UPDATE: McAfee has been arrested in Belize on charges related to weapons. A Gang Surpression Unit raided his research facility, according to reports. McAfee has said the police “murdered my dog in cold blood,” took his passport and busted down unlocked doors. He claims the raid was a shakedown and that the weapons charges are bogus. But this isn’t the first time McAfee has found himself at the center of legal or civil scuffles. Read below Fast Company‘s 2010 profile of the outspoken programmer and anti-virus software pioneer–and his responses in the comments.
No road runs the length of Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile-long island off the Belizean coast, so to get to John McAfee’s house, I climb aboard a boat in the resort town of San Pedro, on the island’s southern tip, and motor north for half an hour, along a coast of white beaches set with resorts and private villas. At last, his pier comes into sight, and I step off and walk down the weathered boards, the blue-green water shimmering through the cracks, to find him emerging from the shrubbery beside the swimming pool, his smile blinding against the reddish brown of a fresh tan.
Twenty-three years after he essentially invented the antivirus-software industry, McAfee, now 64, radiates the vitality of a rich man who thinks about more than money. As he steps forward to meet me at the edge of his yard, he’s wearing sandals, shorts, and a muscle shirt that reveals a wiry physique and a tiger-stripe tattoo on each shoulder. He grips my hand with sinewy vigor. For decades, McAfee was a hard-partying ne’er-do-well playboy entrepreneur, a self-described trickster and bullshit artist who’d spent the majority of his adult life gadding about and having fun. That’s all in the past now, or so he would have me believe.
He leads me into the cool semidarkness of his compound’s central living room. It has been nearly three years since I last saw him, in the scrubby desert of southern New Mexico, and while the environment couldn’t be more different, McAfee himself looks unchanged. He has spent the intervening years building a new life for himself on the coast of Central America. He has just auctioned off the last of his sprawling properties back in the United States and sold or given away many of his possessions. He has taken a huge financial hit, he says, but that’s okay. He has enough to fund his latest passion, his gift to the future: developing new kinds of antibiotics from herbs found deep in the rain forests of Belize.
In a radio-ready baritone, McAfee unfurls his story, digressing over centuries and across continents. He describes the economic injustice of the developing world, the imbalances of education and capital, and how tapping the biodiversity of the rain forest for natural cures will help address those problems. “The product is something the world desperately needs, or will need, within a few years,” he says, “as our last lines of antibiotic defense are breached by the ever-growing ranks of drug-resistant bacteria.”
As he talks, he flicks at the fabric of his pants, unable to contain his relentless energy. He pauses, suddenly serious: “But maybe I should ask what kind of story you came here to write? An exposé?”
John McAfee’s rise to fame and wealth began with what at the time seemed a minor annoyance. In the mid-1980s, he was working for Lockheed Martin as a software designer when he came across one of the first computer viruses, the Pakistani Brain. Seeing an opportunity, he picked the virus apart and figured out how to defeat it. Then he built a program, called VirusScan, that could detect and disarm multiple virus threats automatically. The program — the first commercial antivirus software — was an impressive achievement, but it’s what he did next that was true genius. Instead of selling it, as every other software maker was doing, he gave it away for free via online bulletin boards. In no time, he had a base of 30 million users; revenue followed in the form of upgrade charges and licenses for corporate customers. By 1994, McAfee’s antivirus company was worth half a billion dollars.
Though his name was on the product, McAfee wanted nothing to do with it anymore. He sold his entire stake, worth, he says, “$50-to-$100 million. I wanted to move on. Who wants to be tied to the past?”
His next project was software company Tribal Voice, which made an instant-messaging platform that allowed Skype-like telephony. It quickly attracted a quarter-million-strong following despite the era’s slow dial-up connections. In 1999, McAfee sold the company for $17 million. “When John was at Tribal Voice, the growth rate was incredible,” says former employee Jim Zoromski. “But when it got to be too popular, it started to feel too much like work, and John wasn’t interested.”
