On November 12, 2012, Belizean police announced that they were seeking John McAfee for questioning in connection with the murder of his neighbor. Six months earlier, I began an in-depth investigation into McAfee’s life. This is the chronicle of that investigation.
Twelve weeks before the murder, John McAfee flicks open the cylinder of his Smith & Wesson revolver and empties the bullets, letting them clatter onto the table between us. A few tumble to the floor. McAfee is 66, lean and fit, with veins bulging out of his forearms. His hair is bleached blond in patches, like a cheetah, and tattoos wrap around his arms and shoulders.
More than 25 years ago, he formed McAfee Associates, a maker of antivirus software that went on to become immensely popular and was acquired by Intel in 2010 for $7.68 billion. Now he’s holed up in a bungalow on his island estate, about 15 miles off the coast of mainland Belize. The shades are drawn so I can see only a sliver of the white sand beach and turquoise water outside. The table is piled with boxes of ammunition, fake IDs bearing his photo, Frontiersman bear deterrent, and a single blue baby pacifier.
McAfee picks a bullet off the floor and fixes me with a wide-eyed, manic intensity. “This is a bullet, right?” he says in the congenial Southern accent that has stuck with him since his boyhood in Virginia.
“Let’s put the gun back,” I tell him. I’d come here to try to understand why the government of Belize was accusing him of assembling a private army and entering the drug trade. It seemed implausible that a wildly successful tech entrepreneur would disappear into the Central American jungle and become a narco-trafficker. Now I’m not so sure.
But he explains that the accusations are a fabrication. “Maybe what happened didn’t actually happen,” he says, staring hard at me. “Can I do a demonstration?”
He loads the bullet into the gleaming silver revolver, spins the cylinder.
“This scares you, right?” he says. Then he puts the gun to his head.
My heart rate kicks up; it takes me a second to respond. “Yeah, I’m scared,” I admit. “We don’t have to do this.”
“I know we don’t,” he says, the muzzle pressed against his temple. And then he pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. He pulls it three more times in rapid succession. There are only five chambers.
“Reholster the gun,” I demand.
He keeps his eyes fixed on me and pulls the trigger a fifth time. Still nothing. With the gun still to his head, he starts pulling the trigger incessantly. “I can do this all day long,” he says to the sound of the hammer clicking. “I can do this a thousand times. Ten thousand times. Nothing will ever happen. Why? Because you have missed something. You are operating on an assumption about reality that is wrong.”
It’s the same thing, he argues, with the government’s accusations. They were a smoke screen—an attempt to distort reality—but there’s one thing everybody agrees on: The trouble really got rolling in the humid predawn murk of April 30, 2012.
It was a Monday, about 4:50 am. A television flickered in the guard station of McAfee’s newly built, 2.5-acre jungle outpost on the Belizean mainland. At the far end of the property, a muddy river flowed slowly past. Crocodiles lurked on the opposite bank, and howler monkeys screeched. In the guard station, a drunk night watchman gaped at Blond Ambition, a Madonna concert DVD.
The guard heard the trucks first. Then boots hitting the ground and the gate rattling as the lock was snapped with bolt cutters. He stood up and looked outside. Dozens of men in green camouflage were streaming into the compound. Many were members of Belize’s Gang Suppression Unit, an elite force trained in part by the FBI and armed with Taurus MT-9 submachine guns. Formed in 2010, their mission was to dismantle criminal organizations.
The guard observed the scene silently for a moment and then sat back down. After all, the Madonna concert wasn’t over yet. Outside, flashlight beams streaked across the property. “This is the police,” a voice blared over a bullhorn. “Everyone out!”
Deep in the compound, McAfee burst out of a thatched-roof bungalow that stood on stilts 20 feet off the ground. He was naked and held a revolver. Things had changed since his days as a high-flying software tycoon. By 2009 he had sold almost everything he owned—estates in Hawaii, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas as well as his 10-passenger plane—and moved into the jungle. He announced that he was searching for natural antibiotics in the rain forest and constructed a mysterious laboratory on his property. Now his jungle stronghold was under attack. The commandos were converging on him. There were 31 of them; he was outgunned and outmanned.
McAfee walked back inside to the 17-year-old in his bed. She was sitting up, naked, her long frizzy hair falling around her shoulders and framing the stars tattooed on her chest. She was terrified.
As the GSU stormed up the stairs, he put on some shorts, laid down his gun, and walked out with his hands up. The commandos collided with McAfee at the top of the stairs, slammed him against the wall, and handcuffed him.
“You’re being detained on suspicion of producing methamphetamine,” one of the cops said.
McAfee twisted to look at his accuser. “That’s a startling hypothesis, sir,” he responded. “Because I haven’t sold drugs since 1983.”
Nineteen eighty-three was a pivotal year for McAfee. He was 38 and director of engineering at Omex, a company that built information storage systems in Santa Clara, California. He was also selling cocaine to his subordinates and snorting massive amounts himself. When he got too high to focus, he’d take a quaalude. If he started to fall asleep at his desk, he’d snort some more coke to wake up. McAfee had trouble making it through the day and spent his afternoons drinking scotch to even out the tumult in his head.
He’d been a mess for a long time. He grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, where his father was a road surveyor and his mother a bank teller. His father, McAfee recalls, was a heavy drinker and “a very unhappy man” who McAfee says beat him and his mother severely. When McAfee was 15, his father shot himself. “Every day I wake up with him,” McAfee says. “Every relationship I have, he’s by my side; every mistrust, he is the negotiator of that mistrust. So my life is fucked.”
