Tracking down the mysterious cybersecurity tycoon John McAfee: Reporter's notebook
ABC's Matt Gutman has been following the tech pioneer's life for years.
— -- John McAfee bear-hugged me. One arm lingered around my neck; a lit cigarette was dangling from the other. It was February in New York. Around us was a cold cloud of steamy breath and smoke.
I had last seen him on a sticky night in Miami four years earlier. He’d just been deported from Guatemala after fleeing Belize, where he was wanted for questioning in connection with the killing of his neighbor Gregory Faull in 2012.
And while he seemed sober, he also seemed manic – perhaps a result of his newfound freedom – or maybe that’s just how he’s wired. It was his first sit-down interview since his month on the run from authorities in Belize. He arrived in Miami with nothing but the clothes on his back. But that night he told me someone had slipped him a brick of cash – in $5 bills. He showed it to me, grinning. He was going to start anew.
One never knows whether to believe John McAfee, because as the cybersecurity legend recently told me on the phone, “Please forgive me for f------ with you guys. It’s all I can do anymore to enjoy myself. I don’t enjoy television, I don’t go out to bars.”
We’d set out to interview him about his life, his dire warnings about the death of privacy and his time in Belize.
As we learned researching this ABC News "20/20" report on McAfee, he admits to having been a drug dealer in his 20s and there are accusations that he had a role in two murders in Belize. In our interviews, McAfee denied all of the allegations and has not been charged in any of those cases.
He has been involved in a tremendous amount of nastiness during his life. But beyond the frosted tips and the dyed goatee, McAfee is charming. His tone is alternately confidential, and menacing. He calls me “sir” half the time, not in a patronizing way, but because it is simply his way. He is prone to physically taking people under his wing. Wrapping an arm around them as he talks. He talks fast, and when he talks about the things he cares about, his voice cracks with passion. The 71-year-old also tries to bestow fatherly advice. I typically would not do as John McAfee would.
Our "20/20" team spent time talking to McAfee in New York City and in his new home of Lexington, Tennessee, half way between Memphis and Nashville, and smack in the middle of nowhere. He moved there mostly because it’s where his longtime bodyguard and friend John Pool lives.
Pool is in his late fifties. He’s short, with balding white hair, medium build. Hard to get more unimposing. When he opens his mouth, the rest of the story is revealed. He doesn’t like dentists so he pulls his own teeth. With pliers. In his thick Tennessee accent he reminisces about doing grave bodily harm to much larger men who confronted him. He worked as a loan shark for years -- “100 percent collection rate,” he likes to remind people.
Pool stays sober as McAfee drinks. I once challenged Poole -- Sticking two fingers into his back, I said, “Gently, what would you do if someone put a gun to your ba…”
Before I finished the sentence his elbow was half an inch into the point where my jaw attaches to the skull. I was wobbly. And sore for two days.
Pool is a believer in the McAfee gospel. As is McAfee’s wife Janice. He met her the day after our interview in Miami. She was a prostitute. He says he used that wad of cash to pay her for a day, and the night. A good time that lasted a long time. Four years already.
McAfee’s relationship with Janice is one of the most endearing things about him. She’s African-American and more than 30 years his junior. But he’s deferential to her, disarmingly sweet. During our conversations, she would clap a hand over his mouth when he started to go off on tangents (very often) or got into the nitty gritty about the connection between him and his murdered neighbor Greg Faull (less often). She says he saved her from her pimp and from years of trafficking, giving her a new home and meaning in life. She says he also gave her a chance to reconnect with her estranged son.
But he gave her new “enemies.” McAfee claims the Sinaloa cartel is after him because of Belize. He claims the cartel runs the Belize government, which wants to shut him up. He says he knows too much about corruption there. So everywhere the triumvirate goes, it sees potential assassins. Pool carries a .40 caliber pistol. Janice is also armed. There are two rifles in McAfee’s kitchen, plus night-vision goggles. No law enforcement agency would corroborate his claims. The Belize government declined ABC News’ request for comment.
The running theme in McAfee’s life is the danger posed by “others.” It’s perhaps why he was able to not only diagnose computer viruses before most others, but also prescribe an antidote – the McAfee anti-virus.
McAfee admits he hasn’t seen the Sinaloa assassins in a while. His new enemy is the mainstream media, he says. And he’s not above pitting us against another. He texted me and a documentarian nearly identical messages saying that we each told McAfee not to trust the other (we figured it out quickly). The filmmaker behind the Showtime documentary "Gringo" says he leveled a veiled threat at her family just as her film was about to premiere, but McAfee denied those claims.
McAfee has never threatened me. In our "20/20" report, we include his well-taken warnings about cybersecurity. “Our freedoms are being restricted," he said. "Our security is being eroded, and we have no more privacy. If we lose privacy, we lose civilization and we will certainly lose our humanity.”
But perhaps he answered the enigma about him best: “How would you define yourself? Are you a madman? Are you paranoid? Are you an entrepreneur? Who are you?” I asked him.
“All of the above," McAfee answered. "I mean, I’m a mad man to some people because, I don’t follow the normal rules, you know, the drummer that leads me is an odd drummer. But I follow the sound.”