McAfee had already found financial security. Now he wanted to leverage his success into something greater: a sense of never-ending possibility. He turned his attention to yoga, racing ATVs and motorcycles, and long-distance Jet Ski journeys. “Life is free; life is limitless. You can do whatever you want,” he told me in New Mexico in 2007. “Success for me is, Can you wake up in the morning and feel like a 12-year-old?”
In 2002, he happened upon an in-flight magazine article about a class of lightweight aircraft called “trikes” — essentially, hang gliders with engines. Intrigued, McAfee and his 22-year-old girlfriend, Jennifer Irwin, moved to Arizona for flight school. There they met a local man who had mastered the art of flying trikes very low, no more than a few feet off the ground, over the rugged desert of Arizona and New Mexico. McAfee had found his next calling.
Skimming the surface of the desert at 75 miles per hour is an inherently dangerous way to fly, but that only made it more addictive to McAfee. (He has, by his own estimation, crashed eight or nine ATVs and a similar number of Jet Skis.) He coined a term for the practice — “aerotrekking” — and began promoting it as a new national pastime. He bought a ranch in the New Mexico desert, added a second airstrip, and repurposed the place as a training camp and resort. Here he gathered a ragtag mob of a dozen or so fellow trike enthusiasts who called themselves Sky Gypsies; many got a Sky Gypsies tattoo that Irwin designed. To reinforce the remote ranch’s appeal, he spiffed it up with a collection of vintage Airstream trailers, a fleet of classic cars, and a movie theater. It didn’t make much sense as a business plan, but it was catnip to the media. The Wall Street Journal, Popular Mechanics, and National Geographic Adventure ran features on his operation.
I took an assignment from Outside’s Go Magazine and spent four days with him in mid-2007, flying through desert canyons at low altitude, swooping over fences and power lines, landing for lunch on an isolated stretch of two-lane blacktop, where a luxury bus sent to meet us delivered pastries and coffee. We had plenty of time to talk about McAfee’s spiritual evolution. He credited yoga for helping him reassess his priorities and talked like a Zen master. “Shouldn’t your goal be to have a meaningful life?” he asked me. “Unknown, mysterious, thrilling, free? Money doesn’t belong to you. You belong to money. You have obligations, responsibilities, worries, and cares. The more you have, the less free you are.”
When I asked him if he’d ever had a close call flying the trikes, he replied that Irwin had almost flipped one while trying to take off in a strong crosswind. Later in my visit, he mentioned that less than a year earlier, his nephew, 22-year-old Joel Gordon Bitow, had been aerotrekking with a 61-year-old passenger named Robert Gilson when their trike crashed. They had been flying in clean, smooth air with plenty of altitude, McAfee told me, when they suddenly went into a spiral dive and crashed into the ground. The terrain was so rugged that the sheriff’s deputies took a helicopter to the top of the ridge and hiked down to retrieve the bodies, leaving the wreckage where it lay.
After the accident, McAfee says he struggled to understand how it could have happened. He speculated that Gilson, who’d been ill before his visit, had had a stroke or a heart attack and fallen onto the wires of the kite’s wing. To honor Bitow’s memory, McAfee had the image of a single teardrop added below his Sky Gypsies tattoo.
Many of us would be discouraged if our self-invented hobby had killed a close relative, but McAfee is not the type to dwell on the past. He continued to evangelize the sport to journalists like myself. “Aerotrekking can create an avenue for self-awareness,” he told me, seven months after Bitow and Gilson died. “You find self-awareness by breaking boundaries, breaking taboos.”
All the same, I detected a restlessness in him — that his sense of wonder, so easily kindled, was also quick to cool.
“Do you think you’ll eventually get bored of this, too?” I asked.
“I anticipate that happening,” he said. “It doesn’t worry me at all.”
