used to be.

Outside the room, Wood appeared nervous. A day earlier, the Georgia lawyer held court docket with reporters, twirling a Juul between his fingers as he spoke. “Vernon Unsworth needs a verdict, and we’re going to get him a one, good or unhealthy,” he remarked — an odd factor to say a few case he had taken on contingency. Then he instructed us he deliberate to retire at his lake home following the jury’s determination.

Wood was extra on message throughout his closing arguments. With the style of a Southern Baptist preacher, he declared the rescue of the Thai soccer workforce “a miracle from God” and in contrast Musk’s tweets to “a nuclear bomb” that decimated Unsworth and created fallout that may have an effect on him for years to come back. He instructed the jury of his dedication to Unsworth and his religion within the rule of legislation. He instructed Musk turned concerned within the cave rescue as a result of “publicity drives consideration, consideration drives traders” — a comment that actually went over effectively with the Tesla critics who’d begun following him on Twitter. He was ruddy with ardour; at one level, Wilson requested him to maintain his feelings in verify. Then it bought private.

“Elon Musk is a liar,” Wood stated. “How do I know it? I don’t know Elon Musk. I’ve seen him in his deposition. I’ve seen him a couple of times in the courtroom. He walked by me. I’ve never shaken Elon Musk’s hand. He refused to shake my hand.”

Wood by no means managed to elucidate simply why he thought Musk was a liar, however the billionaire actually has a propensity for taking part in quick and free with the reality — I might heard this endlessly from former staff, confidants, and traders. But had Musk lied in court docket? His authorized workforce’s retelling of occasions was actually beneficiant, but when there had been a really egregious falsehood on the stand, I hadn’t heard it. And Wood had by no means flagged it. The jury appeared unmoved by his hand-waving.

Wood’s request for damages evoked an analogous, if not worse, response. With an enormous marker, he wrote a bunch of numbers on a big white poster board: for precise damages, outlined because the struggling the plaintiff had skilled, $5 million. For assumed damages, the hypothetical hurt the plaintiff may have endured from the defendant’s reckless phrases, $35 million. And for punitive damages, the quantity supposed to discourage a person value tens of billions of from doing this once more, $150 million.

“I have bad days too, but I don’t walk around saying people should give me $2 million.”

I noticed one juror struggling to hide a smirk as Wood wrote out the whole. $190 million was a rare quantity. Had it been granted, it could have been one of many largest-ever awards given in a person defamation case.

The sum didn’t go over effectively with the jury. After the trial, quite a few jurors instructed me they couldn’t perceive these eye-popping numbers, notably with no clear proof of hurt. “I couldn’t put a dollar amount on ‘I have good days and bad days,’” one stated. “I have bad days too, but I don’t walk around saying people should give me $2 million.” Another stated the jury thought of ruling in opposition to Musk after which awarding a symbolic $1 to Unsworth.

Outside the courtroom, there was an analogous response; impressions of the British caver had soured. Twitter customers anxious concerning the optics of asking for that a lot cash, whereas some discovered Unsworth to be a money-grubber. On a message board utilized by the Brits residing in Thailand — a web-based group that Unsworth generally frequented — members debated the request. “Guilty but not $200m guilty,” wrote one particular person.

Damages had been Wood’s name, in accordance with the cave rescuer. But for Unsworth, who makes £25,000 a 12 months as a monetary adviser, they made sense. How do you sanction a person with seemingly limitless assets? Any quantity that sought punitive recourse in opposition to a billionaire goes to look preposterous, and so they needed to define one thing for the jury. “[The money] wouldn’t have affected Musk anyway,” Unsworth instructed me.

Musk’s authorized workforce used the damages request as a cudgel. Noting the response within the courtroom, Spiro mocked the sum in his closing argument. “And hastily I hear numbers being thrown out like that is The Price Is Right or one thing,” he quipped. “They certainly weren’t wedded to any evidence.”

That argument appeared to resonate with the jury, as did a sequence of rhetorical questions delivered with a gentle cadence. “Where’s Tik?” Spiro requested repeatedly, a reminder that Unsworth hadn’t even referred to as his accomplice to testify concerning the emotional and psychological impression of Musk’s comment. Then there was contrition: “Listen, Mr. Musk apologized. He doesn’t like those tweets. The shareholders didn’t like the tweets. Elon’s mom didn’t like the tweets. But he didn’t say that this nameless dude committed the crime of pedophilia.”

