John McAfee, the name behind the global antivirus brand, is currently incognito in Belize having been targeted by the country’s brutal Gang Suppression Unit. Joe Ellison reports...
As dawn broke on 4 May 2012 on the outskirts of Orange Walk Town in Belize, Central America, a heavily armed anti-gang taskforce stormed a high-fenced compound in search of a meth lab. Fire axes were used to cut down doors, all 12 occupants were handcuffed, a pet dog was shot dead, and a cache of weapons – including seven pump-action shotguns and two 9mm pistols – were seized in the process.
But for all the efficient brutality of the operation, there was no gang to subdue and no illegal drugs operation to bust. The owner of the residence – who police report had a 17-year-old Belizean girlfriend present at the time of the search – was not a nefarious cartel kingpin.
It was, in fact, John McAfee, the 66-year-old US multimillionaire who made his fortune from the antivirus software that still bears his name.
McAfee had moved to Belize in 2008 to launch a new, ambitious project – to use the nearby rainforests to create the next generation of antibiotics. Reports say that the lab found on site by the police unit was full of medicines developed from jungle plants (“a topical antiseptic” according to McAfee), not meth.
So, with no unlawful narcotics to pin on him, the taskforce arrested the entrepreneur on the charge of a missing firearms licence.
After a night spent on a urine-soaked concrete floor in a packed prison cell – and following intervention from the US embassy – McAfee was released pending further investigation. He immediately went into hiding, and with only a TV, three DVDs and an iPad with just 21 per cent of its battery charge remaining, posted a message on a private messageboard claiming the raid was purely due to his refusal to donate money to a local politician.
Belize police refuse to comment on the case, so exactly how McAfee came to attract such a grand scale of law enforcement isn’t clear.
But for those who have followed the eccentric tycoon’s career (The New York Times once labelled him an “atypical businessman – easily bored and given to serial obsessions”), it’s yet another strange incident in a colourful life.
Born in the UK in 1945 but raised in the US, McAfee lived in Virginia until graduating from college with a mathematics degree in 1967. From there, he went on to work as a computer programmer for a host of major technology corporations. Yet it was only in the late Eighties, during a spell with Lockheed Martin, the global aerospace, defence and security company, that he first realised how he could stamp his mark on the industry.
At Lockheed, he had encountered ‘Brain’, the world’s first MS-DOS computer virus, and so in 1989, with help from then-wife Judy, he launched antivirus company McAfee Associates from his home in Santa Clara, California. With his software soon a tangible product, he then did something revolutionary: he gave it away free for a trial period. By the early Nineties, with a burgeoning customer base on the back of this ‘shareware’ tactic, he was soon helming one of the largest antivirus companies in the world.
“The guy was a trendsetter,” says Kevin Weiss, president of McAfee in 2006. “The free software approach may be common today, but John did it a lot earlier than everyone else.”
And while this radical business plan brought in huge revenues, it wasn’t enough to tie down free-spirited McAfee, who sold his £70m worth of shares in the company in 1994 (“I wanted to move on. Who wants to be tied to the past?” he once said). Weiss explains: “He was thrilled to launch the company, but he was never driven by money or the success – he wanted to be preoccupied by the next big thing.”
McAfee’s subsequent software launch was Tribal Voice, an instant-messaging developer. But in 1999, once more losing interest in the tech industry, he sold the company for £11m.
Looking for a new way to harvest his money, he turned his attentions to property development and, among other things, aerotrekking (flying a lightweight aircraft at a low altitude), which he hoped to turn into a mainstream sport.
“My first impression of Mac was of just another flash-in-the-pan rich guy,” says John Olson, a flight instructor who worked with McAfee at an airstrip in New Mexico. “But it turned out he was richer than most. He built a magnificent air facility in Rodeo, which he later auctioned off for next to nothing.”
McAfee has also had plenty of column inches dedicated to his new-age philosophy – he has written several books on yoga, is an advocate for alternative therapies and has adopted a leftfield approach to management.
In 1992, on a global tour seeking big investors for his antivirus software, McAfee could often be seen fleeing conference suites in favour of other pursuits – usually finding a piano in the lobby and playing odd compositions to passers-by.
And according to a 2001 story profiling the early days of McAfee Associates from one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent newspapers the San Jose Mercury News, McAfee would allow employees to practise sword-fighting on their lunch breaks, and the firm’s witchcraft enthusiasts would bang hand drums on the workplace lawn.
Still, this was nothing compared to rumours of even more unconventional office behaviour to which McAfee turned a blind eye.
Taking advantage of the company’s relaxed atmosphere, a group of staff invented a game in which points were scored for having intimate liaisons in different places around the company building. McAfee, whose own office was reportedly a points target, has since claimed that he wasn’t aware of any shenanigans, only admitting that those days were “lots of fun”. And the hippie stylings stayed with him as he moved from software to aerotrekking.
“He is fairly new-age,” says Olson. “Everything had a funny name, so we weren’t pilots, we were ‘Sky Gypsies’. He even insisted that we all get official Sky Gypsy tattoos.” Nor was he averse to adopting the free-love mantra. “Like most wealthy guys I know, he had plenty of women,” adds Olson.
But in late 2006, McAfee’s aerotrekking dream took a tragic turn. The aircraft in which his 22-year-old nephew Joel Bitow was flying 61-year-old passenger Robert Gilson careered into the side of a canyon, killing both men.
In commemoration, McAfee added an image of a teardrop to his own Sky Gypsy tattoo. Gilson’s family, meanwhile, launched a £3.2m lawsuit against McAfee, citing Bitow’s relative lack of piloting experience as the cause of the crash. The case is still to be heard in court.
The mogul’s downfall continued. Following a series of ill-advised investments, particularly millions of dollars in bonds tied to Lehman Brothers that were lost with the bank’s implosion, he was forced to auction off his vast property portfolio to pay the bills. From a peak of £70m, his fortune had fallen to £2.5m.
Nonetheless, he was able to spend £260,000 on a research centre in his subsequent move to the idyllic shores of Belize. On top of this, he donated £1.3m in gifts to the local coast guard and police department, generous payments that, if McAfee’s story is to be believed, led to a failed extortion attempt by a local politician, and ultimately McAfee becoming the target of a fierce drugs raid.
Jose Sanchez, a journalist for Belize’s Channel 5 News, was one of the first people to make contact with McAfee following his release from jail, and he suspects there is some truth in the magnate’s story: “Belize ranks quite highly when it comes to corruption in politics, so it’s very possible that the politician McAfee is accusing of soliciting funds has that sort of power.”
Sanchez also believes that the most worrying aspect of the case is the involvement of the government’s heavy-handed Gang Suppression Unit that carried out the raid.
“McAfee is not a gang, so why was an elite unit that’s tasked to fight major city-based gangs brought in?” asks Sanchez. “They only notified the press of the raid once they realised the story was reaching the media thanks to McAfee’s internet messaging.”
Conducting a spate of fierce operations in recent months, the GSU is no stranger to unwanted headlines. “There’s a big court case coming up involving Mike Menjivar, another businessman with a high fence,” explains Sanchez. “The GSU recently staged a dawn raid at his home, and when Menjivar saw they’d climbed over his fence he phoned the local police, who then told him they knew nothing about it. With that, he started shooting at them and was arrested for attempted murder. The case could be very serious for the GSU.”
So where is McAfee? “He’s not in hiding right now, he’s just living between places,” says Sanchez. “It’s likely the case will flop and he’ll be exonerated.” But whether his new project will ever come to fruition only time will tell.