John McAfee, Silicon Valley's Greatest Villain, Is Trapped in Paradise
Forget Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks high horse, and Hollywood victim Kim Dotcom and his attempts to rebrand himself as an Internet freedom crusader. This is John McAfee, the perfect anti-hero. This is the man whose name we know because of the anti...
Forget Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks high horse, and Hollywood victim Kim Dotcom and his attempts to rebrand himself as an Internet freedom crusader. This is John McAfee, the perfect anti-hero. This is the man whose name we know because of the anti-virus company he founded in the 80s that earned him millions, and that would go on to become one of the most ubiquitous, and arguably most annoying, pieces of software in the last three decades.
If Assange is the Riddler and Dotcom is Kingpin, McAfee is the Joker. With no grand mission to expose the secrets of the world or aspirations to undermine the content monopolies that control us, McAfee’s needs are comparatively pedestrian: chasing the perfect high — from yoga cults to a dangerous hobby called “aerotrekking” to bath salts.
The small island of Ambergris Caye in Belize has been McAfee’s official HQ ever since he allegedly fled the U.S. over a spate of pending lawsuits, including a $5 million civil case brought against him involving the death of his young nephew. Since the weekend, he’s been on the run from murder charges.
According to the official police report filed in Belize, officers found the body of American expatriate Gregory Faull “lying face up in a pool of blood with an apparent gunshot wound on the upper rear part of his head” on Saturday. Faull had recently filed a formal complaint against his neighbor McAfee for “roguish behavior.” Marco Vidal, head of the national police force’s Gang Suppression Unit told Gizmodo that McAfee is the prime suspect.
With authorities still on the prowl, McAfee found time to tell Wired what he knew about Faull’s death. “Nothing — other than I heard he had been shot,” he said, before re-focusing on the guy who really mattered. “I thought maybe they were coming for me. They mistook him for me. They got the wrong house. He's dead. They killed him. It spooked me out.”
McAfee says he’s innocent.
“Under no circumstances am I going to willingly talk to the police in this country,” he continued. “You can say I'm paranoid about it but they will kill me, there is no question. They've been trying to get me for months. They want to silence me. I am not well liked by the prime minister. I am just a thorn in everybody's side.”
McAfee — who says he buried himself in sand, hid under boats and cars, and slept on a lice-infested mattress to elude capture — refuses to leave. "I like it here," he told Wired, despite having clearly overstayed his welcome. "It's the nicest place on earth."
This wasn’t the anti-virus mogul’s first run-in with local authorities. Last spring, “an elite team of 42 police and soldiers, including members of the country’s SWAT team and Special Forces” raided his compound where they found McAfee with a 17-year-old girl thinking their resident American millionaire had broke bad. Writes Jeff Wise at Gizmodo:
Inside, the cops found $20,000 in cash, a lab stocked with chemistry equipment, and a small armory’s worth of firearms: seven pump-action shotguns, one single-action shotgun, two 9-mm. pistols, 270 shotgun cartridges, 30 9-mm. pistol rounds, and twenty .38 rounds. Vexingly for the police, all of this was actually legal. The guns were licensed and the lab appeared not to be manufacturing drugs but an herbal antibacterial compound.
After fourteen hours, the police let the man and his employees go, but remained convinced they had missed something. Why else would a wealthy American playboy hole himself up out here, far from the tourist zone on the coast, by a navigable river that happened to connect, twenty miles downstream, with a remote corner of the Mexican border? Why else would he hire, as head of security, a rogue cop who’d once plotted to steal guns from the police and sell them to drug traffickers?
But if you haven’t figured it out already, things in John McAfee’s life don’t need to make sense. And in a meeting this week with me and a colleague, Wise said that when he spoke to McAfee in the spring, he said he expected the former entrepreneur would be dead by year’s end.
McAfee responds to the first police raid.
McAfee’s claim to fame and fortune is the ubiquitous anti-virus software of the same name, which has come preloaded on an inordinate number of computers over the years, and whose constant update and subscription reminders we’ve all grown to hate. Even in the early 90s when the software started to boom, he had a penchant for the sensational. In 1992, he went on national TV to warn that five million computers could be hijacked by a virus called Michelangelo, a move that caused sales to soar. In two years, the company would be worth half a billion dollars. When the date passed without incident, the resulting uproar gave the board license to force McAfee out. For his troubles, he made a cool $100 million.
He quickly jumped to his next venture, a chat program called Tribal Voice which he sold in 1999 for $17 million. Now it was time to chill out. So he plunged himself into yoga, wrote a few books and founded a 280-acre retreat where he would meet a teenage Jennifer Irwin who would go on to become his girlfriend of 14 years. “Everything was free,” a former student told Fast Company. “You would think that this guy was amazingly generous and kind, but he was getting something out of it. He was interested in being the center of attention. He was surrounded by people around him who didn’t have any money and were depending on him, and he could control them.”
Quickly becoming bored with yoga, McAfee directed his followers to a newfound obsession: “aerotrekking,” the practice of flying lightweight aircraft called trikes just a few feet off the ground. It’s a dangerous pastime, one that killed his 22-year-old nephew Joel Gordon Bitow and 61-year-old passenger Robert Gilson. It was the subsequent lawsuit that prompted McAfee to liquidate his assets and flee to Belize. “A judgment in the States is not valid down here [in Belize],” he later told Fast Company. Around this time, he told the New York Times that he’d lost 96 percent of his wealth in the financial collapse, leaving him with just $4 million to live on.
