An ageing entrepreneur with a penchant for prostitutes; an eccentric multimillionaire tech wizard “ruined” by recession; founder of a new age Central American drug laboratory; and a man wanted for questioning over the murder of a neighbour. John McAfee, Silicon Valley’s original bad boy, is all of these things.
For years, the IT genius remained the faceless namesake of McAfee antivirus software, the business he sold in 2004 for US$100 million and which he has since publicly derided. Then, last year, a murder mystery on the sleepy island of Ambergris Caye, in the Central American nation of Belize, brought him to the world’s attention.
The morning after Gregory Faull was found with a bullet in the back of his head, McAfee went on the run, with Vice magazine in tow. He skipped Belize and faked a heart attack in Guatemala to get extradited back into the United States, where he’s now courting celebrity and making riotous self-parodies on YouTube.
But who is John McAfee? Little is known about his background, he gleefully deals journalists red herrings and his contradictory character makes him maddeningly difficult to judge. When I called him up one recent Sunday evening, he was visiting Austin, Texas, for the first time and was ready to talk about his new tech venture – and the skeletons in his closet.
JOHN MCAFEE WAS BORN in southwest England in 1946 to a British mother and a US serviceman. His parents had met in Bristol and theirs was a wartime love story. After two years, the family moved from Gloucestershire to Salem, Virginia, in the US, where he grew up.
McAfee still holds dual citizenship but says he doesn’t feel British. “I just like English tea and Marmite,” he says. But there is something very British public school about him; he’s wellmannered, charming and deftly inoffensive.
His parents’ union was fraught and the family, he tells me, was not well-off. “I certainly did not come from money. My fortune was self-made.”
McAfee, who was an only child, has said his father was drunk and abusive. He shot himself dead when McAfee was just 15. His mother passed away 17 years later, meaning neither parent lived to see the family name travel the world.
Still, they must have known he was smart. After graduating with a degree in mathematics from Roanoke College, in Virginia, he was hired by US space agency Nasa to work in New York as a programmer. Two years later, he left for Silicon Valley, and set up a dating service in Santa Clara that used a database to screen members for HIV and Aids, decades before the likes of OkCupid and Match.com were conceived. But it wasn’t until he joined American global aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin in the mid-1980s that inspiration in step with the times struck.
“It was kind of an accident, like everything in my life,” he said at the time. As the computer industry gained pace, fears of “malevolent bugs” were taking hold. In 1986, two brothers in Pakistan coded the first known computer virus aimed at PCs. McAfee infected his machine with the Pakistani Brain virus, which erased files from its host’s hard drive. He cracked the virus and began wiping it for others. Before long he wrote Virus Scan.
By 1987, he had formed antivirus firm McAfee Associates and, two years later, he quit Lockheed Martin. Fame was to soon follow.
“It was a lot of hard work, but an extremely proud moment in my life,” McAfee says. “Back then, I really loved what I did.” But after a scandal over the Michelangelo virus, in which McAfee was accused of scaremongering to boost sales, and a US$50 million public floatation in 1993, the following year McAfee stepped away from the business.
“The company grew so fast, it was no longer enjoyable,” he says. “When you’re the CEO of a firm that employs 10,000 people, you can no longer do the things that you love, which is programming.
You have to deal with personnel problems and stockholders and board meetings. It’s not my cup of tea. Everyone was shocked, of course; the company was expanding so rapidly. But there was no sense in staying. I hired the CEO of IBM to take over and he did a great job.”
McAfee was also battling personal demons; after suffering a heart attack in 1993, he stopped taking recreational drugs and became teetotal. His heavy substance abuse dated back to his Nasa days. McAfee was 48 years old. He had been married twice: first to a student he met in college and then to a United Airlines air hostess. He bought a 160-hectare forest in Colorado, built a home on it and founded a yoga resort, writing several books on the topic. “I had no plans,” McAfee says, “but in the end tech pulled me back in.”