McAfee started drinking heavily his first year at Roanoke College and supported himself by selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. He would knock and announce that the lucky resident had won an absolutely free subscription; all they had to do was pay a small shipping and handling fee. “So, in fact, I am explaining to them why it’s not free and why they are going to pay for it. But the ruse worked,” McAfee recalls. He learned that confidence was all that mattered. He smiled, fixed them with his penetrating blue-eyed gaze, and hit them with a nonstop stream of patter. “I made a fortune,” he says.
He spent his money on booze but managed to graduate and start a PhD in mathematics at Northeast Louisiana State College in 1968. He got kicked out for sleeping with one of his undergraduate students (whom he later married) and ended up coding old-school punch-card programs for Univac in Bristol, Tennessee. That didn’t last long, either. He was arrested for buying marijuana, and though his lawyer got him off without a conviction, he was summarily fired.
Still, he had learned enough to gin up an impressive, totally fake résumé and used it to get a job at Missouri Pacific Railroad in St. Louis. It was 1969 and the company was attempting to use an IBM computer to schedule trains. After six months, McAfee’s system began to churn out optimized train-routing patterns. Unfortunately, he had also discovered LSD. He would drop acid in the morning, go to work, and route trains all day. One morning he decided to experiment with another psychedelic called DMT. He did a line, felt nothing, and decided to snort a whole bag of the orangish powder. “Within an hour my mind was shattered,” McAfee says.
People asked him questions, but he didn’t understand what they were saying. The computer was spitting out train schedules to the moon; he couldn’t make sense of it. He ended up behind a garbage can in downtown St. Louis, hearing voices and desperately hoping that nobody would look at him. He never went back to Missouri Pacific. Part of him believes he’s still on that trip, that everything since has been one giant hallucination and that one day he’ll snap out of it and find himself back on his couch in St. Louis, listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
From then on he felt like he was always one step away from a total breakdown, which finally came at Omex in 1983. He was snorting lines of coke off his desk most mornings, polishing off a bottle of scotch every day, and living in constant fear that he would run out of drugs. His wife had left him, he’d given away his dog, and in the wake of what he calls a mutual agreement, he left Omex. He ended up shuttered in his house, with no friends, doing drugs alone for days on end and wondering whether he should kill himself just as his father had. “My life was total hell,” he says.
Finally he went to a therapist, who suggested he go to Alcoholics Anonymous. He attended a meeting and started sobbing. Someone gave him a hug and told him he wasn’t alone.
“That’s when life really began for me,” he says.
He says he’s been sober ever since.
When the Madonna concert ended, McAfee’s drunken guard finally emerged from his station and strolled over to find out what was going on. The police quickly surrounded him. They knew who he was: Austin “Tino” Allen had been convicted 28 times for crimes ranging from robbery to assault, and he had spent most of his life in and out of prison.
The police lined everybody up against a rock wall as the sun rose. A low, heavy heat filled the jungle. Everybody began to sweat when the police fanned out to search the property. As an officer headed toward an outlying building, one of McAfee’s dogs cut him off, growled, and, according to police, went in for an attack. The cop immediately shot the dog through the rib cage.
“What the fuck!” McAfee screamed. “That’s my dog.”
The police ignored him. They left the dead dog in the dirt while they rummaged through the compound. They found shotguns, pistols, a huge cache of ammunition, and hundreds of bottles of chemicals they couldn’t identify. McAfee and the others were left in the sun for hours. (GSU commander Marco Vidal claims they were under the shade of a large tree.) By the time the police announced that they were taking several of them to jail, McAfee says his face was turning pink with sunburn. He and Allen were loaded into the back of a pickup. The truck tore off, heading southeast toward Belize City at 80 miles per hour.
McAfee tried to stay calm, but he had to admit that this was a bad situation. He had walked away from a luxurious life—mansions on multiple continents, sports cars, a private plane—only to end up in the back of a pickup cuffed to a notoriously violent man. Allen pulled McAfee close so he could be heard over the roar of the wind. McAfee tensed. “Boss, I just want to say that it’s an honor to be here with you,” Allen shouted. “You must be a really important person for them to send all these men to get you.”
In 1986 two brothers in Pakistan coded the first known computer virus aimed at PCs. They weren’t trying to destroy anything; it was simple curiosity. They wanted to see how far their creation would travel, so they included their names, addresses, and telephone numbers in the code of the virus. They named it Brain after their computer services shop in Lahore.
Within a year the phone at the shop was ringing: Brain had infected computers around the world. At the time, McAfee had been sober for four years and gotten a security clearance to work on a classified voice-recognition program at Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California. But then he came across an article in the San Jose Mercury News about the spread of the Pakistani Brain virus in the US.
He found the idea terrifying. Nobody knew for sure at the time why these intrusions were occurring. It reminded him of his childhood, when his father would hit him for no reason. “I didn’t know why he did it,” McAfee says. “I just knew a beating could happen any time.” As a boy, he wasn’t able to fight back. Now, faced with a new form of attack that was hard to rationalize, he decided to do something.
He started McAfee Associates out of his 700-square-foot home in Santa Clara. His business plan: Create an antivirus program and give it away on electronic bulletin boards. McAfee didn’t expect users to pay. His real aim was to get them to think the software was so necessary that they would install it on their computers at work. They did. Within five years, half of the Fortune 100 companies were running it, and they felt compelled to pay a license fee. By 1990, McAfee was making $5 million a year with very little overhead or investment.
