The Incredible Life of John McAfee
Standing in front of a tattered, grungy graphic of the American flag, Tennessee resident John McAfee announced his candidacy for the highest political office in the United States. “I promise you, I will win,” he says with trademark suave and confidence. He’s a programmer and tech entrepreneur who’s a far cry from Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates. He’s tall, tan, and weathered—bearing a resemblance to Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world”. You’ve probably been annoyed by his software, the McAfee Security Suite, a highly invasive anti-virus program that acts more like a malicious program than the ones it purports to stop. He has since apologized for creating it, reminding the public that he had no input in the product once it was purchased by Intel.
It was Ernest Hemmingway who said “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” John McAfee has certainly lived an interesting life. One might even call it incredible. He’s a modern-day eccentric whose playboy image, outlandish behavior, and brushes with law have become the stuff legends are made of. And it all started on a U.S. Military base in England.
Nobody is sure of the exact year McAfee was born. Some cite the date as 1945, while others put it at 1946. What we do know is that the infant McAfee was brought back to the mainland and raised in Virginia. Living with an abusive father, he led his neighborhood friends in building a private retreat deep in the woods of Salem, where he and his cohorts could escape the pain and sorrow of their home lives.
He graduated from Roanoke College in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He would later be given an honorary doctorate from that same institution. We worked as a programmer at NASA’s Institute for Space Studies in New York City from 1968 to 1970, but soon found himself intrigued with an emerging concept in computing: viruses. While employed as a programmer with Lockheed, McAfee received a copy of the “brain virus”, one of the very first malicious programs to be widely circulated. It inspired him to found McAfee Associates in 1987.
By 1989, he devoted most of his time and attention to combatting computer viruses. Long before the name McAfee became synonymous with pesky software that seems impossible to fully uninstall, he had resigned from the company and sold his remaining shares. By this point, McAfee had stacked some considerable wealth. At his richest, his net worth was over one-hundred million dollars. This rise to financial prominence wouldn’t seem out of place if we were talking about Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Gates. It’s what he did once his wealth was established that has become the subject of widespread notoriety.
He spent a number of years living abroad in the Central American country of Belize. In 2012, his clashes with Belize and Guatemalan legal authorities began. In April of that year, Belize authorities raided his lavish estate home, suspecting him of involvement in narcotics production. Nothing came of that raid, but it was enough to make McAfee incredibly paranoid. What happened next is still a mystery. Here is everything we know: American expatriate Gregory Viant Faull filed a joint neighborhood complaint against his neighbor, John McAfee. Faull demanded something be done about McAfee’s “vicious dogs”. Not long afterward, Faull was found dead of a gunshot wound—presumably murdered. By this point, McAfee seriously distrusted Belize authorities, later citing fear for his life. He refused to answer routine questions from investigators, putting him high on the list of suspects. Rather than take his chances defending himself legally, McAfee decided to flee. His status as an international fugitive would propel his celebrity to new heights. His suave, bad boy persona captured the interest of the media and public at large.
After spending some time on the run, he eventually sought asylum in Guatemala. Authorities arrested him in 2013, to which McAfee responded by faking a heart attack and feigning other health problems to get deported back to the United States. It worked, and he now resides in Henderson, Tennessee. The story of McAfee’s escape from the Guatemalan detention center became the focus of media attention that further propelled him into the public spotlight. Of his international legal problems, Phoenix criminal defense lawyer Jeremy Geigle wrote: “When individuals commit crimes in foreign countries, the conviction process can be extremely complicated as most attorneys from the United States are not qualified to practice law in other countries.”
This year, he was arrested in Tennessee for driving impaired and possessing an unlicensed firearm. Before that, he was found liable in the death of Robert Gilso. Gilso was flying in an ultra-light aircraft, participating in an extreme sport McAfee helped pioneer called “aerotrekking”, which involves flying aircraft at low altitudes, at high speeds, over rugged terrain.
And yet, after all of the public drama, McAfee insists he will win the U.S. presidency, running on a platform of privacy rights and cyber-security. He says his entire campaign will be run virtually, stating “I’m not going to be out shaking hands and kissing babies.” Come 2016, voters will decide if the roguish playboy has what it takes to lead the free world.