The first post on John McAfee’s new blog begins:
With lots of time on my hands and very little to do with it, I’ve been reflecting on the recent detour my life has taken. How did I end up as a murder suspect on the lam?
McAfee founded the anti-virus company McAfee Associates. After he sold out his interest in the firm in the 1990s, John had a fortune of $100 Million. Now he is hiding from the police somewhere in Belize. How did John McAfee become a murder suspect on the lam?
John McAfee was working for Lockheed in 1986 when the first computer virus targetting DOS operating systems was released. He developed a program to defeat the virus and began working on other anti-virus software. McAfee Associates was founded a year later and quickly became one of the top anti-virus companies in the world.
John McAfee in 1989.
At the end of 1991 a number of computers were shipped by their manufacturer that were infected with the Michelangelo virus, so called because it activated each year on March 6, the birthday of Michelangelo Buonarrotti. McAfee predicted disaster, claiming in January of 1992 that five million computers were infected. The press hyped a Michelangelo panic, often citing McAfee’s comments. Some computer analysts thought that the virus was an overblown threat and the panic itself was creating problems — many users were told not to start their computers on March 6, for instance. On March 5, McAfee debated expert Charles Rutstein on the MacNeill-Lehrer Report. Rutstein said that maybe ten or twenty thousand computers worldwide would be infected, McAfee repeated his prediction of five million and said damage in dollar terms would be huge. The next day, Rutstein was proven correct. Michelangelo was a dud.
But Michelangelo had the side effect of making computer users more security conscious. Anti-virus software sales boomed. Some manufacturers admitted that they had hyped the fear in order to promote sales. John McAfee did not make such an admission but had become tainted by his association with the panic. He was forced out of McAfee Associates, resigning in 1994 and selling out all his stock a few years later.
John McAfee outside his New Mexico property. [NY Times]
McAfee was now a very wealthy man. He bought hundreds of acres of land in Colorado and began developing a yoga retreat there. Meanwhile, he created a messenger-type program, Tribal Voice, that he later sold for another pot of cash. He became involved in racing ATVs and tried to jet-ski across the Atlantic. He bought a ranch in New Mexico that developed into a semi-commune where numerous hangers-on came to live. The ranch became a center for what McAfee called aerotrekking, which involved flying ultra-lite aircraft very close to the ground. He bought a thousand acres in Hawaii, promising that he wouldn’t develop it other than to build a home there. Two years later, McAfee sold part of the land to a developer, angering local residents. In 2006, a man was killed while flying as a passenger on one of McAfee’s ultralites and his family launched a multi-million dollar wrongful death suit against him. In 2008, McAfee re-located to Belize, building a beachfront house on Ambergris Cay. In 2009, he told the NY Times
that his fortune had shrunk to only $4 Million, which is hardly credible. The following year, McAfee sold the remainder of his Hawaiian property and announced that he was going to develop antibiotics (or perhaps an antibacterial topical spray) from jungle plants.
McAfee (left) showing director Ang Lee how to aerotrek.
Whether or not McAfee deliberately hyped Michelangelo, he definitely lied on numerous occasions. For example, he created phony websites for non-existent aerotrekking clubs around the US in order to promote the sport. When New Mexico residents became concerned about aerotrekking and began to organize against it, McAfee circulated a story that a huge contingent of paintball enthusiasts was about to descend on on the area and turn the surrounding wilderness into a paint-spattered battlefield. Locals were distracted into combating this new threat and dropped their efforts against aerotrekking. When journalist Jeff Wise went to visit McAfee in Belize, he was told that the antibiotic venture had been put on hold and that McAfee’s lab was now working on a drug to increase female libido. After Wise returned to the States and published his story, McAfee claimed that it was all a prank:
I am a practical joker, and I joke no differently with the press than I do with my next-door neighbor… I’m not saying it’s a particularly adult way of behaving, or business like, or not offensive to some. But it’s me.