His success was due in part to his ability to spread his own paranoia, the fear that there was always somebody about to attack. Soon after launching his company, he bought a 27-foot Winnebago, loaded it with computers, and announced that he had formed the first “antivirus paramedic unit.” When he got a call from someone experiencing computer problems in the San Jose area, he drove to the site and searched for “virus residue.” Like a good door-to-door salesman, there was a kernel of truth to his pitch, but he amplified and embellished the facts to sell his product. The RV therefore was not just an RV; it was “the first specially customized unit to wage effective, on-the-spot counterattacks in the virus war.”
It was great publicity, executed with drama and sly wit. By the end of 1988, he was on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour telling the country that viruses were causing so much damage, some companies were “near collapse from financial loss.” He underscored the danger with his 1989 book, Computer Viruses, Worms, Data Diddlers, Killer Programs, and Other Threats to Your System. “The reality is so alarming that it would be very difficult to exaggerate,” he wrote. “Even if no new viruses are ever created, there are already enough circulating to cause a growing problem as they reproduce. A major disaster seems inevitable.”
In 1992 McAfee told almost every major news network and newspaper that the recently discovered Michelangelo virus was a huge threat; he believed it could destroy as many as 5 million computers around the world. Sales of his software spiked, but in the end only tens of thousands of infections were reported. Though McAfee was roundly criticized for his proclamation, the criticism worked in his favor, as he explained in an email in 2000 to a computer-security blogger: “My business increased tenfold in the two months following the stories and six months later our revenues were 50 times greater and we had captured the lion’s share of the anti-virus market.”
This ability to infect others with his own paranoia made McAfee a wealthy man. In October 1992 his company debuted on Nasdaq, and his shares were suddenly worth $80 million.
The jail cell was about 10 feet by 10 feet. The concrete floor was bare and cold, the smell of urine overpowering. A plastic milk container in the corner had been hacked open and was serving as a toilet. The detention center was located in the Queen Street police station, but everybody in Belize City called it the Pisshouse. In the shadows of his cell, McAfee could see the other inmates staring at him.
No charges had been filed yet, though the police had confiscated what they said were two unlicensed firearms on McAfee’s property; they still couldn’t identify the chemicals they had found. McAfee said he had licenses for all his firearms and explained that the chemicals were part of his antibiotic research. The police weren’t buying it.
McAfee pulled 20 Belizean dollars out of his shoe and passed it through the bars to a guard. “You got a cigarette?” he asked.
McAfee hadn’t smoked for 10 years, but this seemed like a good time to start again. The guard handed him a book of matches and a pack of Benson & Hedges. McAfee lit one and took a deep drag. He was supposed to be living out a peaceful retirement in a tropical paradise. Now he was standing in jail, holding up his pants with one hand because the police had confiscated his belt. “Use this,” Allen said, offering him a dirty plastic bag.
McAfee looked confused. “You tie your pants,” Allen explained.
McAfee fed the bag through two of his belt loops, cinched it tight, and tied a knot. It worked.
“Welcome to the Pisshouse,” Allen said, smiling.
McAfee lived in Silicon Valley for nearly 20 years. Outwardly he seemed to lead a traditional life with his second wife, Judy. He was a seasoned businessman whom startups turned to for advice. Stanford Graduate School of Business wrote two case studies highlighting his strategies. He was regularly invited to lecture at the school, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Roanoke College. In 2000 he started a yoga institute near his 10,000-square-foot mansion in the Colorado Rockies and wrote four books about spirituality. Even after his marriage fell apart in 2002, he was a respectable citizen who donated computers to schools and took out newspaper ads discouraging drug use.
But as he neared retirement age in the late 2000s, he started to feel like he was deluding himself. His properties, cars, and planes had become a burden, and he realized that he didn’t want the traditional rich man’s life anymore. Maintaining so many possessions was a constant distraction; it was time, he felt, to try to live more rustically. “John has always been searching for something,” says Jennifer Irwin, McAfee’s girlfriend at the time. She remembers him telling her once that he was trying to reach “the expansive horizon.”
He was also hurting financially. The economic collapse in 2008 hit him hard, and he couldn’t afford to maintain his lifestyle. By 2009 he’d auctioned off almost everything he owned, including more than 1,000 acres of land in Hawaii and the private airport he’d built in New Mexico. He was trying in part to deter people from suing him on the assumption that he had deep pockets. He was already facing a suit from a man who had tripped on his property in New Mexico. Another suit alleged that he was responsible for the death of someone who crashed during a lesson at a flight school McAfee had founded. He figured that if he were out of the country, he’d be less of a target. And he knew that, should he lose a case, it would be harder for the plaintiffs to collect money if he lived overseas.
In early 2008 McAfee started searching for property in the Caribbean. His criteria were pretty basic: He was looking for an English-speaking country near the US with beautiful beaches. He quickly came across a villa on Ambergris Caye in Belize. In the early ’90s he had visited the nation of 189,000 people and loved it. (Today the population is around 356,000.) He looked at the property on Google Earth, decided it was perfect, and bought it. The first time he saw it in person was in April 2008, when he moved in.
