Dancing with a Madman
In December 2012, multimillionaire entrepreneur John McAfee went on the lam following the murder of his neighbor in remote Belize. For this writer, it was just another twist in the most shape-shifting saga of his career.
By May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
June 2007, near Rodeo, New Mexico: Enchantment on the Mesa
An evening breeze carries the smell of the surrounding desert across the patio of John McAfee's ranch. Now that the sun has ducked behind the mountains, the scorching heat has mellowed to an embracing warmth. McAfee, the 61-year-old former software pioneer and multimillionaire entrepreneur, is contemplating new ventures with a gregarious band of misfits gathered around his table. They include a half-dozen ultralight pilots and McAfee's 27-year-old girlfriend, Jen Irwin.
I'm here to write a story about the freewheeling new sport McAfee has invented. Called aerotrekking, it involves flying tiny aircraft at dangerously low altitudes above the desert floor—low enough, he jokes, to catch the occasional cactus spine in the undercarriage. Maybe he's not joking. McAfee's avowed mission is not to take himself too seriously. The conversation around the table is a never-ending stream of wisecracks, and no one gets more laughs than McAfee.
At the moment he's ribbing me about my plans to get married. "Why would you give up the most important thing in your life—your freedom?" he asks. I protest that some of my best friends are happily married. "If there was a pond filled with alligators, and you saw someone swim across it and get out safely on the other side," he asks, "would that make you want to swim across, too?"
I laugh along with everyone else. Is he pulling my leg, I wonder, or is his épater-les-bourgeois stance for real? There's no way to know, and I still don't know today, six years later, after McAfee became a suspect in his neighbor's murder in late 2012, then triggered an international manhunt when he went into hiding. There's no way I could have guessed, chuckling in the New Mexico dusk, that I'm embarking upon the strangest journalistic relationship of my life, one that will lead me to view McAfee as something like a friend and ultimately as a nemesis. Or that, along the way, I'll come to question my own journalistic judgment as well as the knowability of any human being.
On this particular evening in 2007, I just think I'm dealing with a man whose defining trait is that he shatters all the stereotypes of the Silicon Valley tech nerd. McAfee founded one of the original antivirus software firms in the late 1980s. Within a few years he sold it for more than $100 million and embraced a life of adventure and play. He races all-terrain vehicles, makes long open-ocean crossings by Jet Ski, and hikes the Himalayas. Prior to aerotrekking, he was a devout yogi and opened a retreat in the mountains of Colorado where he taught his own brand of mystic wisdom. But as with most things in his life, he eventually grew bored with that and disavowed the five books he'd written on the subject of Eastern-flavored philosophy: "They're all trash," he tells me.
For a journalist, McAfee is a dream come true. Rarely is a profile subject so open, so game, so eminently quotable. It hardly hurts that he's both wealthy and generous, extending to reporters like me an open invitation to hang out with him. In the course of the four days we spend together, I find myself entranced. He's not only hugely charismatic, he also embodies many of the qualities that I aspire to. He is funny, adventure-seeking, physically courageous, intelligent, and media-savvy. He wants to experience everything, intensely, and to understand everything. He knows how to tell a story—and he's got plenty to tell.
December 2009, New York City: A Sudden Jolt
After a year of reading about people being wiped out by the financial crisis, I'm nonetheless shocked to open a newspaper and learn that McAfee, who wears his intelligence and savvy on his sleeve, has been ruined as well. He's selling all his properties in the United States at a heavy loss, he says, to cover his debts. I call him, concerned for his well-being. In his usual mellow baritone he assures me that his financial losses don't bother him at all. He's excited to be starting anew in Belize, where he's working with the world's foremost researcher with knowledge of a new kind of herbal antibiotic in a hot new field of antibiotic-like compounds. Together they're going to produce medicine from indigenous plants, thereby helping to cure the world's sick and bring prosperity to impoverished Belize. "I'm having a blast," he says.
January 2010, Ambergris Caye, Belize: An Exotic Entrepreneur
A five-mile motorboat ride along the sandy coast of this resort island ends at McAfee's private jetty. Intrigued by his new project, I'm here to profile him again. At his spacious waterfront compound he's playing host to many of the same characters I met in New Mexico, plus a few new faces. He has already started a whole raft of businesses, including a coffee shop, a ferry service, and an Internet-service provider.
