[The following piece ran on Gizmodo.com on November 12, 2012]
As dawn broke over the interior of Belize on April 30, an elite team of 42 police and soldiers, including members of the country’s SWAT team and Special Forces, converged on a compound on the banks of a jungle river. Within, all was quiet. The police called out through a bullhorn that they were there looking for illegal firearms and narcotics, then stormed in, breaking open doors with sledgehammers, handcuffing four security guards, and shooting a guard dog dead. The compound’s owner, a 67-year-old white American man, emerged bleary-eyed from his bedroom with a 17-year-old Belizean girl. The police cuffed him and took him away, along with his guards.
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?
It’s not too unusual for eccentric gringos to wind up in Central America and slowly turn stranger—”Rich white men who come to Belize and act strangely are kind of a type,” one local journalist told me. But this one’s story is more peculiar than most. John McAfee is a founding father of the anti-virus software industry, an inveterate self-promoter who built an improbable web security empire on the principles of trust and reliability, then poured his start-up fortune into a series of sprawling commune-like retreats, presenting himself in the public eye as a paragon of engaged, passionate living: “Success, for me,” he has said, “is being able to wake up in the morning and feel like a 12 year old.” But down in Belize, McAfee the enlightened Peter Pan seems to have refashioned himself into a kind of final-reel Scarface.
ONE DAY THIS past spring, shortly before the police raid, I paid a visit to McAfee. I’d known John personally for five years, having first met him when I traveled to his ranch in rural New Mexico, an adventure-sports reporter who found him to be a genuinely charismatic entrepreneur and thrill-seeker. By now, though, I’d become convinced he was a compulsive liar if not an outright psychopath, albeit one whose life as a thrill-seeking serial entrepreneur was as entertaining for me to follow as it was amusing for him to perform.
By the time I’d arrived in country, I’d heard that his circumstances had soured since we’d last been in touch—that his business relationships had fallen apart and he’d become estranged even from the other caution-to-the-wind expats in Belize. “He is one strange cookie,” a British hostel owner told me.
At the time, he was in residence not at his compound in the interior, near the town of Orange Walk, but at his beachfront property on the tourist-friendly island of Ambergris Caye. I pulled up in a golf cart to the rear entrance to his home and found him sitting by a pool overlooking the ocean—trim, tanned, and relaxed in flip-flops, cargo shorts, and frosted hair. As usual, he wore a goatee and a sleeveless T-shirt that showed off the tattoos that ran up his arms and over his back, with sunglasses on Croakies around his neck. He invited me to sit with him in a screened-in porch. Two young Belizean women lounged in the adjacent living room.
It was a pretty palatial setup, but his only companions these days, he told me, were the locals who work for him. Out on the patio, a dark-skinned man appeared and began cleaning the pool. Another man wearing a crisp uniform positioned himself nearby. He carried a holstered pistol awkwardly in front of him. I intuited that the gun was being brandished for my benefit, and I told McAfee that it made me nervous.
“Well, he’s a security guard!” McAfee hopped up and called to the women inside. “Hey girls, you’ve been by my house in Orange Walk, right? How many security guards do I have there?” Five, the girls said. “Did they carry guns?” Yes, the girls said. “Serious guns?” Yeah!
“When I was here before,” I said, “no one was carrying a gun.”
“Well, that was a long time ago.”
“And do you think things have changed since then?”
“The economy is going south,” he said. “As the economy goes south, petty theft begins. And then grand theft. And then muggings. And the next thing you know, you murder someone for twenty dollars.”
He explained that the country’s crime rate was a result of its terrible economic condition. “People in this country starve! And not just a few. Almost everybody has gone through periods of starvation. You won’t find a single person who has not at one point lost their hair. This is a sign of advanced malnutrition.” Belize is a relatively prosperous part of Central America, not some civil-war-wracked wasteland in the Horn of Africa, but I kept my peace.
He opened the current issue of the Belize Times, holding the paper down with one arm to keep it from blowing away, and showed me a photo of two men. “I am the only white man in Orange Walk, and I was stupid enough to build right next to the highway, where people could see that I have stuff,” he said. “So there have been, in the last year alone, eleven attempts to kidnap or kill me.”
Before I could ask how, McAfee had gone on to tell me a story about a Belizean gangster named Eddie “Mac-10″ McKoy. According to McAfee, Mac-10 wanted to kill him. “I’m an older dude, and somewhat smarter than him,” McAfee said. “I tracked him down and forced him to the bargaining table. And we had this big meeting here in San Pedro, and Eddie and I came to an agreement.” I took this to mean that he was paying McKoy protection money, but while I was trying to sort it out one of the Belizean women interrupted us, appearing with a tall glass of orange liquid. He sniffed it suspiciously, like he had no idea what it might be. He offered it to me, then after I declined drank it himself.
