Elon Musk was responding to an “unprovoked attack” from a British caver when he called him a “pedo guy” on Twitter, the billionaire told a Los Angeles court on Monday.
Vernon Unsworth, a caving expert from Hertfordshire, had suggested Mr Musk “stick his submarine where it hurts” in an interview with CNN about both men’s involvement in the rescue of a Thai football team from a flooded cave last year.
Mr Musk said he watched the video, which also includes Mr Unsworth suggesting he had been asked to leave the cave system by Thai authorities, “two or three times” shortly before sending the tweet in the early hours of the morning.
“I thought he was just some random creepy guy that the media was interviewing and it was just an unprovoked attack.
“And as he was saying we were asked to leave the caves which wasn’t true, I thought he was unrelated to the rescue,” Mr Musk told the court.
In fact Mr Unsworth was one of the leading figures in the rescue operation and had spent several years mapping and exploring the caves where the children, 12 boys and their coach, were trapped.
Mr Musk, whose companies include battery and electric car company Tesla, tunnelling firm the Boring Company and SpaceX, had flown engineers out to the caves in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, with a mini-submarine which was designed to help with rescue attempts but did not end up being used.
The chief executive said he was “upset” by Mr Unsworth’s comments. “It was wrong and insulting and so I insulted him back.”
Mr Unsworth is suing Mr Musk for defamation over the “pedo guy” message, arguing that the well-known businessman and entrepreneur damaged his reputation by suggesting he was a paedophile.
Mr Musk, the first witness to give evidence on the opening day of the case, said the phrase was a “frivolous insult” which “just means creepy old dude”.
“Just as I didn’t literally mean he was a paedophile, I’m sure he didn’t literally mean I should shove a submarine up my ass,” he said.
Evidence also suggested that Mr Musk initially pushed back against efforts to get him to apologise, arguing that it would be “foolish and craven” and would look like a move to bring up the company’s share price, which had fallen 4pc in the wake of the row.
He deleted the tweets and later posted an apology, though subsequently made similar allegations in an email to a BuzzFeed News reporter.
Mr Musk also said that he had been swindled out of $52,000 by a British “con-man” who he employed as a private investigator through his family office.
The man, James Howard, approached Mr Musk after his initial tweets offering to investigate Mr Unsworth’s private life, but failed to produce any verified information about wrongdoing. “It turns out that we were tricked,” he said.
The billionaire also expressed some regret for how things had turned out, apologising to Mr Unsworth and admitting that his actions were “not classy”.
“This was a case where we did our best to do a good turn. The kids were rescued and that’s great, and there shouldn’t have been all this trouble afterwards,” he said.
Mr Musk’s cross-examination by Lin Wood, Mr Unsworth’s lawyer, ended shortly before the end of the day, and he is expected to take the stand again on Wednesday to be questioned by his own legal team.
Alex Spiro, Mr Musk’s lawyer, began his questions by asking his client about his childhood in South Africa, which appeared to provoke an emotional response.
“It wasn’t good,” Mr Musk said.
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