We fly to the mainland and ride a motorboat up a jungle river to the remote clearing where he plans to grow medicinal herbs. We travel deeper into the interior and meet up with Allison Adonizio, a young and attractive biologist who's partnering with McAfee on the project. To my surprise, they tell me that they've decided to put the all-important medicine on the back burner and are instead developing a female aphrodisiac. McAfee assures me it's the best way to generate cash flow so they can then really focus on the important drug. "We're attempting to cash in on the never-ending quest for better sex in the Western world," he says.
Adonizio accompanies us on our return trip to the coast, where we set out on an overnight yacht trip. The next day, she, Jen Irwin, and a 16-year-old girl from New Mexico—a family friend, he tells me—spend the afternoon sunbathing on the deck. For all the rock-star accoutrements, he is adamant as ever about leading a clean lifestyle: Drugs and alcohol are forbidden on his property, and he avows his faithfulness to Jen.
As we motor over the cobalt-blue sea, McAfee regales me with stories about the many hoaxes and practical jokes he's perpetrated. Recently, for instance, he anonymously posted a profile of himself that said his country of residence was Honduras. A judge overseeing one of several lawsuits pending against him in the United States asked why he had done that. He replied, "I thought that if somebody wanted to serve me papers, it would be much more enjoyable for everyone involved if they tried to serve those papers to me in Honduras."
McAfee describes an incident in which two Belizean police officers came to visit him as he built a seawall on his property, which is against the law. "We are sorry that we have to tell you to stop building that wall," they said. "I am sorry that I have to tell you that I am going to build it anyway," he told them, and they left. To McAfee, this exchange demonstrates the "elevated" level of discourse in Belize.
February 2010, New York City: Fact-Check
Back home, I write a positive description of McAfee's new ventures. My editor, however, feels that McAfee's waffling about the herbal medicine project suggests something is afoot. At his insistence I do more reporting and soon chase down rumors that McAfee fled to Belize to hide his wealth from a wrongful-death lawsuit arising from an aerotrekking incident. I locate the family of a 61-year-old man who died while taking a lesson at McAfee's flight academy. They are suing McAfee for $5 million in damages. McAfee, their lawyer tells me, had appointed as head of the school a 21-year-old nephew who didn't even have a full pilot's license.
That seems a more plausible reason for leaving the country than his quest for medicinal herbs, which looks increasingly dubious. I report the story as thoroughly as I can, then phone McAfee to get his response. I order the sequence of my questions from least to most provocative, assuming he'll slam down the phone at some point. But he doesn't, instead maintaining a courteous tone throughout. When the article runs, he writes dozens of comments on the magazine's website, all very civil. He claims that the story about his developing a female libido drug was a hoax on his part, designed to embarrass me; he'd known all along that I was going to write a hatchet job, so concocted a ruse to make me look foolish.
In April, I suddenly receive an email from a woman who was very close to McAfee before he moved to Belize. "This guy has more dark secrets than anyone would ever want to know about," she writes. "He really takes pride in his ability to manipulate the media and the public.... Everyone always glorifies him, while in the meantime he gets away with the unthinkable." I reach out to her, but over the phone she is skittish and paranoid. After weeks of coaxing, she tells me a hair-raising story of abuse—strictly off the record, she insists.
I do more digging and contact others from McAfee's past. From what I'm able to piece together, it seems that McAfee has a long-standing interest in drugs that when given to women increase their willingness to engage in sexual intercourse. What's more, he has used them on women who were initially unresponsive to his advances.
I realize that I've been taken in by McAfee's schemes. Journalists are supposed to uncover the truth. Instead, I've lazily followed the narratives he's laid out. I don't, at the moment, see how I can rectify my past failures, since none of McAfee's victims are willing to speak out on the record.
January 2012, New York City: Revelations
After more than a year of concern and backpedaling about speaking on the record, Adonizio, McAfee's former business partner, agrees to tell me her story for publication. "He's not this awesome fun-loving dude," she tells me. She describes how McAfee handed out pharmaceuticals without a medical license, brought prostitutes into his home when Irwin was away, and bragged that he could hire killers to "take care of" Adonizio's ex-boyfriend. He continually made sexual propositions. When she'd had enough and asked him to buy out her share of their venture, he flew into a rage so terrifying that she locked herself inside her lab, where she cowered while he raged and banged on the door.