That final line, an virtually throwaway level barely mentioned within the days prior ended up being the killshot. Musk’s tweet didn’t point out Unsworth by identify, Spiro defined. If the “reasonable person” Wilson described in his directions to the jury stumbled throughout Musk’s tweets, how would they know whom he was speaking about?

“In no way did I think that the Musk tweet was justified or fair — but on the other hand, well, he didn’t mention Unsworth,” juror Carl Shusterman instructed me. An immigration lawyer who had admitted throughout jury choice that he owned two Teslas, Shusterman stated that the group of eight thought of the entire decide’s 5 standards. But as soon as they agreed the common particular person wouldn’t perceive the tweet was concerning the caver, that they had their verdict.

It took lower than an hour. They barely had time to complete lunch.

I struggled to know the logic. If the tweets had been analyzed in a vacuum with none context, positive, an inexpensive particular person may do not know who Musk was writing about. But past that vacuum is context accessible inside seconds — hundreds of reports articles and movies, innumerable tweets, and the largest search engine on the earth tying the phrases “pedo guy” to Unsworth’s identify in perpetuity. Spiro’s assertion was convincing on some stage, but it surely was additionally preposterous. The jury’s determination appeared to be a elementary misunderstanding of how folks use the web.

“This was a great ‘internet isn’t real life’ moment,” Ken White, a First Amendment lawyer who blogs as Popehat, instructed me just a few weeks after the case. “What people online think is obvious and self-evident … is not how people in the courtroom see it. People were frequently shocked that there was any potential defense of the case, and they felt so strongly about these things that they mistook those feelings for law.”


Mark J. Terrill / AP

Musk arrives on the US district courthouse in Los Angeles, Dec. four, 2019.

Musk left the courtroom visibly smug. “My faith in humanity is restored,” he stated to a scrum of reporters earlier than disappearing into an elevator surrounded by his safety workforce. That evening, Tesla’s normal counsel stop — the third to take action in a 12 months. A number of days later, Musk blocked me and a handful of different journalists on Twitter.

In the weeks that adopted, a buoyant Musk would take to the streets of Los Angeles in his Cybertruck prototype, hang around with Kanye West and the Kardashians, and pal round with presidential hopeful Andrew Yang. He celebrated Tesla’s inventory hitting an all-time excessive with memes about $420, the weed-associated quantity related together with his try to take the corporate non-public in 2018. January noticed him dancing enthusiastically onstage at a Shanghai manufacturing unit that turned the primary to fabricate Model 3s in China. Tesla’s market capitalization not too long ago surpassed the $100 billion mark.

But those that know Musk say they’re undecided the billionaire and his automotive firm will have the ability to preserve this momentum. “In his mind, he’s emerged unscathed — ‘Tesla’s stock price is up and I’m still in my job’ — but if there’s any one word for that stock, it’s ‘volatility,’” one former government stated. “It just looks like good news because it’s contrasted against a past avalanche of bad news.”

“I hope I am wrong about him. I hope he takes people to Mars one day.”

Another particular person, this another of a Musk optimist, anxious this authorized victory would solely supercharge one of many billionaire’s most difficult-to-wrangle instincts. “The lawsuit reinforced what he believes is his best strategy: ‘When everyone else is telling me not to do it, I’m going to do it,’” they stated.

Every week after the trial’s conclusion, Wood inexplicably tweeted an statement that appeared to contradict the arguments he had made in federal court docket. “The verdict in Unsworth v. Musk spoke the truth,” the lawyer wrote. “While written as possible libel, Elon Musk only intended an insult. Thus, no factual statements were intended. Truth removes any question marks as to Vern’s reputation. Truth wins. So do both parties.”

As critics promptly hammered Wood on-line and instructed he had left his shopper out to dry, I questioned if he had simply turn out to be the most recent particular person to purchase into Musk’s actuality distortion discipline. So I requested him whether or not he nonetheless felt the identical means about Musk.

“His image has been built to a level that only the most serious of charges could shatter it,” Wood wrote to me. “I hope I am wrong about him. I hope he takes people to Mars one day. But I know what I learned from the evidence.”

I closed Wood’s message and opened my e mail account. As I did, I noticed a reminder to observe up on a word just a few days earlier. I had despatched it on the ultimate day of the trial, within the blurry hours after the jury let Musk off the hook. “Hey Elon, any thoughts on the verdict?” I had written. He by no means responded, on or off the document. ●

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