Elon Musk initially apologised but then reopened the wound weeks later. He is pictured with singer girlfriend Claire Boucher
Standing at the mouth of the Tham Luang cave system in northern Thailand, it should have been the proudest moment of Vernon Unsworth’s life.
Days earlier, the caving expert – known as Vern – had played a crucial role in the dramatic rescue of 12 boys and their football coach from rising monsoon waters flooding the treacherous complex.
Now he and his fellow rescuers had been honoured with a ceremony of thanks.
But as the event drew to a close, he was approached by a journalist who delivered a question as unexpected as it was horrifying.
Mr Unsworth told The Mail on Sunday: ‘An Australian TV crew cornered me and asked what did I feel about this billionaire calling me a paedophile? I was staggered.
‘That’s about the worst thing you can call anybody. He could have called me anything. But that…’
The billionaire in question was Elon Musk who, unbeknown to Mr Unsworth at the time, had called him ‘pedo guy’ after a plan to use a mini-submarine designed by the technology entrepreneur to rescue the boys was dismissed as a ‘PR stunt’ by the Briton.
Musk initially apologised but then reopened the wound weeks later. First he dared Mr Unsworth to sue him and then repeated the slur with added venom, describing the 64-year-old in an email to a journalist as a ‘child rapist’, and his 40-year-old Thai partner as a ‘child bride’.
Appalled, Mr Unsworth decided to take the Tesla founder, worth an estimated £18 billion, to court.
Now, a week after losing his libel action in the Californian courts, Mr Unsworth breaks his silence on his ‘David and Goliath’ battle with Musk – and reveals the personal price he has paid.
The caving expert – known as Vern – had played a crucial role in the dramatic rescue of 12 boys and their football coach from rising monsoon waters flooding the treacherous complex
The caver reveals that he was subjected to four investigations by Thai police, sparked by the allegation, and that the billionaire’s aides hired a British private investigator who said he could ‘dig dirt’ on him.
The aides encouraged the investigator, who was later revealed to be a convicted fraudster, to leak the so-called dirt to the media.
An explosive trail of emails and text messages show that when no dirt was found, the investigator resorted to peddling lies and unfounded innuendo.
The emails and messages, disclosed to Mr Unsworth’s lawyers before the trial began, also detail how private investigators posed as charity workers and journalists to try to elicit information and said they were carrying out a ‘bin spin’ – slang for rifling through a person’s dustbin – in their unsuccessful quest to destroy Mr Unsworth’s reputation.
Mr Unsworth says: ‘That they would talk of doing that shows you the depths to which they sank to try to ruin me. It’s sickening.’
Giving evidence in the libel case earlier this month, Musk told the court that his ‘pedo guy’ reference was an off-the-cuff term of abuse and not a serious suggestion.
In court, Musk said the phrase was merely an insult meaning a ‘creepy old man’ which he and his friends had used when at school in South Africa – but for Mr Unsworth it became a dark shadow
He admitted in court that Mr Unsworth was not a paedophile. Yet the emails between Jared Birchall, who manages Musk’s family office, and the ‘investigator’, convicted fraudster James Howard-Higgins – seen by this newspaper – reveal an extraordinary determination to find evidence to justify the billionaire’s initial tweet.
Mr Unsworth said: ‘Musk said “pedo guy” was just an insult, yet here was the head of his private office hoping to prove what he says he didn’t mean – that I am a paedophile – and then planning to smear me publicly. When I saw these documents, I was dumbfounded.’
Speaking at a London hotel where he was guest of honour at the Anglo-Thai Society’s Christmas lunch, Mr Unsworth, who was awarded an MBE for his role in the rescue, added: ‘I’m incredibly proud of what we did to save the boys’ lives and I’m proud I was a part of it.
‘Yet my legal battle with Musk has cast a very dark cloud and come close to wrecking my life.’
Mr Unsworth, from Lancaster, met his partner, Woranan Ratrawiphukkun – known as Tik – in London in 2011 and began living for several months each year with her near Mae Sai, a town close to the Tham Luang cave.
He had explored the complex thoroughly, so was only too familiar with the dangers facing the boys when, on June 23 last year, he heard that they had become trapped.
After making three solo trips into the cave to assess the water levels, he realised that Thai divers would not have the expertise to navigate narrow tunnels in silt-laden water.
Crucially, he lobbied two Thai government ministers to contact Britons Rick Stanton and John Volanthen – both world-class cave divers – who flew to Thailand and led the mission to bring the boys out alive.
‘Without Vern, the boys would be dead,’ Mr Stanton said later.
The boys are pictured trapped in the cave. The caver reveals that he was subjected to four investigations by Thai police, sparked by the allegation, and that the billionaire’s aides hired a British private investigator who said he could ‘dig dirt’ on him
Musk – like the rest of the world – was gripped by the drama and took to Twitter to inform his 29 million followers that engineers at his firm Space X were building a mini submarine for the rescue.
By the time it arrived in Thailand, however, eight of the group had already been rescued.
Not that Mr Unsworth was impressed anyway, having seen a video of the submarine being tested in a swimming pool in America on July 10, the day of the last rescue dive.
‘It was totally impractical… it worked in a pool, but in the cave would have been far too dangerous,’ he said.
On July 13, following a party to celebrate the rescue, Mr Unsworth flippantly told a reporter from CNN that Musk could ‘stick his submarine where it hurts’.
The caver told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I’m a blunt Northern lad and I said the first thing that came to mind. My comments weren’t aimed at Musk, but at the sub.’