Some time later, he continued, he learned of another plot on his life. (Why he thought everyone was so hell-bent on killing him, rather than just taking his money, was unclear.) A group of attackers, including two police officers, was planning to force his car off the road one night, he said, take him back to his compound with a gun to his head, and force the guards to open the gate. They would then kill McAfee and the guards and make off with the $100,000 cash he was rumored to keep at his property. Fortunately, McAfee said, McKoy intervened.
McAfee was proudest of the way he’d responded to his would-be killers: He hired them. “Everyone who has tried to rob me, kill me, works for me now,” he declared. This was not just good hacker logic, he explained, but a kind of public service. “None of these people are responsible, because they can’t work. At some point, you’ve got to stop living for yourself. We as Americans have ripped off the world. We get to throw food away. It’s insane.”
He jumped up and called to the women inside: “Have you ever thrown food away?” Getting no answer, he continued: “The idea is so alien you don’t even comprehend it, right?”
He remained standing. We’d been talking for an hour, and I sensed the interview was over. I thanked McAfee for his hospitality, and asked if I could reciprocate by buying him dinner. He looked at me incredulously. “Haven’t you been listening to me? I can’t leave my home after dark.”
IN THE LATE EIGHTIES, as computers were starting to become common in American homes, fears began to circulate of malicious rogue programs that could spread from machine to machine. Where many saw an emerging hazard, McAfee recognized opportunity. A software engineer working for Lockheed, he obtained a copy of an early virus, the so-called “Pakistani Brain,” and hired coders to write a program that neutralized it. It was a prescient move, but what he did next was truly inspired: He let everyone download the McAfee security software for free. Soon he had millions of users and was charging corporate clients a licensing fee. By his third year, he was pulling in millions in profit.
The anti-virus program wasn’t McAfee’s first entrepreneurial venture. As a young man, he’d traveled through Mexico, sleeping in a van, buying stones and silver, and making jewelry to sell to tourists. Later, during the AIDS panic in San Francisco, he sold identity cards certifying bearers as HIV-free. His freewheeling approach carried over to his Silicon Valley operation. Employees practiced sword-fighting and conducted Wiccan rituals at lunchtime. One long-running office game awarded employees points for having sex in different spots around the office. McAfee himself was an alcoholic and heavy drug user. (After a 1993 heart attack, at the age of 47, he became an aggressive teetotaler.)
In early 1992, he went on national TV and declared that as many as five million computers could soon be hijacked by a particularly dangerous virus called Michelangelo. McAfee sales skyrocketed, but the date of the supposed onslaught came and went without incident. “It was the biggest nonevent since Geraldo broke into Al Capone’s tomb,” complained ZDNet. Forced from his management role, McAfee cashed out his stake in the company, earning $100 million.
Cast adrift, McAfee gave himself over to the life of a wealthy adventure seeker. He raced ATVs (crashing a dozen or so) and made open-ocean crossings by Jet Ski (often they sunk en route). He poured millions into a 280-acre yoga retreat in the mountains above Woodland, Colorado, where every Sunday morning he would hold complimentary classes. “Everything was free,” recalls a former student. “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.” Among the entourage was a teenage employee named Jennifer Irwin, whom McAfee began dating.
Growing bored with ashram life, McAfee invented a new pastime called “aerotrekking,” which involved flying tiny aircraft very low over remote stretches of desert. Experienced pilots called the practice inherently dangerous, but McAfee found it exhilarating. He brought a cadre of followers, including Irwin, with him down to Rodeo, New Mexico, where he bought a ranch with an airstrip and spent millions adding lavish amenities—a cinema, a general store, a fleet of vintage cars. He started calling his entourage the Sky Gypsies. McAfee took pains not to portray himself their leader, but it was clear that he was the one who paid the bills and called the shots. When he talked, no one interrupted.
This is where I first met McAfee, as a reporter dispatched to write about his ambitions to turn aerotrekking into a new national pastime. He put me up in a bedroom in his ranch house, and we awoke before dawn to walk to an aircraft hangar filled with small planes. “People are afraid of their own lives,” he said in a cough-syrup baritone. “Shouldn’t your goal be to have a meaningful life? Unknown, mysterious, thrilling?”
Some of his efforts to support his new sport seemed less than kosher. To give aerotrekking an illusion of momentum, he set up a network of fake websites purportedly from aerotrekking clubs scattered around the country. And at the end of my visit, McAfee told me, proudly, of his scheme to distract nearby residents, who had become irritated by the aerotrekking and begun to organize against the company. One of the Sky Gypsies had snuck into the local post office after hours and posted a flyer announcing a national paintball convention coming to town. The flyer promised that hundreds of trigger-happy shooters in camouflage would soon descend en masse and storm through the wilderness. To bolster the hoax, McAfee had set up a fake website promoting the event. The homebrew psy-ops campaign went off without a hitch. By the next day, the town was a beehive of angry protesters, and the aerotrekking issue was forgotten.
