Tesla's Phantom Shooter: The Strange Story of a Debunked Threat

(Bloomberg) -- The tip, police say, came in to a Tesla Inc. call center in Las Vegas. A distraught former employee had a gun -- and seemed ready to use it. The ex-worker’s name, the caller said, was Martin Tripp.

That June 20 warning set off a frantic search for Tripp, who had recently lost his job at Tesla’s sprawling factory near Reno, Nevada, where the company makes batteries for its electric cars.

Five weeks later, the strange story of Tripp’s brushes with law enforcement, and with Tesla, keeps getting stranger. After wrapping up their investigation, authorities say they’ve found no evidence that he ever posed a threat, according to a 10-page police report. And Tesla says it still doesn’t know who was behind the tip.

But this much is sure: Shortly before the call went in, Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive officer, warned in an internal email that someone was trying to sabotage the company. That someone, Musk would later claim, was none other than Martin Tripp.

The episode has set in motion a seemingly lopsided legal battle that pits the billionaire Musk against Tripp, a one-time technician at the Nevada factory who went public with what he said were serious problems with Tesla products, notably the batteries used to power its vehicles.

Tesla has sued Tripp for allegedly stealing company trade secrets after he was denied a promotion. Tripp, in turn, has filed his own lawsuit accusing Musk of smearing him, and took his claims of corporate malfeasance to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Much of the fight has been waged through Twitter and strategic media leaks.

‘Shoot Up the Place’

Breaking news alerts on cable networks were the first indications to the broader public that Tesla seemed to be facing an imminent and potentially violent threat on June 21. Those stories broke a full day after the company had told police that someone claiming to be a friend of Tripp’s had warned that he planned “to shoot up the place,” prompting officers to look into the situation. Authorities had made a preliminary conclusion by June 20 that Tripp posed no immediate risk, according to the police report.

“There was no finding in the investigation of a threat,” Gerald Antinoro, the sheriff for Nevada’s Storey County, said in an interview. “The information we had came from inside the company, and they claim to not know who called.”

Tesla representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Serious Questions’

The previously unreported police report, which Stuart Meissner, a lawyer representing Tripp, provided to Bloomberg News, offers the most detailed account of what authorities found when they questioned Tripp. Bloomberg independently verified the document’s accuracy with Nevada law enforcement officials.

“These reports raise serious questions for Tesla and we intend to follow up on those questions both with the authorities and otherwise,” Meissner said.

Officers were dispatched to the gigafactory on the afternoon of June 20. They were greeted by Tesla’s head of investigations, Sean Gourthro, who handed them a “Be on the Lookout” flyer with a photo of Tripp. A few hours later, Gourthro called to say that Tripp had been seen at a local Safeway supermarket. Deputies went to the Safeway but didn’t find him.

Police eventually reached Tripp, who said he was at a local casino with his family and would meet with officers. Police then heard from Gourthro again and informed him that they were set to speak with Tripp at an undisclosed location. Gourthro correctly guessed the meeting spot, telling police later that he knew because “little birds sing.”

Shaken, Crying

When they met Tripp, police say he was “visibly shaken and crying.” He said he was in fear for the safety of his wife and infant son because of the claims he had made about Tesla. Tripp also told police that on June 14, the company had escorted him to a small room where he was interrogated for around six hours by two security staff. The following day, Tripp said he was questioned again for another few hours before being fired.

According to the report, Tripp told police that before moving to Nevada, he sold all his guns other than a 9 millimeter Hi-Point carbine that had been a gift for his wife. He said the weapon was recently sold to a friend from work. The police report concluded that Tripp was not armed, did not likely have access to firearms, did not present a threat and that the “active shooter threat was not viable at that time.”

On June 25, an officer from the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center conducted an interview with the Tesla call center employee who received the warning about Tripp. The tipster, whose identity remains unknown, described himself as a friend of Tripp’s who was worried about the safety of Tesla workers due to Tripp’s “volatility.” The unidentified person also told the call center employee that “he had never heard Tripp directly make any threats regarding the Tesla gigafactory,” according to the police report.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.