John McAfee, the mercurial anti-virus software pioneer and mogul who was found dead in a Barcelona prison Wednesday, cut a capricious swath.
Up until his apparent suicide following a Spanish high court’s ruling that allowed his extradition to the U.S. on financial crimes, the 75-year-old McAfee was the Merry Prankster of tech — but with a dark side.
During three separate visits with McAfee on the road in Oregon, Tennessee and Alabama, this reporter spent more than 20 hours listening to the musings, rants, lies, paranoid delusions and often brilliant insights of a man who seemed to be playing an elaborate hoax on the rest of the world.
John McAfee first agreed to an interview with me in 2013 because he “liked the tone” of my voice during a phone conversation.
Read more from 2013: John McAfee breaks long silence in interview
Read more from 2014: On the road — and run — with John McAfee
Read more from 2015: John McAfee prepares for his ‘last stand’
“The thing is,” he told me, trying to suppress a grin, “is only I know what is the truth. Your job is to figure out what that is.”
The charismatic and, yes, self-destructive, McAfee made his name and fortune by building a cybersecurity empire at then-McAfee Associates, only to resign in 1994. In 2012, he was named by Belize authorities as a “‘person of interest” in the murder of his neighbor. McAfee subsequently donned a disguise and escaped to Miami. (He was later accused in a 2016 Showtime documentary, “Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee,” of another killing. He forcefully denied any wrongdoing, uncharacteristically losing his temper with me over the phone.)
The lunacy got weirder. During a 2015 interview with USA Today, McAfee said he had spent much of the previous year escaping assassins he claimed were sent from Belize. He had since been living with his wife, Janice, in Lexington, Tenn., where he was armed with an arsenal of handguns, a personal bodyguard, and two pit bulls. McAfee drove an SUV in Tennessee that he claimed was tricked out with bulletproof glass and special alarms.
“This is a new phase in my life — getting back to building things,” McAfee said then. To prove his point, he put me in touch with an FBI agent who did not deny McAfee’s conspiracy theories of a Belize-government hit put on him.
Never one to miss the opportunity to overdramatize a situation with his distinctly Shakespearean delivery, McAfee once recited the “Tears in rain” monologue from replicant Roy Batty in the film “Blade Runner” while in the back seat of a SUV in Portland, Ore., during an interview in 2014.
After nearly choking on a Red Bull while driving in the South, he told me, “Isn’t it ironic that nature put our apparatus to breathe in the same spot as we drink and eat? That is proof of a God, and of a sense of humor.”
On that same trip, he used duct tape to affix used cell phones to 18-wheelers as a diversionary tactic to confound his pursuers. “The inventor of duct tape should be given the Nobel Prize for everything,” he said.
Yet the dark side of McAfee was as unsettling as his sunny disposition. He frequently appeared to be under the influence of speed, launched into caustic dialogues about his enemies, and bemoaned the absurdities of life (McAfee’s father died by suicide).
Indeed, in his final days, McAfee’s tweets took on ominous tones and bespoke a sense of finality. “Today a man facing a difficult situation asked if I knew of painless ways to kill himself,” he tweeted May 27. “Having little experience in such, I was of not much help. The amazing thing is that the tone of the discussion was like discussing the weather. Prison is a strange environment.”
In another tweet, this time from Oct. 15, 2020, while also in prison, he laid out the future: “I am content in here. I have friends. The food is good. All is well. Know that if I hang myself, a la [Jeffrey] Epstein, it will be no fault of mine.”
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