News that computer anti-virus guru John McAfee is wanted for questioning in connection with a murder in Belize is just the latest in a long-unfolding string of controversies involving the technical wizard. McAfee’s colorful life has taken many turns, many of them generating headlines, since launching and later selling the software company that bears his name.
Although born in England in September 1945, the 67-year old spent most of his life in the U.S., growing up in Salem, Va., earning his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Roanoke College in 1967. In 1970, he moved to Silicon Valley where his early jobs included stints as a programmer for NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, a software designer at Univac, an operating system architect at Xerox (XRX) and developing anti-virus software for Lockheed (LMT). He also set up an adult dating service in Santa Clara, which had a special database to certify that its members were HIV-free.
In 1987, he launched his own company, McAfee Associates, designed to help companies and individuals address computer security problems. At first, he took to the road in a Winnebago mobile home, crossing the country and driving to people’s homes and businesses fixing their computer problems. He soon developed VirusScan, the world’s first computer anti-virus software that could detect and remove known viruses automatically. The rest is history. McAfee became the go-to person for everything about computer viruses and took his company public in 1992, raising $50 million.
That same year, he encountered his first major public controversy when the highly-publicized “Michelangelo” virus was threatening computers. The virus was alleged to be sleeping on computers and when it was slated to wake up on March 6, 1992, it would ravish the computer’s harddrive. At the time, McAfee told reporters he believed it had infected as many as 5 million computers. But when D-Day arrived, few computers were infected, and many accused McAfee of deliberately fueling the scare to sell his software. McAfee’s sales skyrocketed that year, which stoked the controversy further. McAfee sold his stake in the company in 1994 for about $100 million. Some claim the Michelangelo fiasco played a role in his departure, but it was never confirmed. (Intel (INTC) later bought the company that bears McAfee’s name in 2010 for about $7.7 billion).
In 1994, McAfee pioneered PowWow, the first instant messaging “chat” program for the internet, but the concept was ahead of its time — long before social chatting like AOL’s (AOL) Instant Messenger and social network Facebook (FB) became fashionable — and never really took off.
Controversy then followed McAfee into his private life. In 1993, he purchased some 1,000 acres of land on the Hawaiian island of Molokai for nearly $1.25 million. But neighbors became outraged in 2005 when McAfee began auctioning some of his land for development. Island residents worried the move would lead to a surge in real estate speculation and neighbors angrily posted signs warning of the “Molokai virus.” Despite the protests, the land was eventually sold for development for about $2.85 million.
Since then, McAfee, who sports pierced ears, tattoos and spiked hair, has jumped in and out of various interests ranging from the tepid — such as yoga, where he taught classes and wrote books on the subject — to the dangerous, such as his unusual preoccupation with drugs, known as bath salts.
Being known as the anti-virus maestro made McAfee somewhat paranoid about being hacked. Being the developer of one of the world’s most popular anti-virus programs, he told American Mensa Magazine earlier this year that he was the most popular personal target for hackers, saying “Hackers see hacking me as a personal badge of honor.” As a result, he said he asks other people to buy his computers for him, logs in under another name, and changes his IP address several times a day. “I’m pretty hard to hack now,” he said.
All of this has taken a toll on his personal wealth. A 2009 story in the New York Times indicated his fortune had plunged to $4 million from its $100 million peak, due largely to the real estate and stock market crashes that hit his investments. “I had no clue,” he told the newspaper, “that there would be this tandem collapse.” He planned to auction off property in New Mexico to pay his bills.
McAfee moved to Belize in 2008. And in February 2010, he started a venture, QuorumEx, which claims on its website to be trying to “re-invent the way modern medicine combats and disarms pathogenic bacteria.” In the Mensa interview, he said he was attracted to, what he called, the anti-quorum sensing systems. “They’ve been around much longer than animals, and unlike cows that sense another cow is sick and just stay away, plants can’t move,” he said. “So I came down here to study plants and their ability to keep bacteria from becoming pathogenic is remarkable.” But it’s this venture that seems to have gotten McAfee into the most hot water. And he’s paranoid about its security: 12 armed guards and 15 guard dogs to be exact, he told Mensa, giving it a mini-fortress-like appearance — a sight not uncommon around the homes of drug lords.
In April, Belize’s Gang Suppression Unit raided McAfee’s home, where it confiscated 10 firearms and hauled away McAfee in handcuffs, where he was detained for about 14 hours before being released, according to a report in the San Pedro Sun News. During the raid, guards found a lab where antibiotics were being produced without a license, and one of McAfee’s 11 dogs was shot for allegedly attacking one of the officers. In the end, all charges were dropped.
McAfee demanded an apology, claiming to be a victim of an aggressive search. He said the firearms belonged to his security team. “It was a very rude day,” said McAfee in a televised interview. “I have a security company — which is to protect me. I am a well known public figure, people think I have billions of dollars and to think I should not protect myself against kidnapping, robbery, whatever is ridiculous.” He says it took the invention of the U.S. Embassy to get him released.
But he couldn’t have been that shaken up by the raid. Despite the scathing criticism McAfee made about police in Belize back in April, he made a “lavish donation” to police on that island earlier this month, according to 7NewsBelize.com. The donation included stun guns, SWAT batons, heavy duty metal handcuffs, metal detectors, a small vessel and an arsenal of equipment.
Even more bizarre though is an internet blog, Gizmodo, that’s been tracking McAfee’s activities in the bath salts world for several months. The site describes blog posts, that it says McAfee allegedly made under aliases that enthusiastically rally behind the psycho-inducing hallucinogens found in bath salts. Bath salts are a synthetic drug that gained notoriety earlier this year when a Florida man starting eating the body of another man while high on bath salts.
McAfee has had other legal skirmishes in the past few months as he battled with a neighbor over a dispute about his dogs, which were later poisoned. It’s this same neighbor, fellow American expatriate Gregory Faull, who was gunned down in his home Saturday night. Police are seeking McAfee for questioning in connection with the murder. In phone calls to a reporter at Wired Magazine, McAfee insisted he was innocent but said he had no plans to turn himself in. (Wired is working on an extensive profile of McAfee for its January issue.) He claimed to have spent the night in the sand with a cardboard box over his head and said he feared he would be killed if he’s taken into custody for questioning. “Under no circumstances am I going to willingly talk to the police in this country,” he told the reporter. “You can say I’m paranoid about it but they will kill me, there is no question. They’ve been trying to get me for months.”