Soon after his arrival, McAfee began to explore the country. He was particularly fascinated by stories of a majestic Mayan city in the jungle and hired a guide to go see it. Boating up a river that snaked into the northern jungle, they stopped at a makeshift dock that jutted from the dense vegetation. McAfee jumped ashore, pushed through the vines, and caught sight of a towering, crumbling temple. Trees had grown up through the ancient buildings, encasing them in roots. Giant stone faces glared out through the foliage, mouths agape. As the men walked up the steps of the temple, the guide described how the Mayans sacrificed their prisoners, sending torrents of blood down the very stairs he and McAfee were now climbing.
McAfee was spellbound. “Belize is so raw and so clear and so in-your-face. There’s an opportunity to see something about human nature that you can’t really see in a politer society, because the purpose of society is to mask ourselves from each other,” McAfee says. The jungle, in other words, would give him the chance to find out exactly who he was, and that opportunity was irresistible.
So in February 2010 he bought two and a half acres of swampy land along the New River, 10 miles upriver from the Mayan ruins. Over the next year, he spent more than a million dollars filling in the swamp and constructing an array of thatched-roofed bungalows. While his girlfriend, Irwin, stayed on Ambergris Caye, McAfee outfitted the place like Kublai Khan’s sumptuous house of pleasure. He imported ancient Tibetan art and shipped in a baby grand piano even though he had never taken lessons. There was no Internet. At night, when the construction stopped, there was just the sound of the river flowing quietly past. He sat at the piano and played exuberant odes of his own creation. “It was magical,” he says.
He didn’t like the idea of getting old, though, so he injected testosterone into his buttocks every other week. He felt that it gave him youthful energy and kept him lean. Plus, he wasn’t looking for a quiet retirement. He started a cigar manufacturing business, a coffee distribution company, and a water taxi service that connected parts of Ambergris Caye. He continued to build more bungalows on his property even though he had no pressing need for them.
In 2010 McAfee visited a beachfront resort for lunch and met Allison Adonizio, a 31-year-old microbiologist who was on vacation. In the resort’s dining room, Adonizio explained that she was doing postgrad research at Harvard on how plants combat bacteria. She was particularly interested in plant compounds that appeared to prevent bacteria from causing infections by interfering with the way the microbes communicated. Eventually, Adonizio explained, the work might also lead to an entire new class of antibiotics.
McAfee was thrilled by the idea. He had fought off digital contagions, and now he could fight organic ones. It was perfect.
He immediately proposed they start a business to commercialize her research. Within minutes McAfee was talking in rapid-fire bursts about how this would transform the pharmaceutical industry and the entire world. They would save millions of lives and reinvent whole industries. Adonizio was astounded. “He offered me my dream job,” she says. “My own lab, assistants. It was incredible.”
Adonizio said yes on the spot, quit her research position in Boston, sold the house she had just bought, and moved to Belize. McAfee soon built a laboratory on his property and stocked it with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. Adonizio went to work trying to isolate new plant compounds that might be effective medicines, while McAfee touted the business to the international press.
But the methodical pace of Adonizio’s scientific research couldn’t keep up with McAfee’s enthusiasm, and his attention seemed to wander. He began spending more time in Orange Walk, a town of about 13,000 people that was 5 miles from his compound. McAfee described it in an email to friends as “the asshole of the world—dirty, hot, gray, dilapidated.” He liked to walk the town’s poorly paved streets and take pictures of the residents. “I gravitate to the world’s outcasts,” he explained in another email. “Prostitutes, thieves, the handicapped … For some reason I have always been fascinated by these subcultures.”
Though he says he never drank alcohol, he became a regular at a saloon called Lover’s Bar. The proprietor, McAfee wrote to his friends, was partial to “shatteringly bad Mexican karaoke music to which voices beyond description add a disharmony that reaches diabolic proportions.” McAfee quickly noticed that the place doubled as a whorehouse, servicing, as he put it, “cane field workers, street vendors, fishermen, farmers—anyone who has managed to save up $15 for a good time.”
This was the real world he was looking for, in all its horror. The bar girls were given one Belize dollar for every beer a patron bought them. To increase their earnings, some of the women would chug beers, vomit in the restroom, and return to chug more. One reported drinking 50 beers in one day. “Ninety-nine percent of people would run because they’d fear for their safety or sanity,” McAfee says. “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t walk away.”
McAfee started spending most mornings at Lover’s. After six months, he sent out another update to his friends: “My fragile connection with the world of polite society has, without a doubt, been severed,” he wrote. “My attire would rank me among the worst-dressed Tijuana panhandlers. My hygiene is no better. Yesterday, for the first time, I urinated in public, in broad daylight.”
McAfee knew he had entered a dangerous world. “I have no illusions,” he noted in another dispatch. “We are tainted by everything we touch.”
Evaristo “Paz” Novelo, the obese Belizean proprietor of Lover’s, liked to sit at a corner table and squint at his customers through perpetually puffy eyes. He admits to a long history of operating brothels and prides himself on his ability to figure out exactly what will please his patrons. Early on, he asked whether McAfee was looking for a woman. When McAfee said no, Novelo asked whether he wanted a boy. McAfee declined again. Then Novelo showed up at McAfee’s compound with a 16-year-old girl named Amy Emshwiller.
Emshwiller had a brassy toughness that belied her girlishness. In a matter-of-fact tone, she told McAfee that she had been abused as a child and said that her mother had forced her to sleep with dozens of men for money. “I don’t fall in love,” she told him. “That’s not my job.” She carried a gun, wore aviator sunglasses, and had on a low-cut shirt that framed her ample cleavage.