It didn’t take long. Within the year, he’d pulled up stakes and resettled to his new beachside compound in Belize. By last summer, he had sold off a 280-acre spread in Woodland Park, Colorado; a 5-acre beachfront estate on Molokai, in Hawaii; and other properties in Arizona and Texas. Several were sold at auction, including the last to go, his ranch in Rodeo, New Mexico. When the gavel went down on August 29, it was, The New York Times reported, “the last of his major real-estate holdings.” It seemed he couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.
Soon, a new spate of articles appeared. This time, McAfee was the tech millionaire brought low by the Great Recession. With millions out of work and in danger of losing their homes, the press feasted on the former golden boy, the freewheeling adventurer who frankly confessed his financial ruin. McAfee had lost $96 million, the stories said. He was down to his last $4 million. CNBC featured him in a special called “The Bubble Decade.” A New York Times reporter wrote that he “needed cash to pay his bills amid the downturn.”
When I saw the headlines, I shot him an email and got him on the phone. He sounded anything but chastened. “I’ve owned things, I’ve not owned things, it makes no difference,” he said. “We can’t take it with us. The Egyptians tried, and all their stuff is still here. So if they can’t do it, I sure can’t.”
He actually sounded excited about the course his life had taken. “I’m working on a medical research project that has enormous potential,” he told me. “I hired a young researcher, Dr. Adonizio, who is the leading researcher on a new branch of antibiotic development, using medicinal-type plants.”
McAfee explained that infectious bacteria become dangerous only when they multiply to a certain concentration, at which point, thanks to a process called “quorum sensing,” they collectively shift to a pathogenic mode. The signal that modulates this response is a certain chemical pheromone — if a drug can block its action, the bacteria will never become dangerous. And because no bacteria are killed, the accelerated evolution that results in antibiotic resistance never occurs.
He told me that he and Adonizio had been working for two years and had found “six so far” of the medicinal plants. “The problem is that most of these plants that we’ve discovered don’t grow in huge clumps; you’ve got to search for them for days to find one sample. So I have a complex of greenhouses, which I built, where we try and incubate them.”
A little research revealed that, sure enough, quorum sensing is a hot new discipline — the first peer-reviewed papers appeared about a decade ago. Could McAfee do for human health what he’d done for computers? If anyone was going to transform the world twice, in two completely different fields, it seemed like he could be the one.
I arrive in Belize in late January to find McAfee living in much the same style as he had been in New Mexico, surrounded by a fluctuating entourage of a dozen or so people, several of them former Sky Gypsies I’d met in Rodeo. It turned out he’d been busy since his reported financial catastrophe. He’d started a high-speed ferry company, an Internet-services company, a rickshaw company, a water-sports facility, and, with his leftover trikes, an aerial-tour company. He doesn’t technically own these companies, he adds: “I give them all away to local people.” He doesn’t even own his boat, a 42-foot-long Lagoon 420 catamaran worth about $450,000. “Long-term lease,” he explains.
What is important, he assures me, is his commitment to developing the quorum-sensing drugs. “For 20 years, I played,” he says, “and now I’m serious about doing something positive.” McAfee tells me he spent $400,000 building four greenhouses on Ambergris Caye, paying to have all the materials, including every cubic foot of soil, shipped over from the mainland. When the plants proved too fragile for their man-made home, he bought 22 acres of jungle in the country’s interior and hired men to clear out the undergrowth so that the plants could seed themselves and grow in the shade of the canopy. McAfee still had no proof that his extracts worked, or that he could grow the plants at all, but he had already ordered workmen to start excavating a dock where a barge could be unloaded. Nearby, a thatched-roof “processing lab” stood half-completed.
The next day, we travel inland to see the jungle site. We climb aboard a motor launch and for the next 45 minutes roar up the sluggish, serpentine New River, the rooster tail of our wake fading into crocodile-infested mangrove forest. At times, the overhanging branches are close enough to touch, and McAfee has to throttle back to walking pace.
Eventually we pull up to a cleared patch of jungle and make our way ashore, where we amble over a carpet of black, sediment-rich soil dotted with various jungle plants. “This is the richest soil on earth,” McAfee says. “Tell me this is not some kind of Eden.” He runs a hand over a young plant’s leaves.
