As the inventor of the antivirus software that bears his name, John McAfee, who has died aged 75 after apparently taking his own life in a Spanish prison, turned paranoia into a fortune. He was one of the first successful self-promoting celebrity millionaires whose power and media exposure provide untold influence in the US.
Moving from computer savant to spiritual guru, he then began an extended second act in Belize, where his outsized lifestyle fuelled his own personal paranoia, and led to his becoming the leading suspect in the murder of a beachfront neighbour.
Yet he returned to the US, built another fortune and entered politics, before again going on the run, this time to avoid US authorities indicting him for tax evasion and fraud. He died immediately after a Spanish court granted a US extradition request.
McAfee’s rise to riches came unexpectedly on the crest of the internet wave, but the chaos of his earlier life prefigured what would follow. He was born in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, where his father, Don, stationed at a US Army base in during the second world war, met his English mother, Joan (nee Williams). The family returned to Don’s home of Roanoke, Virginia, where he worked as a road surveyor and Joan as a bank teller. But Don was an abusive alcoholic, and took his own life when John was 15. McAfee later said: “Every relationship I have, every mistrust, he is the negotiator of that mistrust.”
McAfee put himself through Roanoke College and discovered an ability to con people with a simple, direct approach, selling “free” magazine subscriptions that required substantial payments for postage. In 1969, as a teaching assistant studying for a PhD in mathematics at Northeast Louisiana State College, he was fired for sleeping with one of his students, which led to his first, short-lived marriage.
Adept at programming the key-punch machines of the day, he moved through a series of jobs and a growing dependency on alcohol and drugs. He landed in Silicon Valley, where, after a breakdown at work, he joined AA. In the mid-1980s he had a steady job and security clearance at Lockheed, when he read an article about the Pakistani Brain computer virus. He immediately grasped how the virus worked and created a programme to neutralise it. Starting McAfee Associates from his home, he created an antivirus that he gave away to users, hoping correctly that it would build a market to sell licences to business.
Stunts such as creating a mobile antivirus van helped bring national notoriety, as did his writing a book warning of the virus threat. He stoked fears about the Michelangelo virus in 1992, just when his rapidly growing company was listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, immediately making his holding worth $80m. The next year, he stepped down as chief executive, and in 1994 he sold out his stake. That year, too, he founded Tribal Voice, which designed an early messaging system, PowWow, for Windows; he sold that in 1999.
In 2000, as the world panicked about the Y2K threat, McAfee bought 280 acres in Colorado, built an estate and started a yoga retreat; he also wrote four guides to spirituality. He was divorced from his second wife, Judy, an air hostess whom he married in his early McAfee Associates years and who had helped build the company, in 2002. As his then long-term girlfriend, Jennifer Irwin, said: “John has always been searching for something.” He bought property in desirable locations such as Hawaii and New Mexico, founded a flight school and invested in a start-up antivirus firewall company, Zone Labs.
In the 2008 financial crash, McAfee was reported to have lost most of his fortune, and auctioned off his holdings, including the Colorado estate, to move to Belize. However, in interviews he claimed he was avoiding vexatious personal injury suits, and in a documentary, Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016), probing his life in Belize, he told the film-maker Nanette Bursten that he had a separate fortune in secret accounts and bearer bonds.
McAfee bought a beachfront estate on Ambergris Caye in San Pedro. In 2010 he met Allison Adonizio, a Harvard graduate student researching plant-based antibiotics. He agreed to partner her research, starting a company called Quorum Ex and building a lab on a property 22 acres inland, near the town of Carmelita.
Fearing gangsters, he began arming his own security force, made up largely of criminals. When one local gangster, David Middleton, supposedly threatened him, he made a pact with another. Middleton was found tortured and eventually died, but no one was ever charged. By 2012, McAfee was playing out Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, controlling the town, even ordering locals off the streets for curfew.
He was also assembling a harem of young women. According to the girls interviewed in Gringo, McAfee’s sexual proclivities centred on coprophilia under a hammock; McAfee claims they were paid to tell lies. Meanwhile, the craziness so frightened Adonizio that she told McAfee she wanted to leave; she alleges McAfee drugged and raped her before she escaped with the help of friends.
In 2012, the Belize gang prevention unit raided the estate, seizing illegal weapons and drugs (which turned out not to be illegal). McAfee claimed the raid was retaliation for his refusal to contribute money to the government, but he retreated back to San Pedro, where his armed guards and 11 dogs were soon frightening residents along the beach.
A neighbour of his, an American named Greg Faull, filed a complaint. One day McAfee’s dogs were poisoned; Faull was found dead the next day; Gringo makes a compelling circumstantial case that McAfee ordered a hit. But McAfee headed for Guatemala by boat.
He was found when an interview photo with Vice was tracked, and he was arrested. After McAfee’s extradition back to Belize for questioning was approved, he staged a heart attack to keep himself in hospital until his lawyer could file an appeal. He was then extradited to the US instead. The night he landed in Miami, he picked up a sex worker named Janice Dyson; she would become his third wife.
In the US, he rebuilt his celebrity, filming a video that mocked press coverage in which he surrounded himself with young women, drugs and weapons, while mocking McAfee Antivirus, now owned by Intel. He resumed entrepreneurship, advocating mobile phone safety. In 2015, when he was appointed chief executive of MGT Capital, a technology investment company, its shares rose substantially.
That year he also launched a run at the Libertarian party’s presidential nomination. They had broken the 1m vote barrier for the first time only in 2012, but he received exposure on talk shows such as Larry King Live and the Fox News broadcast of the Libertarian presidential debate. Though he did not win the nomination, the party quadrupled its vote in 2016. He ran again, “from exile”, for the 2020 nod, as he was already dodging his tax evasion indictments. After a bizarre series of endorsements, withdrawals and re-entries, he again failed to be nominated.
McAfee was arrested in October last year in Spain, on tax charges filed in Tennessee. The next day, the US Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges of “pump and dump” fraud of fake crypto-currency. Spain’s Audencia Nacional authorised his extradition last Wednesday; later that day he was found hanging in his cell.
His lawyer said McAfee had not seemed suicidal and his widow alleged that he had been executed to stop him revealing what he knew about important people in the US, revelations McAfee once said were poised for release if he died suspiciously.
He is survived by Janice, and by, he claimed, as many as 47 children “depending on DNA test”. Though he also once explained to a reporter that he was doing what he always did: “Fuck with the media as much as I can.”
• John David McAfee, software entrepreneur, born 18 September 1945; died 23 June 2021