McAfee felt a swirl of emotions: lust, compassion, pity. “I am the male version of Amy,” he says. “I resonated with her story because I lived it.”
Emshwiller, however, felt nothing for him. “I know how to control men,” she says. “I told him my story because I wanted him to feel sorry for me, and it worked.” All Emshwiller saw was an easy mark. “A millionaire in freaking Belize, where people work all day just to make a dime?” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to rob him?”
McAfee soon realized that Emshwiller was dangerous and unstable, but that was part of her attractiveness. “She can pretend sanity better than any woman I have ever known,” he says. “And she can be alluring, she can be very beautiful, she can be butchlike. She’s a chameleon.” Within a month they were sleeping together, and McAfee started building a new bungalow on his property for her.
Visiting from Ambergris Caye, McAfee’s girlfriend, Jennifer Irwin, was flabbergasted. She asked him to tell the girl to leave, and when McAfee refused, Irwin left the country. McAfee hardly blames her. “What I basically did was can a solid 12-year relationship for a stark-raving madwoman,” he says. “But I honestly fell in love.”
One night Emshwiller decided to make her move. She slipped out of bed and pulled McAfee’s Smith & Wesson out of a holster hanging from an ancient Tibetan gong in his bedroom. Her plan, if it could be called that, was to kill him and make off with as much cash as she could scrounge up. She crept to the foot of the bed, aimed, and started to pull the trigger. But at the last moment she closed her eyes, and the bullet went wide, ripping through a pillow. “I guess I didn’t want to kill the bastard,” she admits.
McAfee leaped out of bed and grabbed the gun before she could fire again. She ran to the bathroom, locked herself in, and asked if he was going to shoot her. He couldn’t hear out of his left ear and was trying to get his bearings. Finally he told her he was going to take away her phone and TV for a month. She was furious.
“I basically canned a solid 12-year relationship for a stark-raving madwoman,” McAfee says. “But I fell in love.”
“But I didn’t even kill you!” she shouted.
McAfee decided it was better for Emshwiller to have her own place about a mile down the road in the village of Carmelita. So in early 2011 he built her a house in the village. Many of the homes are made of stripped tree trunks and topped with sheets of corrugated iron; 10 percent have no electricity. The village has a handful of dirt roads populated with colonies of biting ants and a grassy soccer field surrounded by palm trees and stray dogs. The town’s biggest source of income: sand from a pit by the river that locals sell to construction companies.
Emshwiller, who had grown up in the area, warned McAfee that the village was not what it appeared to be. She told him that the tiny, impoverished town of 1,600 was in fact a major shipment site for drugs moving overland into Mexico, 35 miles to the north. As Emshwiller described it, this village in McAfee’s backyard was crawling with narco-traffickers.
It was a revelation perfectly tailored to feed into McAfee’s latent paranoia. “I was massively disturbed,” he says. “I fell in love with the river, but then I discovered the horrors of Carmelita.”
He asked Emshwiller what he should do. “She wanted me to shoot all the men in the town,” McAfee says. It occurred to him that she might be using him to exact revenge on people who had wronged her, so he asked the denizens of Lover’s for more information. They told him stories of killings, torture, and gang wars in the area. For McAfee, the town began to take on mythic proportions. “Carmelita was literally the Wild West,” he says. “I didn’t realize that 2 miles away was the most corrupt village on the planet.”
He decided to go on the offensive. After all, he was a smart Silicon Valley entrepreneur who had launched a multibillion-dollar company. Even though he had lost a lot of money in the financial crisis, he was still wealthy. Maybe he couldn’t maintain multiple estates around the world, but surely he could clean up one village.
He started by solving some obvious problems. Carmelita had no police station, so McAfee bought a small cement house and hired workers to install floor-to-ceiling iron bars. Then he told the national cops responsible for the area to start arresting people. The police protested that they were ill-equipped for the job, so McAfee furnished them with imported M16s, boots, pepper spray, stun guns, and batons. Eventually he started paying officers to patrol during their off-hours. The police, in essence, became McAfee’s private army, and he began issuing orders. “What I’d like you to do is go into Carmelita and start getting information for me,” he told the officers on his payroll. “Who’s dealing drugs, and where are the drugs coming from?”
When a 22-year-old villager nicknamed Burger fired a gun outside Emshwiller’s house in November 2011, McAfee decided he couldn’t rely on others to get the work done; he needed to take action himself. An eyewitness told him that Burger had shot at a motorcycle—it looked like a drug deal gone bad. Burger’s sister said that he was firing at stray dogs that attacked him. Either way, McAfee was incensed. He drove his gray Dodge pickup to the family’s wooden shack near the river and strode into the muddy yard with Emshwiller as his backup (she was carrying a matte-black air rifle with a large scope). Burger wasn’t there, but his mother, sister, and brother-in-law were. “I’m giving you a last chance here,” McAfee said, holding his Smith & Wesson. “Your brother will be a dead man if he doesn’t turn in that gun. It doesn’t matter where he goes.”
“It was like he thought he was in a movie,” says Amelia Allen, the shooter’s sister. But she wasn’t going to argue with McAfee. Her mother pulled the gun out of a bush and handed it to him.
Soon, McAfee was everywhere. He pulled over a suspicious car on the road only to discover that it was filled with elderly people and children. He offered a new flatscreen TV to a small-time marijuana peddler on the condition that the man stop dealing (the guy accepted, though the TV soon broke). “It was like John Wayne came to town,” says Elvis Reynolds, former chair of the village council.
