John McAfee: The Prophet of Paranoia
John McAfee in Tennessee in May. In the '90s he made $100 million by creating the first computer antivirus software.
Credit: Chris Buck

John McAfee surveys the woods surrounding his Tennessee home while his 100-pound komondor, Marley, shits on his neighbor's property. The computer-security guru and sometime murder suspect believes he has discovered proof that the Sinaloa cartel is tracking his movements.

It has something to do with a schmear. The 70-year-old McAfee resembles an ocelot, with his striped and streaked hair. He is probably still a multimillionaire, but he chain-smokes generic cigarettes the way a toddler eats Goldfish crackers. He exhales, as a hawk circles above.

"All they eat is cream cheese," McAfee says between phlegmy hacks. "Must be for the protein. I find cream cheese packets everywhere. Some of them are out-of-date."

Inside, somebody named Bob writes down the license plate of every car that drives by the property. McAfee believes Bob's brother is working for the cartel, but that's really neither here nor there. McAfee scans the dirt for plastic.

"If there's cream cheese, I know the cartel has been here."

Say what you will about John McAfee — and people say a lot of nasty things — but he was one of the first nerds to warn the world of an impending computer-security crisis, a pioneer whose paranoia served a legitimate purpose.

Long before the Y2K freak-out, he — after stints as a computer programmer at Lockheed and NASA — built McAfee Associates out of his home in the late 1980s, creating an antivirus program for corporations before most companies knew what a virus was. At first, he gave it away to individuals, then he began to license it to companies. Oh, and he had the self-promotional skills of a young Johnny Knoxville. He transformed an RV into a Ghostbusteresque antivirus mobile unit, arriving in the parking lots of threatened firms. In 1997, he warned of the coming Michelangelo virus and claimed it would destroy whole corporations. It turned out to be just a computer fart in the wind. By then it didn't matter. McAfee sold his shares in McAfee Associates for $100 million.

He headed into semiretirement, working on some projects — including a before-its-time chat program — and bugging the fuck out of people. He bought a sprawling property in Molokai and proceeded to take out newspaper ads pointing out drug houses. McAfee then sold his property, amid rumors he was going to develop it into condos. Neither act endeared him to locals. He moved to New Mexico and created an aircraft business, renting out ultralight planes that could swoop in and out of canyons. That ended in tragedy when his nephew and a passenger flew into a canyon wall. McAfee was recently found negligent in their deaths to the tune of $2.5 million. (McAfee claims they were shot down by a drug cartel hiding in the canyons.)

McAfee lives by the Liberty Valance credo: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." He moved to Belize in 2008 and, depending on his mood, told reporters that he was either seeking to create antibiotics out of natural herbs, developing female Viagra, or manufacturing bath salts, a synthetic hallucinogenic. (Regarding the last claim, McAfee later said he was just pulling the chains of reporters.)

What isn't up for debate is that McAfee had a posse of teenage girls living with him­. They were misfits, runaways, and troublemakers; one pulled a gun on him. (His stay in Belize is so notorious that there is a libidinous, perhaps insane, gun-wielding character living in Belize in novelist Jonathan Franzen's upcoming Purity that bears a resemblance to McAfee.) Ask him what he was thinking when he decided to shack up with a harem one-third of his age, and McAfee will flash a devilish smile and say simply he was single and having fun. The "fun" took a sour turn in April 2012, when a Belizean SWAT team raided his island estate looking for criminal activity and shot and killed his dog. That November, his American expat neighbor was murdered by gunshot.

Considering his past run-ins with the government, McAfee feared a frame-up. He went on the run, causing a media frenzy largely created by McAfee himself, who allowed two staffers from the website Vice to tag along as he fled for Guatemala. This backfired magnificently when the Vice crew posted a picture of McAfee in hiding but forgot to scrub the geo data that pinpointed them to a Guatemalan resort. Oops! McAfee was arrested for entering the country illegally, and authorities considered deporting him to Belize. Guatemala eventually grew sick of the drama, didn't press charges, and allowed him to head home to the United States.

Promoting his antivirus software in 1989.

That was more than two years ago. McAfee laid low for a while, sometimes literally: under cars to avoid his purported enemies. But he resurfaced earlier this year, touting new business partners and apps to fight off data stealers. He warned of security anarchy that would ruin families, governments, and perhaps Western civilization.

And that's when I meet him. Tanned but hardly rested, McAfee is ready for his comeback. But things are different now. Once, McAfee was seen as a semidangerous rogue; now he has to prove he's not just an eccentric sideshow. A half-decade ago, he posed for magazines on his beachfront estate surrounded by girls and guns. Now he is staying in no-tell Alabama motels while spreading his message, managing a mortal-coil-cutting cough, and living in rural Tennessee, not far from a casket store called Til Death Does Us Part. The question now is: Will anybody buy what John McAfee is selling?