The more she tells me, the more my suspicion deepens that McAfee suffers from profound psychological dysfunction. In his book Almost a Psychopath, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ronald Schouten describes the ways that people can exhibit many symptoms of psychopathy without satisfying the full diagnostic criteria. Such people can be highly deceptive, manipulative, callous, and self-serving, and yet manage to maintain a facade of normality. One of Schouten's goals in writing the book was to point out how such a person's friends and loved ones might not suspect the condition for years.
This, for me, is perhaps the most disturbing thing about psychopathy: its invisibility. Indeed, psychologists have long argued that many psychopathic traits can prove useful in climbing the ladder to success, especially in the business world. "Grandiosity and making big plans, taking big reckless chances, taking control over people, indifference to what happens to others—all can help a skilled psychopath manipulate a company's board, management, and the entire organization," says Schouten.
It's just a theory, of course—I'm in no position to offer a definitive diagnosis. But as I proceed in my pursuit of McAfee's story, my antennae will be up.
April 2012, Belize: A Final Encounter
Adonizio's allegations are enough to secure me an assignment, and I fly to Belize in an attempt to finally set the record straight. By all accounts McAfee has withdrawn from the expat community, and those who've had dealings with him seem too afraid of him to talk. All the same, by my second day he has caught wind of my visit. He telephones and invites me to his house for lunch.
I hesitate. Does he perceive me as a threat? Despite my misgivings, I accept his invitation. His house lies six miles from the main village, and the only way to reach it is by a 20-minute ferry trip or a 40-minute golf cart ride over a rutted dirt road. McAfee owns the ferry company, so I rent a golf cart. As I drive, I try to work through my anxiety. Rationally, I know that McAfee would stand to gain nothing from hurting me. But is he rational? In the worst-case scenario, I imagine him inviting me into his house, and then armed men surrounding me...but that's not going to happen, I tell myself.
I arrive at McAfee's compound and find him sitting on the patio overlooking the sea. He greets me warmly and invites me inside, where he introduces me to two young local women lounging by the kitchen. McAfee disappears and reemerges with a man holding a holstered pistol. McAfee tells me the man's name and says, "He's a security guard."
I'm stunned. And very afraid. The moment hangs. I think: If this can go in a different direction, I'd better get it moving now. I ask: "Do you want to sit and talk?" McAfee ushers me into a screened-in porch. To my boundless relief, the man with the gun vanishes.
I tell McAfee that the last time I was here, he had 14 friends living with him. Now he is alone with his Belizean employees. "I don't need friends," he says. He spends the next hour telling me that in the last year there have been multiple attempts to assassinate him. After each plot was thwarted, he says, he hired the would-be killers. Now he lives with a bunch of them, and a lot of guns, at another compound in the country's interior.
I can't figure out how much of his story is true and how much is bravado. Why would he want to entangle himself with Third World gangsters? Is he bragging about the guns and criminals to scare me?
After an hour McAfee jumps up to say something to the women inside, and I take it as my cue to leave. He invites me to spend the night, and I decline, politely. I ask him to pose for a picture. He stands at the edge of the terrace, holding a glass of juice and grinning in the sunlight. We shake hands. I speed along the sandy double track, through a tunnel of jungle greenery. After a couple of miles, I convince myself that I'm going to be OK.
November 2012, New York City: Drugs, Murder, Manhunt
I publish a long article on the website Gizmodo, detailing what I've learned about McAfee. I describe him as an erstwhile "enlightened Peter Pan" who has "refashioned himself into a final-reel Scarface," recounting his long history of hoaxes and deceptions, Adonizio's allegations of sketchy behavior, and his claims of involvement with drug gangsters. At last, I feel I have told the truth about McAfee. I assume that I will never write about him again.
Within hours, readers alert me to posts that McAfee has put up pseudonymously on a Russian website describing his heavy experimentation with the psychosis-inducing drug MDPV, also known as bath salts. In the posts, McAfee describes the aphrodisiacal properties of the drug in glowing terms. "I'm a huge fan of MDPV," he has written. "I think it's the finest drug ever conceived, not just for the indescribable hypersexuality, but also for the smooth euphoria and mild comedown."
