From Anti-Virus to Spanish Prison: The Many Shades of John McAfee

·7-min read

From inventing a notable anti-virus software christened after his name to being declared a “subject of interest” in the murder of a neighbour in a Central American country – cybersecurity entrepreneur John MacAfee, found dead in a Spanish prison, has often been at the centre of attention for both the media and investigation agencies.

The 72-year-old techie – known equally for his “brash”, “reckless”, and flashily scandalous lifestyle and endless conspiracy theories – was found dead, allegedly after taking his own life at a Barcelona prison, where he had been lodged since 2020.

His death comes hours after the Spanish High Court ruled in favour of his extradition to the United States, where he was wanted in a tax evasion case that could carry a sentence of upto 30 years.

But how did he go from being the inventor of a successful and popular anti-virus software to being a prisoner, that too, in a Catalan prison?

Addicted, Yet Successful

The son of an Englishwoman and an American soldier, McAfee told the BBC in an interview that he had taken to heavy drinking and drugs after his “abusive alcoholic” father shot himself when the tech-star was just 15.

However, his troubles didn’t just end there. In the 1960s, the Northeast State Louisiana State College terminated McAfee’s PhD in Mathematics after he purportedly pursued a sexual relationship with his mentee, whom he later married.

However, he continued to use his skills which landed him jobs in leading technology organisations like NASA, General Electric, and Siemens Xerox – all this, while still retaining the addictions he had picked up shortly after 15.

Four years after McAfee was abandoned by his wife and was asked to leave a company he was working with, McAfee says that the year 1984 was “the last time that I took drugs, drank alcohol, or sold drugs for that matter.”

How McAfee Discovered McAfee

His next stint in the 1980s came in the form of a position at defence manufacturing giant Lockheed Martin, where he came across a strange code that was written to copy itself on any floppy disk that was inserted into affected computers. The message on the virus read “Welcome to the dungeon. Beware of this VIRUS."

The success with which his code – which he claims to have “in a day and a half” – swept the virus out of computers led him to set up McAfee Associates, that he later sold to chip-making giant Intel for $7.6 billion.

"“I knew the field would become extremely large because of people being who they are, there will always be hackers...it’s why we have graffiti on the walls of the inner city. People like to deface things. They like to disrupt things.”" - John MacAfee told the BBC

Despite claiming to be “constantly under attack,” McAfee maintained that he had never used any of the anti-virus software himself. Back then, he said that he would practice safe computing and not visit sites where one could pick up the virus, like porn sites.

He also helped develop the key early instant messaging services in the ’90s.

In the Jungles of Belize

So what does a man who’s just bagged $7.6 billion – much less that he thinks he deserved – does with the money? According to ABC News, the entrepreneur built nine homes, stuffed them with expensive art, furniture, and even a dinosaur skull. This was, of course, in addition to the fleet of private airplanes and luxury cars that he had purchased.

By 2009, McAfee claimed that he was badly it by the recession, and several of his properties were auctioned-off. However, he later maintained that these stories were cooked up to fool the media.

"“No, I didn’t lose everything. I wanted to stop people from trying to sue me.”" - McAfee, as quoted by ABC News.

The same year, he moved to Belize, a small Central American country, where he claimed to have come across quorum sensing – a technique that he claimed was used by bacteria to communicate with each other, reported the BBC.

He had also set up a research facility to understand, what he calls was the ability of plants in the Rio Nuevo river to block the communication among bacteria.

However, in 2012, his research station was raided by the Belize Police, which suspected MacAfee of running a meth lab. According to ABC News, although no illegal drug or substance was found in the lab, it was eventually closed down.

McAfee, however, claimed he was raided for refusing to fund a local politician.

In Neighbourhood’s Murder, McAfee a 'Subject of Interest'

Following the raid, he began an affair with a 16-year-old prostitute, whom he had met on Belize Independence Day.

The minor, however, claims that she hid her real age from McAfee, telling him that he was 18. "I let him fall in love first before I told him my age,” she told ABC News. Shocked at discovering her real age at first, McAfee later moved to San Pedro island with the minor who he “still loved".

A cartoonist who visited the duo said that McAfee was “surrounded by young girls and bodyguards,” adding that a large number of these girls had either worked as sex-workers or had had a hard life.

In November 2012, he was declared as a “person of interest” by the police after his 52-year-old neighbour Gregory Faull, was found in poll of blood under mysterious conditions.

When the police tried to investigate McAfee in connection with Faull’s death, he was found missing from his home. He, however, told WIRED that ran to save his own life.

"“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Oh, my Lord. The government is finally trying to rid themselves of me...the government does from time to time. I had certainly been a huge thorn in their side, and they had simply got the wrong white man.”" - McAfee, as quoted by WIRED.

Then, he went into hiding, often disguising himself as a “rugged salesman” to avoid attention as his photographs were posted everywhere.

On 3 December 2012, in a text story titled “We Are with John McAfee Right Now, Suckers”, VICE said that its Editor-in-Chief Rocco Castoro and photographer/ videographer Robert King have been following John McAfee for the past four days.

However, VICE unknowingly revealed that McAfee had crossed Guatemala, revealing his location. This was followed by his arrest in the country, during which he suffered a heart attack, only to tell ABC News later that he had “faked it".

He was then deported to Miami in Florida.

How McAfee Landed in Spanish Jail

Back home in the United States, McAfee continued to draw the attention of investigating agencies.

  • In 2015, he was arrested in Tennessee, US, for driving under the influence and possession of a gun.

  • He tried, with little success, to become the Libertarian Party's candidate in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

  • In July 2019, he was detained by authorities in the Dominican Republic after being suspected of travelling in a yacht, carrying “high-calibre weapons, ammunition, and military-style gear".

  • In the same year, he tweeted that he had not paid tax returns for eight years as he believed that “taxation is illegal".

  • Following this, he had emerged as a cryptocurrency star and had later been charged by a Manhattan Court in March over a pump and dump cryptocurrency scheme.

In June 2020, he was charged in the US for evading taxes and failing to report millions that he had earned through promoting cryptocurrencies, consulting work, speaking of engagements, among others.

On 3 October 2020, he was arrested at the Barcelona airport while he was about to take a flight to Istanbul.

Controversy Around Death

McAfee had recently tweeted about horrible conditions in jail, saying that “there is much sorrow in prison, disguised as hostility".

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His death has led to a barrage of conspiracy theories, including the one propagated by Q-Anon believers that he died of other reasons.

According to Business Insider QAnon is “a wide-ranging, far-right conspiracy theory based on the false notion that former President Donald Trump had attempted to take down a 'deep state' cabal of human traffickers and pedophiles".

(With inputs from the BBC, ABC News, Wired Magazine, The Guardian and Business Insider)

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