In 1994, he founded Tribal Voice and invented PowWow – an instant messaging platform with Skype-like voice technology that encouraged users to communicate with other members, or “tribes”, with similar interests. Arguably, McAfee invented the world’s first social network. But PowWow didn’t become Facebook. The timing was premature and it was backed by the wrong people. Stakeholder CMGI was at loggerheads with the then-dominant AOL, “didn’t know what to do with it”, and sold up in 1999 for US$17 million.
“PowWow was ahead of its time,” McAfee laments. “The technology just wasn’t there.”
McAfee claims that although there is nothing he wanted to invent but didn’t (“apart from Google”), he is still haunted by PowWow’s failure to catch on. “I was the first person to put VoIP [voice over internet protocol] on personal computers. Do you realise what that means? I can dictate and my phone gets it with accuracy. It frees us from learning to type. VoIP is what I’m most proud of in my career.”
The world wasn’t ready for McAfee’s vision. Only the product that capitalised on his own paranoia of being attacked had managed to capture the public’s imagination. And having failed to recreate the success of the McAfee antivirus software, his life lurched into extreme sports.
In 2002, he read about an inherently dangerous type of lightweight aircraft called a trike – essentially, a jet ski with wings. On a whim, McAfee and his then 22-year-old girlfriend, Jennifer Irwin, moved to Arizona, where they would skim the desert’s surface at 120km/h in these small planes.
McAfee set up an “aerotrekking” school and told the world he had invented a new sport. But, in 2006, a tragedy struck that would send him to Belize and into the arms of an even uglier disaster.
Robert Gilson was an Air Force veteran and retired pipe fitter from New Hampshire who had recently come out of a meningitis-induced coma. He fancied some excitement, but in Arizona he met his death.
On November 1 that year, McAfee’s 22-year-old cousin, Joel Bitow, took Gilson aerotrekking. The pair hit the side of a canyon, crashed and died.
Gilson’s family blamed McAfee for the death of the father of three, claiming that Bitow was not a qualified instructor, and filed a US$5 million lawsuit against him.
It was around this time that McAfee went bankrupt. Or, at least, that’s what he’d like us to believe. In 2009, The New York Times reported that the entrepreneur’s fortune, once worth US$100 million, had collapsed in the global credit crunch. He was down to his last US$4 million and was auctioning his properties at fire-sale prices to pay the bills. What happened in those years after McAfee antivirus?
“Well, a lot happened,” says its creator. “[The events of September 11, 2001] turned this country from America the Great to America the Paranoid, and Homeland Security was born, which made it almost impossible for foreigners to enter. What do we do when we’re afraid? We give up something important: we give up our freedoms. I believe that the recession can be blamed entirely on our own attitudes and our fears.
“Sweetie,” he says, in a way that is both vaguely flirtatious and hugely condescending, “what is finance other than innate confidence?
When we are confident, our market goes up.
When we are afraid, our market goes down.”
Indeed. But McAfee knows I was referring to his own finances, not America’s global fortunes. I ask him more specifically, where did all the money go? It’s the first time in our interview that McAfee becomes offhand.
“Firstly, keep in mind I never tell anybody the truth about my finances. Because it’s no one’s business,” he says. “One day I would tell someone I was worth US$180 million, then the next US$10 million, because I think asking that question is rude. It does not deserve a straight answer.”
His bank balance aside, what happened next is now well-documented.
McAfee and Irwin, then 28, moved to Belize, one of the poorest countries in the world. There his remaining assets would be beyond the grasp of the Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona. He sold his two-hectare estate in Moloko, Hawaii, his Woodland Park base in Colorado, properties in Arizona and Texas and his ranch in Rodeo, Mexico.
Life in the country of just 300,000 people was, at first, humdrum. His new business projects were a cafe and a high-speed ferry service. Then he met Dr Allison Adonizio – an attractive 31-year-old Harvard biologist working in a field of microbiology called anti-quorum sensing.