It was two days before Mr Unsworth became aware of Musk’s ‘pedo guy’ response.
‘I’m not on Twitter. I found out about it when Tik and I were attending the ceremony up at the cave.’
In court, Musk said the phrase was merely an insult meaning a ‘creepy old man’ which he and his friends had used when at school in South Africa – but for Mr Unsworth it became a dark shadow.
He said: ‘This wasn’t just two men calling each other names. Afterwards, if ever my name was in the news, you saw what Musk said in the headlines.
‘I very nearly didn’t go to my investiture at Buckingham Palace in June [for the MBE] because I felt so terrible.’
After consulting British media lawyer Mark Stephens, Mr Unsworth asked US attorney Lin Wood to write to Musk to seek a public apology.
‘If Musk had come out and done a full apology, got on the phone to me and said he was sorry in the media, that would have put an end to it.
‘I just wanted him to put the record straight – but he didn’t.’
By the time the legal letter was sent on August 6, fraudster Howard-Higgins – recently released from prison after completing a three-year term for cheating a firm in Bournemouth – had already contacted Musk with an offer to investigate Mr Unsworth.
According to legal documents, office manager Birchall replied in mid-July but only commissioned the British investigator after Lin Wood’s legal letter arrived.
Using the pseudonym Jim Brickhouse, Birchall urged Howard-Higgins to find evidence that Mr Unsworth was linked to an ‘extreme level of darkness’ because it would vindicate Musk and his tweet.
Codenamed Operation Rowena and costing £40,000, the investigation served only to create a tissue of lies.
Messages from Howard-Higgins stated Mr Unsworth had been visiting Thailand since the 1980s, often staying at ‘sex tourism’ hotels in Pattaya. In fact, he had never visited the resort city and first went to Thailand in 2011.
The fraudster also suggested to Musk’s team that Mr Unsworth met Tik when she was in her teens.
The truth was the couple met when Tik was 33 and, by 2018 when the rescue operation propelled Mr Unsworth into the spotlight, she was 40.
On August 27, an anxious Birchall told Howard-Higgins: ‘Clearly we’d like information now. There is some urgency to this situation.’
Birchall agreed to a suggestion that Howard-Higgins try to interview Tik by posing as a journalist, adding: ‘If employing additional asset is possible… we’ll support this, even if it means an additional expense.’
Howard-Higgins assured Birchall that he was gathering evidence about Mr Unsworth’s ‘hunting patterns’ for very young girls, prompting the reply: ‘Would be ideal to have more than one publisher receive the info.’
When Howard-Higgins replied that he planned to ‘reach out indirectly to 3 or 4 different newspapers’, Birchall wrote: ‘A big part of this is the willingness to recognise the fact that Thailand is the capital of pedophilia [sic]… anything that uncovers a disgusting ongoing practice that might just protect some children is worth it. So it could easily be spun as the possible explanation of Elon’s action.’
A week after losing his libel action in the Californian courts, Mr Unsworth breaks his silence on his ‘David and Goliath’ battle with Musk – and reveals the personal price he has paid. He is pictured outside court in Los Angeles
On August 29, Howard-Higgins emailed a British newspaper claiming he could prove that ‘Vernon Unsworth is not the saintly man he portrays himself to be’ – repeating the lies he had told Birchall.
When Howard-Higgins informed Birchall that another newspaper was interested, Musk’s right-hand man replied: ‘OK, good… part of the narrative here needs to be the extreme level of darkness most people don’t know exists.’
In a separate email, the investigator reported he had posed as a charity representative to contact the British Cave Rescue Council so he could discuss potential ‘skeletons in the cupboard’.
His intention, he admitted, was to ‘silence Unsworth … and put a lot of pressure on him’.
Musk also renewed his offensive. On August 29, he emailed a reporter from the online publisher Buzzfeed, repeating Howard-Higgins’s fabricated findings and claiming that Mr Unsworth was ‘a child rapist’.
It was the final straw and Mr Unsworth instructed his lawyers to sue for libel.
In court Musk apologised for his Twitter outburst and said Mr Unsworth was not a child rapist.
On December 6, a jury found he had not defamed Mr Unsworth and rejected the Briton’s claim for £145 million compensation.
Each side has now agreed to pay their own legal bills, sparing Mr Unsworth financial ruin – yet he says the cost has still been high.
For years, Mr Unsworth lived in St Albans, but has now moved to an undisclosed location in London.
He says: ‘I feel quite vulnerable in Britain because there are people who take these things into their own hands, vigilantes. I stay with friends because I’m scared.’
The Buzzfeed article also prompted the Thai authorities to launch a series of investigations, which all exonerated the caver.
But he said: ‘After living there for seven years, to have these people crawling all over your life like a bad rash is horrifying. I feel bad for Tik. She’s been asked all these questions by people trying to find out if there’s anything sordid about me. Of course it has put a strain on our relationship. You can imagine the conversations we’ve had.’
So does he regret his decision to sue? ‘Elon Musk was trying to break me and, at times, he came close but I wasn’t intimidated by having to take him on. If I hadn’t stood up to the guy, it would have been tantamount to admitting I’m a paedophile. I had no choice.
‘When the verdict came in I felt really bad… but at the same time I feel I’ve succeeded. Musk has admitted I’m no paedophile and, despite the strain of the past 18 months, that means a lot.’
Musk’s lawyer Alex Spiro last night said neither Musk nor Birchall had anything to add to what was said in court.