In reality, he seemed to be doing just fine financially, buying millions of dollars worth of land, businesses and a new boat, while donating a $1 million patrol boat to the Belizean coast guard (which McAfee later described as a bribe).
McAfee and his quorum researcher Dr. Adonizio.
CNBC’s David Faber visited McAfee as recently as 2009, and appeared the entrepreneur was doing well. He was even funding new ventures, including a new startup that would focus on growing field in microbiology known as “anti-quorum-sensing,” whereby you fight bacteria, not by killing it outright, but by interrupting its chemical pathways. (That explains all the chemistry gear McAfee has lying around.)
McAfee hoped that special compounds found in the jungle plants would be the building blocks for future antibiotics. The operation was led by Dr. Allison Adonizio, an attractive Harvard researcher who, according to McAfee, was already aware of one such plant. By early 2010, McAfee claimed they’d found six locally, which was a blatant lie. “I’m 65 years old,” McAfee told Gizmodo, hyping the world-changing possibilities of his new company, QuorumEx. “It’s time to think about what kind of legacy I’m going to leave behind.”
It didn’t take long for things to get weird. “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 Gizmodo after escaping back home to Pennsylvania. “I was naive about who and what Mr. McAfee really is.”
As his medical venture evaporated, so too did his last shreds of sanity. Investors backed off. His longtime girlfriend Irwin left him. By October of 2010, he’d signed onto a Russian forum where he boasted of experiments with MDPV, which is found in bath salts, in his pursuit of a “super perv powder.” “I’m a huge fan of MDPV,” he wrote. “I think it’s the finest drug ever conceived, not just for the indescribable hypersexuality, but also for the smooth euphoria and mild comedown.”
Wise, who has covered McAfee and has known the serial entrepreneur personally for the last few years, believes McAfee is a classic psychopath. “When I first met tech guru John McAfee I was utterly charmed,” Wise wrote on his blog. “On this second trip, however, I began to notice a troubling pattern,” Wise continued. “McAfee spent a lot of his time bragging about the hoaxes he'd pulled off, gleefully styling himself as a ‘bullshit artist.’ Sometimes he lied for fun—like when he told a reporter that his tattoo was a Maori design he'd gotten in New Zealand, a country he's never actually been to. Sometimes he lied strategically, like the Facebook posting he put up about how he'd just bought a house in Honduras.” McAfee was facing numerous lawsuits at the time and he hoped the Facebook update would send lawyers on a wild goose chase.
“After I wrote an unflattering article about him, a number of people from McAfee's past reached out to me and told me even more troubling stories,” Wise continued. “I became convinced that McAfee was not merely a disingenuous person but a true psychopath.”
As it turns out, there’s a fine line between psychopath and brilliant entrepreneur. From pathological ambition and intense self regard to risk-taking and impulsivity, the personality traits of a clinical sociopath and that of a startup CEO are disturbingly similar. Researchers Dominik Schwarzinger and Matthias Kramer argue that borderline personality disorders are in fact a crucial elements behind startup success.
"Our results show those with narcissistic personalities have a higher propensity to start businesses," Kramer told Der Spiegel. "Having a strong belief in yourself can have a positive impact when dealing with risks — founders are always plagued by uncertainty of how well their idea will work once it hits the market."
McAfee’s bath salt collection.
Of course, this coin has two sides. Diary entries McAfee posted on a private forum in September released by Gizmodo give a sense of his day-to-day. Here he recounts an incident in which a woman he’s taken in recently might actually be an assassin:
My misjudgments were monumental. I should have been on point the moment Amber Two arrived. She was the girlfriend of Arthur Young, the notorious Belize City gangster who was shot by the GSU on April 23rd while trying to wrestle a gun away from 6 burly GSU officers while his hands were handcuffed behind his back. [Link from original text.]
Amber Two was on the run when she arrived. She had ratted on Arthur for $100,000 in cash – paid by the GSU. – so the Taylor Street Gang that Arthur ran had placed a $50,000 price on her head. In addition, the rival George Street Gang, run by Pinky Tillett, had put a hit on her because, a week before Arthur’s death, Arthur allegedly killed Pinky. [Link from original text.]
Rival gangs here frequently target gang leaders’ girlfriends.
In any case, she was in fear of her life, and running to the “White Man” seemed the safest bet. I had had my own run-ins with the GSU and was, so far, the only person in two years to walk away unscathed. I had plenty of guards and plenty of guns and I was rumored to be friendly to the locals. She showed up and asked for sanctuary. When I discovered she was one of the best cooks in Belize I took her in. [The Cartoonist] will, I feel certain, validate my assessment of her cooking. He did, I believe, fall in love just a little bit with Amber Two.
With a journal like that, it’s probably unsurprising that McAfee’s freewheeling lifestyle has finally caught up to him — murderer or not. “Downward drift is a term that psychologists use for the tendency of some mentally ill to slip ever further down the socioeconomic ladder,” writes Wise. “It's usually applied to schizophrenics, but it seems apt in McAfee's case. Each time I returned to write an article about him I found that his prospects had worsened. He was retreating further from the world I knew, into refuges that seemed ever shakier.”
And now it seems McAfee has retreated even farther. While courts will have to decide if the murder charge in Belize and the host of legal trouble in the U.S. are valid, right now it doesn’t look like McAfee is going to willingly end up in one any time soon. No one knows when McAfee might pop up again — or where, despite his desire to stay in Belize. And until he does, his increasingly unhinged decline is unlikely to stop. Nor can we stop staring.
Follow Alec on Twitter: @sfnuop