Essentially, she believed plants found in Central American rainforests could treat bacteria and solve the global problem of antibiotic resistance.
McAfee built her a laboratory and she quit her job.
Freewheeling tech multimillionaire McAfee didn’t blend into island life – young women from mainland bars were flown to his apartment for weeks at a time – and, he says, his wealth attracted 11 attempts to kill him in one year alone. His solution was to hire the very same assassins who tried to kill him for the gun-toting security detail that would accompany him everywhere. The vicious guard dogs on his villa’s stretch of the beach were unpopular with the neighbours, especially American expat Faull, who made a complaint to the local authorities the day before his death.
What is more, McAfee, a man used to being the head of his own empire, found himself being asked to kowtow to corruption. In Carmelita, near his laboratory, he built a police station, donated arms and tear gas to the force and even paid officers overtime to patrol at night, to stamp out rampant drug dealing in the town. But he refused one request for a donation, he says, when a local politician asked for US$2 million.
His house was raided. “Armed soldiers shot up my dog, destroyed half a million dollars worth of property and put me hands-up in the sun for 14 hours, and then left with no charges,” he says. “That was simply because I had refused to give what I call a bribe. They call it a donation. I don’t believe in politics, so I wasn’t going to give the donation.”
A week later the police returned. “He said, ‘Have you reconsidered the donation?’ I said, ‘No’. I then went to the international press and from that moment on, I had a running war with the Belize police, which ended in the death of my neighbour.”
When he heard the news, McAfee ran.
“They mistook him for me,” he told Wired magazine in a frantic interview last November. “They got the wrong house. He’s dead. They killed him. It spooked me out.”
McAfee was convinced the Belizean authorities would have used Faull’s death to jail him.
“In Belize,” he says, “you can question someone for 60 days with no charges. If you’re unsatisfied, you can renew it for another 60 days indefinitely. I would be in prison forever being questioned. They just wanted to shut me up.”
Adonizio had already become disgusted by McAfee’s lifestyle and fled.
She has described finding “literally a garbage bag full of Viagra” in his beachside mansion.
“He tried to convince me that love doesn’t exist, so I might as well just give in and sleep with all these crazy circus folk,” Adonizio told design and technology blog Gizmodo after escaping back home to Pennsylvania.
“I was naive about who and what Mr McAfee really is.”
McAfee had seven regular girlfriends, including Sam Vanegas and Amy Emshwiller, who was just 16 when she moved to the McAfee mansion. His long-time partner, Irwin, gave him an ultimatum: Amy or her. He chose the teenager.
“I canned a solid 12-year relationship for a stark-raving madwoman,” he says. “But I honestly fell in love.
“Monogamy to me is a social more and human beings are the only ones who have that illusion. There are no other animals in the entire animal kingdom that are monogamous,” McAfee says when I invite him to explain his colourful Belizean love life.
“How old are you?” he asks. “You must have seen by now that hardly anyone is truly faithful.”
His open-bed policy began to unravel way before Faull’s death. On YouTube, McAfee has posted a series of videos sending up his lifestyle. In one video he even tells users how to uninstall McAfee and reads a quote about the software from Urban Dictionary, which calls it “a barely passable virus scanning program that updates at the worst possible times”. He then snorts designer drug “bath salts” and takes a gun to the PC, as scantily clad women stroke his back. But it’s a line from another clip, in which McAfee is wearing a robe like Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and naked women cavort around, that is most attention grabbing.
“I live with a bunch of women who are intent on dismembering me,” he jokes.
Did he really feel like that? He pauses. “I didn’t feel like that at the time, but three of them did try to kill me, for various reasons,” he says.
“Women are very jealous creatures, but especially in Third World countries. Especially in Latin countries, where the culture is very fiery and people expect to be strongly emotional about things like infidelity. It’s dangerous when you have an affair that you’re open with.
