Last month, a man was murdered in Belize and his suspicious neighbor went on the lam. But that's not the narrative the media has been promoting because the fugitive isn't just any fugitive; it's John McAfee. The tech-pioneer-turned-playboy is hellbent on portraying himself as a victim of a corrupt Belizean government. Science and adventure writer Jeff Wise tells Bob that McAfee's outlandish strategy may just be working.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalists first swarmed to John McAfee back in 1992, when he warned about the supposedly killer “Michelangelo computer virus,” a threat that never panned out but which propelled his antivirus software company into the stratosphere. Next he fascinated by pioneering aerotrekking, an adrenaline-rich, but insanely dangerous sport of flying ultralight aircraft close to the ground. Next he attracted attention by taking what was left of his $100 million fortune and decamping to an island off of Belize, where he lived a life of off-the-charts hedonism, including sex, drugs and loaded guns. And now he is, once again, in the spotlight, this time as a person of interest in the murder of his neighbor, Gregory Faull.
For almost a month, McAfee has been on the lam from authorities, but he is a counterintuitive fugitive. A procession of reporters has followed him virtually and in the flesh and enabled him to spin an unlikely counter-narrative. Through the latest chapter of McAfee outrageousness, as ever, news outlets, like Vice, Wired and the New York Times have flown toward him like moths to a flame- out. In fact, the publicity led to his capture in Guatemala. Rather than sending him back to Belize though, Guatemalan authorities deported him Wednesday back to the United States.
Science and adventure writer Jeff Wise has been covering McAfee for five years and continues to marvel at the man's ability to hijack the press’ fascination for his own purposes.
JEFF WISE: He’s tried to paint this picture of himself as an ordinary fun-loving, peaceful guy whose only desire is to go back to fishing. He never [LAUGHS] was a fisherman before, but now he wants to go back to it. McAfee has spent all of his time in the last three weeks repeating a drumbeat of Belizean government corruption.
JOHN McAFEE: I was minding my own business in April when 42 armed soldiers stormed my property, shot my dog in front of my eyes and, just to show me that they were serious, destroyed a half million dollars’ worth of property, h – tortured me in the sun by keeping my hands handcuffed behind my back with no relief for 14 hours. Again, I – I suggest you try this, people. They take me to a jail, release me with no charges, and then from that point on they have been harassing me.
JEFF WISE: Because that is his message, it is repeated. Even by outlets that are somewhat critical, it’s repeated.
BOB GARFIELD: At this point, we should observe that it is not from nothing that the Belizean police are suspicious of him. The suspicion is based on an ongoing dispute between McAfee and Greg Faull. And Faull was killed by a handgun. McAfee kept guns on his compound.
JEFF WISE: Carried guns.
BOB GARFIELD: Carried them.
JEFF WISE: Against the law.
BOB GARFIELD: And, you know, was clearly erratic. So tell me when he went from being just a rich devil-may-care eccentric to something darker.
JEFF WISE: So when I first met him in 2007, he seemed very much of the up and up, a guy who had a passion for this new sport called aerotrekking, which involved flying these tiny aircraft very low over the desert. And I wrote a very positive piece about him for a magazine called Outside Go. And I went back to visit him after he moved to Belize.
As I got to know him better, as people came forward and told me stories, it was like peeling an onion. As the layers came off, a darker side to him emerged. But it was a very slow process. And it's been quickened by changes in his own personality in the last few years. Around 2010, it seems he became involved in these things called “bath salts,” which are a powerful psychosis -inducing drug. He was attracted to them for their hyper- sexualizing effect. And it made him darker, I think.
The first evidence was that his coterie of hangers-on and admirers went away. By the time I visited him in April of this year, he was alone in this sprawling compound right on the beach. And there was no one there to share it with him, except his Belizean employees, some of whom appeared to be gunmen and prostitutes.
BOB GARFIELD: What are the ways that McAfee has succeeded in manipulating reporters, beginning with you?
JEFF WISE: He is very savvy in how the press works. He knows what kind of assertion will be printed uncritically. For instance, in 2009 I saw the coverage that said that McAfee had lost 96% of his wealth in the crash. I reached out to him. I wanted to find out what was going on. He said that he was perfectly happy, had moved down to Belize, and was very excited about this project that he had gotten underway with a Harvard biologist, who was going to find these miracle drugs in the jungle, invited me to come down. He said, we’ll go flying and I’ll show you all these wonderful drugs that we’re gonna use to save the world.