In retrospect, it’s startling that McAfee was still so committed to aerotrekking. The year before, his own nephew had been killed in a crash, along with the passenger that he had been carrying. The passenger’s family hired a lawyer and filed a $5 million lawsuit. McAfee started telling reporters that the financial crisis had all but wiped him out, slashing his net worth to $4 million. (Both the New York Times and CNN reported the claim, which he later characterized to me as “not very accurate at all.”) He unloaded all his real estate at fire-sale prices and moved to Belize, having been advised by his lawyers that “a judgment in the States is not valid” there. He obtained residency far more quickly than the one-year minimum waiting time mandated by law. “This is a Third World country,” he told me later, “so I had to bribe a whole bunch of folks.”
Accompanied by a gaggle of hangers-on (including Irwin, by then 28), McAfee settled into a beachside compound on Ambergris Caye. With characteristic gusto he launched a slew of enterprises, including a coffee shop and a high-speed ferry service. Then he met an attractive 31-year-old named Allison Adonizio, a vacationing Harvard biologist. She told him she was working in a new field of microbiology called “anti-quorum sensing”—instead of killing infectious bacteria, she said, certain chemicals can disrupt and neutralize them. She’d already identified one rain-forest plant that was rich in such compounds and believed there must be many more. They could solve the burgeoning global problem of antibiotic resistance, she said. McAfee offered to build her a lab in Belize where she could work with native plants. She flew home, quit her job, and moved down to the jungle.
McAfee’s Next Big Thing was under way. He bought land along the New River, deep in the interior of the country, where he Adonizio would grow the herbs. He also acquired another parcel a few miles downriver, near the town of Orange Walk, where he started building a processing facility. He announced that Adonizio had identified six promising new herbs and invited me down to take a look. This, he said, was the reason he’d come to Belize in the first place: to rid humanity of disease and at the same time to lift Belizeans up from poverty. “I’m 65 years old,” he said. “It’s time to think about what kind of legacy I’m going to leave behind.”
In early 2010, I took a trip to Belize, and once again McAfee welcomed me warmly into his home and treated me as a friend. Strolling around the weed-choked parcel he was cultivating, though, I began to question his claims. The herb, he said, was too fragile to be planted the conventional way, and had to be allowed to grow naturally. But if the plant was too delicate for agriculture, how could he be so sure it would thrive in sufficient quantity to feed his production facility? When I pressed him about it, he suggested that the far-fetchedness of the plan was itself evidence of its legitimacy: “I must either be a fool,” he said, “or I feel extremely secure that I will be shipping goods.”
Midway through my visit the story grew odder still. Adonizio and McAfee told me that, for all the world-changing potential they saw in their anti-quorum sensing project, they’d decided to put it on hold. Instead, they were concentrating on developing and marketing another jungle-herb compound Adonizio had discovered, one that they said boosted female libido.
Back home, I wrote a story that questioned McAfee’s good works, and raised doubts about his motives for being in Belize. After it was published online, McAfee launched a vigorous defense in the comments section, claiming that he’d never shelved the anti-quorum sensing project but had lied to me during my visit because he’d sensed that I’d intended to write a hostile article all along. “I am a practical joker, and I joke no differently with the press than I do with my next-door neighbor,” he wrote. “I’m not saying it’s a particularly adult way of behaving, or business like, or not offensive to some. But it’s me.”
At first Adonizio supported McAfee’s claims in the comments section. “I felt a bit uncomfortable (at first) about playing our joke on Jeff,” she wrote. “However, after reading the piece, I understand why John had wanted us to keep things under wraps. Jeff was there on day one with the intent to write something sensational. John kept saying: ‘an aggressor with no humor deserves no leniency.'”
Then, four months later, she contacted me by email. “Remember me?” she wrote. “I’ll just be blunt. I was naive about who and what Mr. McAfee really is.”
She explained that before my arrival she had not, as they’d previously claimed, found any new antibiotic compounds. She had only the one that she’d been working on at Harvard, and it was already under patent, and so could not be developed for sale. “We really didn’t have anything when you came down,” Adonizio said. McAfee decided the libido drug, which originally had been mooted as a joke, could serve as a plausible alternative in the meantime. She played along with his hoax, she said, only at McAfee’s insistence.
Amid the article’s fallout, their relationship had become tense. He showed her websites devoted to various kinds of outré kink, and became increasingly open, when his girlfriend Irwin was out of town, about bringing prostitutes off the street and into his bedroom. (One day Adonizio came upon “literally a garbage bag full of Viagra.”) After she’d broken up with a boyfriend on the mainland, “he kept trying to set me up with these weird friends that were into polyamory and crazy kinky stuff,” she said. “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.” He liked to hint that he had connections to dangerous criminals, implying that he could have her ex-boyfriend killed: “I have someone who can take care of that,” he told her.