Not long after that, the antibiotic scheme fell apart and McAfee’s followers began drifting away from Belize. Soon John McAfee was alone except for his bodyguards and teenage girlfriend of the moment. In April, 2012 The Belize Gang Suppression Unit raided McAfee’s compound, suspecting that he was running a meth lab. Instead they found the abandoned antibiotic setup and a lot of legally registered firearms. The police were still convinced that something was going on, though — some of McAfee’s bodyguards were known criminals.
McAfee with guards. [photo: Brian Finke via wired.com]
Upset by the police attention, McAfee apparently attempted to bribe local officials and this resulted in what were the only charges against him after the raid. McAfee told Jeff Wise that there had been attempts on his life. In May, he posted that he was in hiding:
I am in hiding in an undisclosed location in Belize. Hiding out is no fun. I’ve always wondered why people on the run turn themselves in in many cases. I now know the answer – boredom.
I am in a one room house in an uninteresting location. I have not been outdoors for 5 days. I have no cable or satellite TV and I have three DVDs … I have no books. I do have an Ipad but no charger. They are difficult to get in this country. I have 21% charge remaining – I have been rationing. Since, in the end, The only person you can trust is yourself, I have had no contact with anyone other than telephone interviews with the press….
My lawyers tell me there is absolutely nothing to worry about, so that makes me very worried. They will be negotiating with the government today, if all goes well.
I’m down to 17% charge. I will leave you.
But shortly afterward, McAfee was seen riding around with his latest girlfriend and seemed in fine fettle. In July, he gave an interview to Westword in which he described his latest scheme — observational yoga:
You can pay $200 a month to sit in an easy chair and watch people do yoga up on a stage. There is a scientific basis for this, that through osmosis, as you watch others be active, the observation of something impacts yourself. …
It would be very difficult to sell this concept in America. I would be shut down on all the claims that it improved health by the government. But here I can make any kind of outrageous claim that I choose and the government can see fit to say that it is okay.
McAfee’s interviewer decided that she was being pranked. Another possibility is that McAfee believed what he was saying, at least at the moment he was saying it. After all, this is a guy who has made lots of money with wild ideas, perhaps having wild ideas is just part of his being.
On November 17, the body of Gregory Faull, an American builder living in Belize, was discovered by his housekeeper. Faull had been killed by a single shot to the back of his head. When police named McAfee a “person of interest” that they wished to interview, he fled. On his blog, McAfee claims that the police are out to get him, that he is afraid for his life, but that he is innocent of murder. He claims that he has observed the police hauling stuff into his compound which he believes is part of a frame-up. These observations were done while wearing various disguises:
On subsequent days using different disguises, I did the same general thing, one day selling tamales and burritos that I had purchased wholesale from a real vendor, on another pretending to be a drunk German tourist with a partially bandaged face and wearing speedo swimming trunks and a distasteful, oversized Hawaiian shirt and yelling loudly at anyone who would listen – “Leck mich um ausch!”. At 67 years of age it was quite a spectacle.
I just bet it was. Some people think McAfee is paranoid — the president of Belize says that he is “bonkers” — and McAfee’s rambling website doesn’t do anything to dispel that notion. The first entry attacks Jeff Wise and accuses him of mis-reporting because of an incident that supposedly occurred while Wise visited the New Mexico ranch. A recent post contains the transcript of a tape that presumably details a plot against McAfee. In fact, the site has begun to look like any number of others written by folks who believe themselves persecuted. The site also advertises a comic book being written about McAfee’s life. I am definitely going to get a copy — if it ever comes out.
This post relies heavilly on reporting done by Jeff Wise for Gizmodo, especially “Secrets, Schemes, and Lots of Guns: Inside John McAfee’s Heart of Darkness” and this earlier article in Fast Company.
Also see: Joshua Davis in Wired, here and here with a tape of a phone call to McAfee. Davis has published an e-book of his coverage.