Even after seeing his patch of jungle, the logic of his approach is elusive. If the plants are so rare in the wild that it took days to find a single specimen, how can you expect them to grow in such profusion, without cultivation, that you will need barges to haul them downriver? When I press McAfee on this, he insists that he knows what he is doing. “I must either be a fool,” he says, “or I feel extremely secure that I will be shipping goods.”
Back in the boat, we continue upriver another dozen miles until we reach a long, broad lake called the New River Lagoon, where we check into a lakeside resort, the Lamanai Outpost Lodge. Here, McAfee is engaged in another new venture with the owner of the property: building an airstrip where trikes can bring tourists from the coast to see the nearby Mayan ruins.
By now it seems pretty clear that McAfee isn’t as impoverished as he’s let on. The double lot he lives on — one of “several properties” he’s purchased, according to a local realtor — is worth about $1.5 million for the land alone. Then there is the $1 million patrol boat he donated to the Belizean coast guard. (In a letter to The New York Times, he described it as an act of philanthropy; later, he tells me he had to bribe members of the coast guard to prevent them from hassling his ferry business: “This is a third-world country. I had to bribe a whole bunch of folks.”) Throw in a $400,000 set of greenhouses, a handful of other businesses, the rent on a half-million-dollar boat, 35 to 40 local employees, lab buildings and equipment, and the fact that people keep asking him for $1,000 here, $5,000 there, and it all starts to, well, add up.
In hacker culture, screwing with people’s heads to get what you want is called “social engineering.” McAfee’s undertakings in this vein have been as plentiful and spontaneous as his ventures in capitalism, and range from the sprawling to the picayune. If, for example, you enter the search question “Where does John McAfee live?” into wiki.answers.com, you will learn that “until recently McAfee lived on Ambergris Caye in Belize. In August of 2009, he became a citizen of Honduras and now lives on the Rio Dulce near Isabal.”
“You can’t believe anything you read on the Web,” says McAfee, who has never been to Honduras, and who, of course, put the information there himself. He also put on his Facebook page a picture of a home under construction, with a caption reading: “Became a citizen of the British Virgin Islands today, and moved into my home in Tortola — both on the same day. A day of rejoicing.”
Like many of McAfee’s pranks, these gags are both fun and purposeful. There are, he mentions, five civil lawsuits against him currently pending in the United States — “That’s how it is in the States,” he says. “If people know you have money, they’ll sue you” — and his Facebook sham was just a harmless game of cat and mouse. “The judge in one case, he couldn’t understand why I would put incorrect information about myself on the Web,” he says. “I told him, ‘When I put that up, I wasn’t under oath.’ He asked me why I would do such a thing. I said, ‘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.’ “
The next morning, we fly in a small bush plane to the agricultural outpost of San Ignacio, home to a small, seven-year-old institution of higher learning called Galen University. An administrator led us around to the backyard, where we found a one-room wooden building some farmers had finished knocking together two days before.
Dr. Adonizio greets us from the doorway. To my surprise, she is very young — just 31 — and pretty, with fine features and lively brown eyes. Dressed in a black T-shirt, flip-flops, and pedal pushers, she looks for all the world like a student on her junior year abroad. Everyone calls her Allison. She shows me the centrifuge, the extraction machine, the high-tech refrigerator. She describes how she’d studied ethnobotany at Florida International University, where she completed her biology doctorate on quorum sensing.
As we speak, I realize that I have neglected to ask McAfee the story of how he became interested in herbal antibiotics in the first place. Adonizio provides the answer.
“When I turned 30, I cried,” she says. “On paper, everyone envied me. I had just bought a house, I had a partner and a job at Harvard. I’d just gotten a grant from the National Institutes of Health for a three-year research program. I realized that the prospect of spending another three years in the lab was incredibly depressing. So I wrote a letter to a bunch of resorts in Belize, asking if I could come down and work and play my guitar.”