When at last she decided she’d had enough and asked McAfee to buy out her share of the company, he exploded, she says, screaming and lunging at her. She fled and locked herself in the lab. McAfee pounded on the door and shouted obscenities. Afraid for her safety, Adonizio called a friend to escort her off the property. The next day, she boarded a flight back home to Pennsylvania.
Even at thousands of miles away, she said, she felt frightened that he might do her harm. “As soon as I started questioning his motives, he turned on me and became a horrible, horrible person, controlling, manipulative and dangerous,” she told me. “I’m thankful that I got out with my life.”
In the wake of Adonizio’s departure, McAfee grew more isolated. An investor who’d wanted to back the anti-quorum-sensing venture backed away. A joint-venture agreement with Dr. Louis Zabaneh, one of the country’s most powerful men, fell apart. The hangers-on drifted away. After 14 years, Irwin left him. McAfee spent most of his time in Orange Walk, where he’d expanded the rickety herb-processing facility into a small walled fortress. “what i experienced out @ his property made me wanna get the fuck outta dodge,” an associate e-mailed Adonizio, “creepy, and a bit scary. and i don’t scare easily … i have a feeling he’s in some deep shit down there.”
I DIDN’T MAKE IT BACK to Orange Walk during my visit in April, but I was tense throughout our meeting in Ambergis Caye, even though McAfee insisted he bore me no hard feelings and had in fact liked the last article: “I thought it was well written,” he said.
When I asked him about why Adonizio was unhappy about her time with him in Belize, he seemed exasperated. “Allison is an unhappy person who is unhappy to the core,” he told me. “Whatever’s on the table, she will turn it this way, that way, and make something out of it, to be the cause of her unhappiness.”
And what about his lack of friends in the expat community? “I don’t need friends,” he said. “What does friendship actually mean? It’s a commitment to an idea that just doesn’t interest me.”
A moment later he paused and said, “I’m going to tell you the truth, for once.” Then he seemed to get distracted, and made a phone call. The next day, he sent an e-mail inviting me to come back for another visit: He’d forgotten that he’d wanted to tell me that very important, he wrote, which he was only willing to impart in person. I had an eerie, inexplicable feeling that the thing he wanted to tell me was that he’d ordered my murder. I waited to call him until I was back in the States, and when he heard that I was already home, his tone was brusque: “I’m really not interested in chatting over the phone about things that are dear to my heart,” he said.
Two weeks later, the police raided his compound. In the process they validated what I had taken to be some of McAfee’s most far-fetched assertions. Superintendent Marco Vidal confirmed to me that, indeed, several members of his security force were known criminals, and that McKoy was a gang leader of some note. “McKoy is a member of one of the factions of the Bloods Gang,” Vidal wrote me in an e-mail. “We know of a meeting between McKoy and McAfee at his café in San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye in which McAfee was flanked by the two leaders of the most notorious and violent gang operating in Belize City. At that meeting McAfee also took along a Police Officer. We believe that his intention was to make it categorically clear to McKoy that he controlled both the legitimate and the illegitimate armed forces.”
In the wake of his arrest, McAfee was nervous enough about the police investigation that he sent two employees to solicit an officer for inside information. Both were arrested for attempted bribery. McAfee then sent another Belizean on the same mission. He, too, was arrested.
McAfee’s world seemed to be imploding. In late May, Gizmodo posted the text of a message that McAfee had put up on a private discussion board. In it, he described being on the lam from the police. “I am in a one room house in an uninteresting location,” he wrote. “I have not been outdoors for 5 days.” He added that he was posting from an iPad but didn’t have a charger, and the battery only had a 21 percent charge remaining. He described his run-in with the police, then signed off with this: “I’m down to 17% charge. I will leave you.”
But just a few days later, residents spotted McAfee driving a golf cart around Ambergris Caye with a new 17-year-old girlfriend, apparently in good cheer. I dropped him a line, and his reply was upbeat. “Things are getting back to normal,” he wrote. “I’m just waiting for a few properties to sell then I’m off to the South Pacific. No doubt to new adventures…”
In the weeks that followed, he didn’t decamp for the South Seas. Instead, he took to walking around San Pedro wearing a pistol in a holster, in violation of Belizean gun laws. Then, in late July, McAfee appeared in an article in Westword, an alternative weekly based in Denver, describing his latest business venture—According to McAfee, it is called “observational yoga,” and involves sitting in comfortable chairs and watching other people perform asanas. Thanks to its numerous health benefits, McAfee said, “it’s very popular” in Belize and he planned to franchise the concept around the country.
“It would be very difficult to sell this concept in America,” he admitted. “But here I can make any kind of outrageous claim that I choose.”