When I visited the village, Reynolds and others admitted that there were fights and petty theft but insisted that Carmelita was simply an impoverished little village, not a major transit point for international narco-traffickers, as McAfee alleges. The village leaders, for their part, were dumbfounded. Many were unfamiliar with antivirus software and had never heard of John McAfee. “I thought he would come by, introduce himself, and explain what he was doing here, but he never did,” says Feliciano Salam, a soft-spoken resident who has served on the village council for two years. “He just showed up and started telling us what to do.”
The fact that he was running a laboratory on his property only added to the mystery. Adonizio was continuing to research botanical compounds, but McAfee didn’t want to tell the locals anything about it. In part he was worried about corporate espionage. He had seen white men in suits standing beside their cars on the heavily trafficked toll bridge near his property and was sure they were spies. “Do you realize that Glaxo, Bayer, every single drug company in the world sent people out there?” McAfee says. “I was working on a project that had some paradigm-shifting impact on the drug world. It would be insanity to talk about it.”
McAfee became convinced that he was being watched at all hours. Across the river, he saw people lurking in the forest and would surveil them with binoculars. When Emshwiller visited, she never noticed anybody but repeatedly told McAfee to be careful. She heard rumors that gang members were out to “jack” him—rob and kill him. On one occasion, she recorded a village councilman discussing how to dispatch McAfee with a grenade. McAfee was wowed by her street smarts—”She is brilliant beyond description,” he says—and relished the fact that she had come full circle and was now defending him. “He got himself into a very entangled, dysfunctional situation,” says Katrina Ancona, the wife of McAfee’s partner in the water taxi business. “We kept telling him to get out.”
Adonizio was also worried about McAfee’s behavior. He had initially told her that the area was perfectly safe, but now she was surrounded by armed men. When she went to talk to McAfee in his bungalow, she noticed garbage bags filled with cash and blister packs of pharmaceuticals, including Viagra. She lived just outside of Carmelita and had never had any problems. If there was any danger, she felt that it was coming from McAfee. “He turned into a very scary person,” she says. She wasn’t comfortable living there anymore and left the country.
George Lovell, CEO of the Ministry of National Security, was also concerned that McAfee was buying guns and hiring guards. “When I see people doing this, my question is, what are you trying to protect?” Lovell says. Marco Vidal, head of the Gang Suppression Unit, concurred. “We got information to suggest that there may have been a meth laboratory at his location,” he wrote in an email. “Given the intelligence on McAfee, there was no scope for making efforts to resolve the matter.” He proposed a raid, and his superiors approved it.
When members of the GSU swept into McAfee’s compound on April 30, 2012, they found no meth. They found no illegal drugs of any kind. They did confiscate 10 weapons and 320 rounds of ammunition. Three of McAfee’s security guards were operating without a security guard license, and charges were filed against them. McAfee was accused of possessing an unlicensed firearm and spent a night in the Queen Street jail, aka the Pisshouse.
But the next morning, the charges were dropped and McAfee was released. He was convinced, however, that his war on drugs had made him some powerful enemies.
He had reason to worry. According to Vidal, McAfee was still a “person of interest,” primarily because the authorities still couldn’t explain what he was up to. “The GSU makes no apologies for deeming a person in control of a laboratory, with no approval for manufacturing any substance, having gang connections and heavily armed security guards, as a person of interest,” Vidal wrote.
Vidal’s suspicions may not have been far off. Two years after moving to Belize, McAfee began posting dozens of queries on Bluelight.ru, a drug discussion forum. He explained that he had started to experiment with MDPV, a psychoactive stimulant found in bath salts, a class of designer drugs that have effects similar to amphetamines and cocaine. “When I first started doing this I accidently got a few drops on my fingers while handling a used flask and didn’t sleep for four days,” McAfee posted. “I had visual and auditory hallucinations and the worst paranoia of my life.”
McAfee indicated, though, that the heightened sexuality justified the drug’s risks and claimed to have produced 50 pounds of MDPV in 2010. “I have distributed over 3,000 doses exclusively in this country,” he wrote. But neither Emshwiller, Adonizio, nor anyone else I spoke with observed him making the stuff. So how could he have produced 50 pounds without anyone noticing?
McAfee has a simple explanation: The whole thing was an elaborate prank aimed at tricking drug users into trying a notoriously noxious drug. “It was the most tongue-in-cheek thing in the fucking world,” he says, and denies ever taking the substance. “If I’m gonna do drugs, I’m gonna do something that I know is good,” he says. “I’m gonna grab some mushrooms, number one, and maybe get some really fine cocaine.
“But anybody who knows me knows I would never do drugs,” he says.
In August, McAfee and I meet for a final in-person interview at his villa on Ambergris Caye. He greets me wearing a pistol strapped across his bare chest. Guards patrol the beach in front of us. He tells me that he’s now living with five women who appear to be between the ages of 17 and 20; each has her own bungalow on the property. Emshwiller is here, though McAfee’s attention is focused on the other women.
He has barely left the property since he came out of hiding in April. He says he spends his days shuttling from bungalow to bungalow, trying to mediate among the women. I ask why he doesn’t leave the country, given that the Belizean government has returned his passport. “I would be perceived as running away,” McAfee says. “Within three days, all of Carmelita would return to no-man’s-land, and it would be the staging post for every illegal activity in northern Belize.”