“I’ll never do that again,” he says solemnly. Since quitting Central America he’s been ostensibly faithful to Janice Dyson, a former prostitute with “the best booty in Miami”.
His lovers may not have killed him, but trigger-happy groupie Amy did shoot him, missing his brain and blasting his eardrum. She left the 67- year-old deaf in one ear and he constantly needs me to repeat myself.
McAfee did not press charges against Amy. In fact, when Faull was found “lying face up in a pool of blood with an apparent gunshot wound on the upper rear part of his head”, as the official police report describes it, one Saturday night last November, McAfee took Vanegas with him and paid for Amy to run, too.
“I didn’t want anybody to ask me questions, and I guess John didn’t want that either,” Amy told Dateline Australia.
“Forgiveness is one of the graces of life,” he says. “I’m sure you have done things you’re sorry about; if people did not forgive you, what would life be?
You have to also look at why people do things. If someone is mentally disturbed or has been abused, you can’t blame them for acting in a way that indicates they had a troubled life.”
Sometimes, when McAfee talks about other people, it is hard not to wonder whether he is, in fact, speaking about himself.
McAfee was on the run in Guatemala for nearly a month, although he was only officially wanted for questioning. The Belizean authorities have never made him a suspect. McAfee claims he wasn’t seriously worried.
“One of my strengths is the more people around me go into crisis mode the calmer I am. In Guatemala, the more intense it got, the more calm and cool I became.”
Besides, McAfee had hired Guatemala’s former attorney general, Telesforo Guerra, as his lawyer.
“You know how the world works, especially in Third World countries. If you hire someone of that magnitude, you’re going to go home, and I did.”
McAfee arrived back in the US last December. At 67, he is still a highly coherent, healthy and vital figure, his appetite for life undiminished.
“I’m just an ageing technologist who thinks he’s still 20 years old with an enormous curiosity that continuously gets me into trouble,” says the tall, tattooed American.
Since being back on US soil, his life has been a media blitz. He has been interviewed many times over, drops increasingly provocative skits on YouTube and has a biography being written by George Jung, a Boston-born felon who was part of the Medellin cartel, responsible for 89 per cent of the cocaine smuggled into the US in the 1970s and 80s.
“I didn’t pick him, my publicist did. I would not have even had a biography, but I was convinced one should have one given the events of last year. Plus, he’s an excellent writer; his style is so poetic.”
McAfee has now settled in Portland, Oregon, with Dyson. For the first time, he may genuinely be broke. The assets he liquidated after the Gilson lawsuit are stuck in Belize.
“Those are gone,” he says, matter of factly. “People tell me to get a lawyer, but that’s not the way the world works there. For example, the Belizean prime minister nationalised the telecoms company which was owned by Lord Ashcroft [the British Conservative peer, who holds dual British and Belizean nationality]. He went to court to get it back and the prime minister refused and sent the army in to prevent Ashcroft from gaining control.”
Once the world’s richest programmer, now in his twilight years, McAfee has a new Big Idea: the D-Central – a mobile phone-sized device that Americans can buy for US$100 to stop the National Security Agency spying on them.
“It basically creates a stealth network under the internet so you can continue doing whatever you’re doing, but with a secure connection.” He says a prototype will be ready in six months. “It’s impossible for me to retire,” he says, confessing to sleeping just four hours a night.
That sleep may decrease further. Last month, Faull’s family announced they were suing McAfee. The legal action says McAfee either committed the killing or ordered the murder. Two of his girlfriends have also been named as “possible agents”.
McAfee has said he will answer questioning in the US, but “no ma’am, I will never return to Belize”.
“Boy, I do live an exciting life,” he chuckles. “It’s too exciting, sometimes.
But that happens if you live on the edge, which I like to do because that’s where most discoveries are made. I’m a curious person, but sometimes I fall off. Like in Belize, I went too far.
“But this is my life. It’s a true story, and there’s even more to it than even the world knows.”