If there's one thing we can probably all agree on, it's that you should carefully vet private investigators before hiring them to dig up dirt on people you don't like. This is especially true if you happen to be the head of a multi-billion dollar company. Unfortunately, Elon Musk just learned this the hard way.
The famously eccentric electric car/spaceship magnate just blew $75,000 "investigating" veteran diver Vernon Unsworth, who you may remember Musk accused of being a pedophile on Twitter during the Tham Luang soccer team cave-rescue in Thailand. Turns out the investigator was really a convicted thief who lied about his military record, thus making Musk look like a fool in public yet again. Whoops.
Let’s lay the groundwork for this adventure. Last year, when a bunch of Thai soccer players got stuck in a cave, Musk sort of injected himself into the story by designing a submarine that could get them out. It seems noble on its face, but the effort was quickly ridiculed as an unfeasible PR stunt by Vernon Unsworth, a veteran diver and British expat in Thailand who was actually involved with the rescue effort.
So Musk responded in a super normal and cool way: by calling Unsworth a “pedo guy” on Twitter.
Musk later apologised to Unsworth and deleted the tweet. But naturally, Unsworth is suing Musk, as he should, although Musk has since claimed that “pedo guy” is just a standard, run-of-the-mill insult in his native South Africa. (It isn’t.)
After Musk lobbed his tweet, what we do know is he hired a private investigator to try and dig up dirt on Unsworth’s past, ostensibly to try and figure out if he was a child rapist because it ain’t libel if it’s true.
What we did not know, until today thanks to BuzzFeed News, is that this private investigator is nothing of the sort. He’s James Howard-Higgins, who was sentenced to three years in prison in the UK for defrauding his business partner.
The story says Howard-Higgins got to Musk by cold emailing to the head of his “family office,” who then hired him apparently without doing any sort of real due diligence.
As a cofounder of Orchid Maritime, a private maritime security company based in the English seaside town of Poole, Howard-Higgins worked on sales and marketing, according to former business associates. Those associates told BuzzFeed News they noticed large amounts of money missing from company accounts and suspected Howard-Higgins was responsible.
He confessed to stealing around $475,000, the story said, which led to a prison sentence. He served 18 months of that before being paroled.
After being released from prison and barred from directorship of any UK-registered company for 10 years, Howard-Higgins revived an old venture he called Jupiter Military & Tactical Systems. There is no UK registration for the company, and sources close to Howard-Higgins described Jupiter as little more than an email account and a website.
Musk claims to have never directly spoken with the private investigator. But in a deposition, he said he thought Howard-Higgins “appeared to be credible” based on information given to him by Birchall, who was communicating with the investigator using the alias “James Brickhouse.”
In emails sent by Howard-Higgins to Birchall, he claims to have spent 11 years in the UK special forces and two years with the United Kingdom’s security services with additional work for the likes of billionaires George Soros and Paul Allen.
Emphasis mine, because, and I cannot stress this enough: when somebody says they were in the Special Forces, they almost certainly were not.
In fact, a former business partner told BuzzFeed News that Howard-Higgins never served in the military at all — or even the police. But he was still somehow hired by Musk’s team for about $75,000 to dig up dirt on Unsworth.
The story says Howard-Higgins then fed Musk’s family office all sorts of dubious, heavily hedged and unverified information, including about the age of Unsworth’s partner in Thailand. Musk doubled-down on his “pedophile” claims, including to BuzzFeed News, where he even called the diver a “child rapist.”
It’s not clear when Musk terminated his relationship with Howard-Higgins, but the “private eye” is now back in jail for violating the terms of his parole, the story says.
I’m not even remotely doing this whole messy saga justice, so you should read it all here. Either way, it’s a bizarre and enduring black eye for Musk and a lesson in when you should just learn to let things go.
Also, maybe Google around a bit before you hire your P.I.?
This story originally appeared on Jalopnik.