As McAfee tells it, he is all that stands between Carmelita and rampant criminality. The police raided him, he says, because he had run the local drug dealers out of town. These dealers had political connections and had successfully lobbied to have the police attack him. They wanted him gone. He says he also refused to make political contributions to a local politician, further antagonizing the ruling party. If he gives in, he argues, it will send a message that Belize’s corrupt government can control anybody, even a rich American.
As McAfee talks, we walk across the white sand beach and into his bungalow. In many ways, his life has devolved into a complex web of contradictions. He says he’s battling drugs in Carmelita, but at the same time he’s trying to trick people online into taking drugs. He professes to care about laws—and castigates the police for violating his rights—but he moved to Belize in part to subvert the US legal system in the event he lost a civil case. The police suggest he’s a drug kingpin; I can’t help but wonder if he has lost track of reality. Maybe he imagines that he can fix himself by fixing Carmelita.
His bungalow is sparsely furnished. The small open kitchen is strewn with dishes, rotting vegetables, half-drunk bottles of Coke, and boxes of Rice Krispies and Cheerios. A dog is licking a stick of butter off the counter. A bandolier of shotgun shells hangs from a chair. He pops open a plastic bottle of Lucas Pelucas, a tamarind-flavored Mexican candy, and depresses the plunger, extruding the gooey liquid through small holes in the top. “I fucking love these things,” he says.
I tell him that while I was in Carmelita, the villagers described the place as quiet and slow-moving. There is crime, most admitted, but it is limited to stolen bicycles and drunken fights. It did not seem like a particularly dangerous place to me.
“Ninety-nine percent of all crimes are never, ever reported to the police,” he says. “Because if the gang kills your sister and you report it, the gang will come back and kill you. Nobody says anything.”
When I tell him that the locals I spoke with can remember only two murders in the past three years, he argues that I’m not asking the right questions. To illustrate his point, he takes out his pistol.
“Let’s do this one more time,” he says, and puts it to his head. Another round of Russian roulette. Just as before, he pulls the trigger repeatedly, the cylinder rotates, the hammer comes down, and nothing happens. “It is a real gun. It has a real bullet in one chamber,” he says. And yet, he points out, my assumptions have somehow proven faulty. I’m missing something.
The same is true, he argues, with Carmelita. I’m not seeing the world as he sees it. He opens the door to the bungalow, aims the gun at the sand outside, and pulls the trigger. This time, a gunshot punctures the sound of the wind and waves. “You thought you were creating your reality,” he says. “You were not. I was.”
He pulls the spent cartridge out of the chamber and hands it to me. It’s still warm.
Eight weeks later, my phone rings at 4:30 in the morning. I’m back in the US and groggily pick up. “I’m sorry to wake you up at this hour, sir, but the GSU had me surrounded all night,” McAfee says in a breathless rush. He explains that he’s staying at Captain Morgan’s Retreat, a resort on Ambergris Caye, and he decided to go for a walk at dusk. As he strolled along the beach, he heard the sound of approaching gas-powered golf carts. “You can tell the GSU vehicles because they have this low roar,” he says, a hint of panic creeping into his voice. “I think they put special mufflers on them to scare people.”
He dashed onto the porch of a nearby hotel room and hid behind the bushes. Then he heard someone cough on the balcony above him. “As soon as I heard that, my heart sank,” he says. “They were fucking everywhere.”
McAfee spends the next 25 minutes describing to me how the GSU silently surrounded him in the darkness. “Two of them were less than 3 feet away,” he says “They stood unmoving. No one said a word all night long. They just surround you and stand still. Think about it. It’s freaky shit, sir.”
He sat there all night, he tells me, terrified that the shadowy figures he was seeing would kill him if he moved. Around 4 o’clock in the morning, he says, they retreated quietly and disappeared.
McAfee then walked onto the darkened beach. He thought he could see Marco Vidal, head of the GSU, motoring away in a boat. He screamed Vidal’s name. (Vidal denies any GSU encounters with McAfee after the April 30 raid.)
A security guard approached and asked if he was OK. “After a while my heart was beating so fast it was like one big hum,” he says. “I was bursting with perspiration.”
I suggest he get some rest. He sounds frantic and scared.
“They’re coming back,” he says suddenly. “This is too fucking much. I’m hanging up. I’m going.”
The line goes dead.
A week later, McAfee calls me from the Belizean-Mexican border. He tells me he’s had enough of Belize. A day ago, he was walking down the beach on Ambergris Caye when several GSU “frogmen” walked out of the water. Later, he says, a troop of GSU officers crowded into his room but didn’t say or do anything. “I have just escaped from hell,” he says.
The next day he’s in an $800-a-night suite at the Royal in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. “It has a sushi restaurant,” he says. “Do you realize I haven’t had sushi in years?” He sounds refreshed and says he’s feeling better.
Six days pass, and McAfee calls again. “Good morning, John,” I say.
“Good evening, I think it is,” McAfee says.
I explain that it’s 9:41 am.
“You’re kidding me,” he says. “I haven’t slept for a couple nights. It felt like evening to me.”
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“I am back from Mexico, thank God,” he says, explaining that he was robbed and beaten outside of Cancun. Now he’s on Ambergris Caye. “Here it’s clear that they’re not going to harm me, they’re just trying to scare me,” he says. “They have to up the ante if they’re going to continue scaring me.”