I'm at once both stunned and not surprised at all. The drug fits perfectly with his past predilection for sexuality-enhancing substances and neatly explains McAfee's intense paranoia and alienation from his friends, aspects of his behavior that confused me during my recent visit. As I'm preparing a follow-up article, I receive an email from a high-ranking police official in Belize: "It may interest you to know that there was a murder yesterday," he writes, "and McAfee is the prime suspect. The victim, Gregory Faull was his neighbor. McAfee has made himself 'unavailable,' and police are actively searching for him." McAfee and Faull had a history of heated disputes about noise levels and other property matters, and McAfee's beloved dogs were found dead, poisoned, the day prior to Faull's murder. McAfee has consistently maintained his innocence.
I tweet the news, then post an exclusive about the murder and the bath salts the next day. The day after that I spend hopping from studio to studio doing interviews: CNN, Fox News, CBS. On air, I'm careful not to use the word psychopath, but try to emphasize that McAfee is an inveterate hoaxer and enjoys distorting reality for his own ends.
That afternoon, McAfee takes control of the narrative. While still in hiding from the police, he starts telephoning journalists and spinning a series of outrageous tales. Since he's the only one in a position to add new information, whoever gets his call is instantly the center of media attention. Each day, the number of journalists receiving his "exclusives" increases. The feeding frenzy grows, and his blog posts and tweets keep growing wilder. He says that he has hidden from the police by burying himself up to his neck in the sand. He says that he disguised himself as a filthy beggar and wandered up and down the beach, in plain view of police and journalists. He says he has sent a lookalike to the Mexican border, where he would get arrested and throw the police off the trail. His name is in headlines around the world.
I wonder if the story that I'd hoped would thwart McAfee has instead helped him by feeding his endless thirst for attention. Was I being played all along?
My own phone falls silent: I'm out of the loop. It feels a little depressing to be left behind by a story I've spent so long pursuing. To be in the spotlight was, briefly, intoxicating, triggering a vein of narcissism that ran deeper than I imagined. I find myself wanting more, and wondering at times if my judgment has been affected by that hunger. Am I becoming the thing I supposedly set out to decry? I tell my wife: "This story is making me crazy."
As the manhunt goes on week after week, I'm able only to watch helplessly as McAfee uses his expert understanding of the media to control the story. As he doles out his sound bites, he relentlessly hammers home the message that he is on the lam because of a long-running battle against corruption in the Belizean government. There is no basis to this claim, but most reporters know nothing of McAfee's history and so repeat his message uncritically. The abuse, the bath salts, the murder—all are swamped in the deluge of McAfee's colorful lies.
December 2012, New York City: Shape-Shifting and Soul-Searching
I'm sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee, scrolling through my Twitter feed, when I read the news: After nearly a month, McAfee's life on the lam is over. Accompanied by a pair of journalists whom he's invited to travel along with him, McAfee has emerged in Guatemala, boasting that he's going to continue battling Belizean corruption. Instead, he's arrested and deported to Miami. The government of Belize says they have no intention of putting out a warrant for his arrest. All along, I've assumed that McAfee was working the media while on the lam out of a pathological need for attention, but now I wonder if he's snookered all of us once again: By kicking up such a fuss, he may have convinced the Belizean government that it wouldn't be worth their while to try to bring him to justice.
Now that McAfee's situation seems less precarious, coverage in the daily media dwindles to a trickle. Soon afterward, it's announced that two movies about his life story are in the works.
In the weeks that follow, McAfee drives across the country and takes up residence in Portland, Oregon, where he blogs and plans to collaborate with a young fan on a comic book about his life. In press photos, McAfee is frequently pictured with his arm around one young woman after another. His charm, evidently, remains intact.
For years now, I've been expecting that McAfee's story would ultimately follow a simple arc: revelation followed by reckoning. What I haven't counted on is just how difficult it is to pin down a man who delights in spinning reality. And I wonder, at last, just what role I've really had in this saga. Have my efforts to tell the truth about him only played into his game and amplified his legend? Am I continuing to do that, simply by writing this very article?
One thing I'm certain of: When you try to tell the tale of a master manipulator, don't be sure you'll ever have the last word.