She took a few months off and wound up, a newly minted doctor, at a resort on the coast of Belize, working as a waitress and performing after dinner for the guests. One night, one of those guests was John McAfee, she says. “After he heard me play, he told me, ‘If you’re as passionate about your science as you are about your music, I’ll fund your research.’ “
She went home, quit her job, moved back down to Belize, and began their work together — not, as McAfee had told me, two years earlier, but just seven months before. She had identified, she says, not six promising herbs, but two. Nor, it later emerges, was she “the leading researcher” in quorum sensing, as McAfee had described her; several eminent scholars in the field told me they’d “never heard of that person.”
Adonizio has one last surprise for me. Three months before I arrived, she says, McAfee had a brainstorm: What if they went looking for an herbal compound that would bolster the female libido? The potential market could be huge — a distaff corollary to Viagra. And with that, libido-boosting herbs had become a second priority. Adonizio had been scouring the countryside for new plants and had found five candidates. It was a diversion from the mission she’d signed on for, but once it paid off, she and McAfee would really have the time and resources to focus on quorum-sensing drugs.
I leave San Ignacio confused. For all his declarations of commitment, McAfee hardly seems very focused on his grand project. So what is he really doing down there in Central America? Back home in New York, I call an acquaintance active in the tight-knit world of ultralight aviation (I’m a licensed pilot), who tells me something unexpected. “The rumor on the air-show circuit,” he says, “is that McAfee has moved all his assets to Belize in case he loses the lawsuit over his nephew’s crash.”
Frank Fleming, an aviation law specialist, represents the family of Robert Gilson in its wrongful death suit against McAfee. In Fleming’s telling, the story of Bitow and Gilson’s 2006 accident takes on a very different light. According to him, Bitow was illegally serving as a flight instructor. And Bitow was, in fact, an extremely inexperienced pilot who didn’t even have a regular pilot’s license but an easier-to-earn, more restricted version called a sport-pilot certificate that he’d obtained just four months before. “Someone with a sport-pilot certificate,” explains FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette, “cannot be paid for providing instruction.” Bitow had also been involved in a serious crash only a week after getting his license. Yet McAfee told me he’d put him in charge of his flight school.
Into this scenario stepped Gilson, an Air Force vet and retired pipe fitter from New Hampshire who was, at 61, the same age as McAfee. “He was a stand-up guy,” says his daughter Heather Gilson Carr. “Just a blue-collar guy. He made a good living for his family and took care of everyone, and then when he retired, he volunteered at bingo at the veterans center and hung out at the local coffee shop every morning with his friends.”
After a brush with meningitis that left him temporarily in a coma, Gilson took stock of his life. “He asked himself, ‘What’s my dream?’ ” says Gilson Carr. ” ‘What do I really want to do?’ ” Then he came across the article about aerotrekking in Popular Mechanics. “And that was it. He’d found his dream.”
On the morning of November 1, 2006, Bitow and Gilson took off from McAfee’s ranch and flew off toward the mountains southwest of Rodeo. Of all the hazards of desert flying, one of the most dangerous is the box canyon, a sort of geologically configured rat trap. Deep and steep-walled, it can offer pilots enough room to fly in, but not enough to turn around. Once inside, all a pilot can do is keep flying straight. If the canyon is long enough, he can climb and escape over the top of the wall. If not, he’ll either run into the canyon’s dead end or try to turn around and crash into the side. That’s what happened to Bitow. He and his client hit the wall three-quarters of the way up a place known as Starvation Canyon.