I talk to him repeatedly over the next week. He fires all of his bodyguards because he thinks they are informing on him. He hires William Mulligan, a British national, to take their place. McAfee figures Mulligan will have fewer connections to the authorities, despite the fact that he’s married to a Belizean woman.
On Friday, November 9, 2012, I receive an email from McAfee telling me that “a contingent of black-suited thugs” disembarked on the dock next to his property at 10:30 pm. The men dispersed on the beach. “A half hour later all of my dogs had been poisoned,” he writes. “Mellow, Lucky, Dipsy, and Guerrero have already died. I had to call Amy and tell her about Mellow. She is hysterical.”
The next morning, November 10, 2012, McAfee calls to tell me that his dogs died horrific deaths. They were vomiting blood and convulsing on the ground. McAfee shot them to end their suffering. “It was an ugly thing,” he says.
“How is Amy doing?” I ask.
“I’ve tried calling her twice,” he says. “She’s not answering. She’s not doing well.”
I suddenly recall a conversation I had with Emshwiller in August. She was describing someone in Carmelita who tortured dogs and, with a chill, I remember her reaction: “Mess with my dog, you’re gonna get it, man,” she’d said.
In another conversation, she also said she had become profoundly committed to McAfee. “If he asked me to blow someone’s fucking brains out, I would,” she said.
Still on the phone with me, McAfee is searching for clues to explain the dead dogs and has noticed that the fence around his property is surrounded by boot prints—”military-style boot prints,” he says—and cites this as evidence that the police were involved. “I’m a paranoid person,” he says. “I really am. But the whole thing is looking really weird to me.”
I point out that his neighbors had been complaining about the barking. In August, Vivian Yu, operator of a bar and restaurant up the beach, asked one of McAfee’s guards to do something to control the 11 dogs that roamed his property. McAfee hired a carpenter to build a fence to corral them.
Greg Faull, a neighbor two houses to the south on Ambergris Caye, was particularly incensed by the racket and aggression of McAfee’s mutts. Faull was a big man—5’11”, around 220 pounds—who owned a sports bars in Orlando, Florida, and spent part of the year in Belize. It was a tropical paradise to him, except for the nuisance McAfee’s dogs created. They growled and barked incessantly at anybody who walked by on the beach.
Faull had confronted McAfee about the animals in the past. According to McAfee, Faull once threatened to shoot them, but McAfee didn’t believe he’d do it. Allison Adonizio, who had stayed at Greg Faull’s house when she first moved to Belize in 2010, says there was bad blood between the two men back then. “McAfee hated his guts,” she wrote in an email to me.
Earlier in the week, Faull had filed a formal complaint about the dogs with the mayor’s office in the nearby town of San Pedro. Now, as I try to catch up on the latest details, McAfee dismisses the suggestion that any of his neighbors could have been involved in the apparent poisoning of the animals. “They’re still dog lovers,” he says. “And I talked to them this morning. No one here would ever poison the dogs.”
He speaks specifically about Faull. “This is not something he would ever do,” McAfee says. “I mean, he’s an angry sort of guy, but he would never hurt a dog.”
On Sunday morning, Faull is found lying faceup in a pool of blood. He’s been shot once through the back of the head, execution-style. A 9-mm Luger casing lies on the ground nearby. There are no signs of forced entry. A laptop and an iPhone are missing, police say.
That afternoon, Belizean police arrive at McAfee’s property to question him about Faull’s death. McAfee sees them coming and is sure the authorities are intent on tormenting him again. He quickly digs a shallow trench in the sand and buries himself, pulling a cardboard box over his head. He stays there for hours.
“It was extraordinarily uncomfortable,” he says.
The police confiscate all the weapons on the property and take Mulligan in for questioning. When they leave, Cassian Chavarria, McAfee’s groundskeeper, tells him that Faull has been killed. According to McAfee, that was the first he heard of the murder. His initial reaction, he says, is that it was the GSU trying to kill McAfee himself. “I thought maybe they were coming for me,” he says. “They mistook him for me. They got the wrong house. He’s dead. They killed him. It spooked me out.”
McAfee decides to go on the run and begins calling me at all hours. I ask him if he shot Faull. “No sir, no sir,” he says. “That’s not even funny.” (Emshwiller also denies any involvement in Faull’s death.)
All McAfee knew about the murder, he says, was that the police were after him, and he believed that if they caught him, he would be tortured or killed. “Once they collect me, it’s the end of me,” he says.
Over the next 48 hours, McAfee bounces from place to place around Belize, aided by a network of “people who can’t be followed,” he tells me. “It’s complicated, and there are a lot of risks, and people could turn south at any minute.” Samantha Vanegas, one of his girlfriends, is with him, and he says that they’ve been subsisting on Oreo Cakester cookies and cigarettes. On Tuesday morning, he says, the police raided the house next door, but they evaded capture, eventually landing in a house with no hot water and a broken toilet. There is, however, a working TV.
“We watched Swiss Family Robinson,” he says. “It’s about castaways. That’s why we got into it. It was like, wow, we could do that. We could get bamboo and build something like that.”
The movie had a happy ending. McAfee liked that.
When this article was published, John McAfee was still in hiding and in communication with the author. For updates on his case, visit Wired.com.
Contributing editor Joshua Davis (@JoshuaDavisNow) has traveled the world reporting for Wired (Colombia, China, Nepal, South Korea, Iraq, Israel, Russia). His writing is anthologized in the 2012 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and he is the author of The Underdog, an account of his adventures as a sumo wrestler, matador, and backward runner.
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