Vernon Unsworth choked up on Wednesday as he testified against the Tesla CEO during a defamation trial in Los Angeles.
The 63-year-old, from St Albans, told the hearing he had no choice but to sue the billionaire who used the slur on Twitter, or else it would seem the allegation were true.
“I was effectively given a life sentence with no parole,” Mr Unsworth said. “It feels very raw. I feel humiliated, ashamed, dirtied.”
He is seeking unspecified damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress from Mr Musk, who testified that his stock in Tesla and SpaceX is worth around $20bn (£15bn).
Mr Musk fired off the insult during a public spat over his offer to assist in the rescue of the trapped schoolboys in June 2018, using a purpose-built submarine he commissioned his engineers at SpaceX and The Boring Co to develop.
The British diver dismissedthe tech entrepreneur’s offer as a “PR stunt”, telling CNN: “He can stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Rescuers – including Mr Unsworth – then led the young football team to safety without using the six-foot vessel, which Mr Unsworth later said “had absolutely no chance of working”.
While the diver would go on to receive honours from the king of Thailand and the Queen, one of Mr Unsworth’s legal team said Mr Musk had falsely branded his client a predator to millions of people “in what should have been one of the proudest moments of his life”.
The Tesla co-founder admitted to the court on Wednesday that his response was “not classy”, but claimed the insult had not been intended literally, and that in his native South Africa “pedo guy” was a commonly used phrase to describe a “creepy old man”.
“I assume he did not mean to physically sodomise me with a submarine … just as I didn’t literally mean he was a paedophile,” he said.
Mr Musk told the jury that the phrase was “was obviously a flippant insult” and that news organisations had “correctly interpreted it” as such.
But Judge Stephen Wilson said it would be up to jurors to apply the standard of what a reasonable person would think Mr Musk meant, not what journalists think.
While Mr Musk said he had deleted the offending tweet within hours and apologised two days later, he also doubled down on the accusation a month later during an email exchange with a Buzzfeed reporter seeking a comment on the threat of legal action, saying: “Stop defending child rapists.”
He apologised again during the trial, while looking directly at a stony-faced Mr Unsworth, who said that because of Mr Musk even his investiture as a member of the British empire by the Queen felt bittersweet.
The diver said he had lost a lot of self-confidence since Mr Musk’s tweet and didn’t want to attend the ceremony because he knew it would be overshadowed by some mention of “pedo guy”.
Mr Musk’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, said Mr Unsworth deserves nothing for what he called “joking, taunting tweets in a fight between men”.
Mr Unsworth, who lives part-time in Thailand, said he has been exploring the Tham Luang cave network since 2012 and spends hundreds of hours there a year, also developing maps of the system.
Describing the rescue effort, he said he was contacted to help after the boys got lost and spent three straight days without sleep trying to stem rising waters with sandbags.
Mr Unsworth also recommended the Thai government reach out to British cave rescue divers who ultimately located and rescued the boys, who were trapped for two weeks.
The lead rescue diver, Rick Stanton of Coventry, testified that Mr Unsworth was essential in providing a detailed map of the cave that helped him locate the boys and eventually bring them to safety.
Mr Stanton also said he had encouraged Mr Musk to build his submarine and thought it could be used as a backup if they had found themselves unable to swim the boys out.
Outside court, Mr Stanton said the tech entrepreneur’s contribution was well-intentioned but probably would not have worked.
He said the pod only had half the air supply needed for the 2.5-hour extraction, and other equipment attached to it that he saw in a video could have become tangled on rocks in tight passages.
He said he thought Mr Musk arrived in Thailand with the craft to “showboat”.
The hearing continues.
Additional reporting by AP