I went down there and, sure enough, we had fun on his boat and we flew around the country, and I met this biologist and he showed me the plots of land where he was gonna grow these miracle herbs. And I wrote a piece that was really, frankly, credulous. I basically took what McAfee told me and I took what I’d seen, and I put it together 3,000 words. And my editor, he said, this doesn’t smell right. This needs more time, so let’s hold it and do some more reporting.
BOB GARFIELD: What was he doing in Belize, to begin with?
JEFF WISE: He had claimed that he had gone there to find these medical herbs but, as I reported, it turned out that there was a wrongful death lawsuit against him as a result of his aerotrekking operation that he had been trying to promote is a popular sport for Americans. It seemed to be a plausible potential explanation for why he had gone down there, in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD: He’s irresistible, and there's been this procession of reporters to see him, most recently, the editor of Vice. Tell me about the photo from Guatemala.
JEFF WISE: This is a bizarre twist in a bizarre story. He’d been on the run for about three weeks and then he invites a pair of journalists from Vice to travel with him. They took an iPhone picture and uploaded it, and the headline was, We are with John McAfee, Suckers.” One of the readers noticed that the iPhone had automatically appended metadata to the image that showed exactly where it was taken, which turned out to be poolside at a resort in Guatemala. And so, instantly it was on Twitter.
McAfee responded to this lapse by claiming that he had deliberately faked this data to throw off his pursuers. And what was really objectionable to some people was that the photographer who took the picture, Robert King, who was on a freelance assignment for Vice, backed up McAfee's claim. So they were not just in cahoots with McAfee at this point, but actually aiding and abetting.
BOB GARFIELD: What compact do you have to make with your news organization and with yourself before you get involved with covering him?
JEFF WISE: Just read what’s already been written about this guy.
You know, he is this person who’s gone on the record that he enjoys hoaxing the press. I feel like as a member of the press, that should alert you.
BOB GARFIELD: Kind of a red flag.
JEFF WISE: It starts off like a great marriage. You’re the guy who wants to tell a story, he's the guy who wants to be talked about. Let's take a walk together. Where it starts to break down is that McAfee also has a compulsion to manipulate people to do things that they don't want to do. He has done a masterful job, however you feel about him personally, of creating a narrative out of thin air, which has thousands or millions of adherents, at this point.
I guess I've seen a lot of coverage recently about McAfee where he's described as being a complicated character, and he's not really complicated. He’s actually a kind of a simple character, once you understand what’s really motivating him.
BOB GARFIELD: So it’s journalistically safe and explicitly non-libelous to say that.
JEFF WISE: Well,
BOB GARFIELD: But –
JEFF WISE: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - may be not doing a service to the readers. I feel that in a case like this, you have to go out on a limb a bit. You cannot just be that ideal, balanced person who takes one person's opinion over here and matches it with this person's opinion over here, especially if you only have one person's opinion, if your only source is the subject.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you’ve certainly learned how to go out on a limb [LAUGHS] because in one piece you said, while I was with him I had the distinct impression that he was going to murder me.
JEFF WISE: We were halfway through a conversation, and he stopped and he said, Jeff, I’m gonna tell you the truth, for once. And he paused, and he wound up making a phone call instead to these two gentlemen who had recently been taken in on a burglary charge. And he was saying, I’m gonna get you out, and I want you to come over to the island this afternoon. This was in the context of telling about how he has all these killers essentially working for him.
And he never finished that thought. And then I left, and I sort of kissed the ground when I got back to my hotel.
And he actually reached out to me the next day, he said, there was something that I wanted to tell you that was very important, and I just forgot to tell you, and I'd like you to come back to my house so that I can tell you. There was – listen, there was no way in the world I was gonna go back to his house. And I said to him, tell me over the phone. He said, I can't share with you something that's of such deep personal importance to me, unless you’re here. He sounded kind of mad at me.
And I can’t explain to somebody else why I felt [LAUGHS] so strongly that I had like a 50-50 chance of getting out of that alive. I think it's very plausible, at the very least, that he wanted me to feel like he wanted to kill me.
BOB GARFIELD: One final question. Does this guy even matter? Is there a story here beyond the freak show?
JEFF WISE: There’s two ways of looking at that. Noam Cohen of the New York Times told me that if McAfee, back in the day, had decided to call his software Bluebird Anti-Virus Software, this story wouldn’t exist. So in a way, no, it’s completely inconsequential. He’s not really a celebrity. People just know the name ‘cause it’s popped up on their computer from time to time.
On the other hand, there are people he has harmed who I believe, right now, are fearing literally for their lives, and I think that is a problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff, thank you.
JEFF WISE: A pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Wise is a science and adventure writer. He has written frequently about John McAfee, most recently for the New York Times.
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