Far from being an inexplicable circumstance, as McAfee had described it to me, the cause of the fatal crash seems pretty clear. The novice pilot flying into a canyon has all the elements of a bad ending. “You’d better be pretty damn good, let’s put it that way,” says John Olson, a veteran flight instructor who worked for McAfee in Rodeo and now writes the trike Web site johnolson.blog.com. “You have to be a little crazy too. There ain’t nowhere to land, so if you lose an engine, all you can do is pick where you’re going to die.” Olson recalls that after the accident, “within a week or so, they took down the canyonrunners.org Web site. The lawyers said, ‘Oh, God, get rid of that thing.’ “
The Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona, will decide whether McAfee should be held responsible. Was Bitow acting under McAfee’s instruction, or on his own? To Fleming, unsurprisingly, the case is clear. It was McAfee who conceived of the sport of aerotrekking and who promoted it in the national media. And it was McAfee who gave Bitow the trike to fly and put him in charge of the flight school. “Pushing his nephew, Joel Gordon Bitow, into a situation where he’s giving dual instruction in an illegal operation, to innocent people off the street, and encouraging people to perform low-altitude, high-speed flight over unforgiving terrain with no margin of error — that to me is no different than being a drunk driver or a reckless speeder in a school zone,” Fleming says. His civil complaint seeks $5 million in damages. Punitive damages could run much higher.
As all this information unfolds for me, many things that had seemed odd begin to make sense: McAfee’s publicity campaign to promote the idea that he’d lost 96% of his wealth; the fact that he told me he has sold all of his U.S. assets; his having given away all the companies he set up in Belize; and his quorum-sensing research, a topic that gave his relocation to Belize a noble spin, even though in practice he seemed to devote little attention to it.
“I think he is trying to liquidate all property that could be used to collect a judgment, so that it’s all beyond the reach of execution in the United States,” Fleming says. “So long as McAfee and the vast majority of his wealth remain in Belize, it’s going to be very hard for the family of Robert Gilson to collect any judgment won against McAfee in court.” But “McAfee’s not as bright as he thinks he is,” Fleming adds. “He thinks he’s outsmarted all the lawyers and the judges and all the juries. It’s not going to happen.”
One night, over dinner in Belize, the conversation turned to the subject of a seawall McAfee had built on his property. Seawalls are regulated on Ambergris Caye, as in many places, because though they may retard beach erosion in one place, they tend to accelerate it elsewhere. And so a pair of police officers came to visit him. “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 was proof of the evolved level of discourse in Belize, where a person is largely left to do as he pleases. Yet surely there is a point to laws and regulations, I protested. How would he feel if a neighbor built a wall that caused his beach to erode? “That would be fine.” What if his neighbor built a 20-story high-rise that loomed over his villa? “I’d let him.” Really? “Who am I to say whether a skyscraper is a good thing or not?” he countered. “Just look at the skyline of Manhattan, how beautiful it is.”
At the time, I thought that he was simply being argumentative. But McAfee seems to want freedom without limitation. Needless to say, few of us exercise this sort of freedom. It tends to be very expensive.
Should he lose the Gilson lawsuit and a jury hit him hard, McAfee might be facing a longer battle than he anticipates. “Once I have a judgment against him,” says Fleming, “we can submit him to what’s called a ‘debtor’s examination,’ in which we can go through his assets and his bank accounts and his trusts. He will not find that entertaining.” Of course, Fleming may not prevail, lawyerly bravado notwithstanding, and McAfee may be perfectly capable of paying up in the end. He acknowledges he has no insurance in the “massively expensive” Gilson case (“Who would insure me, given five lawsuits pending?”) but says he’ll never settle. (In addition to the Gilson matter, he says there is a slip-and-fall suit and three other “financial” suits he won’t discuss.)
Either way, any assets McAfee has moved to Belize will likely remain out of Fleming’s reach — especially since he has taken the step of becoming a permanent resident there. “A judgment in the States is not valid down here,” McAfee tells me. “And lawsuits in process in the United States have a difficult time in the collection stage.”
But he’ll remain legally subject to the execution of the judgment wherever he is. And so it could become a waiting game, with McAfee free to enjoy himself in perfect liberty in Belize while the case grinds on — and perhaps forever.
The one thing he may not have counted on is his own restless nature. If his enthusiasm for self-imposed exile is anything like his other passions, it should be pretty well extinguished within a few years. At that point, the game will get really interesting.
Jeff Wise‘s book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger (Palgrave MacMillan), was published last year.