There was a time when John McAfee was mentioned alongside the names of the biggest tech pioneers of the 1980s and ʼ90s, with a fortune to match.
And in one major way, his name was more ubiquitous. His eponymous company, McAfee Corp., would become a household name thanks to its Windows-focused antivirus software. Founded in 1987, the company would go public five years later and remain one of the largest cybersecurity companies in the world. It made McAfee a household name.
But the years that followed would be the start of a tailspin that ended Wednesday when Spanish authorities announced that McAfee had died by suicide in a jail cell.
Seen by some on the fringes of the internet as a sort of cult hero, McAfee’s credibility in the cybersecurity world had long since disappeared. And while he would make appearances at major events — I met him in Las Vegas in 2016 at the hacker conference DEF CON, where he declined an interview but invited me to a strip club — the security company that bore his name would spend years offering near identical responses to stories about him.
“Although John McAfee founded the company, he has not been associated with our company in any capacity for over 25 years,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “That said, our thoughts go to his family and those close to him.”
McAfee spent many of his final years chasing his appetites for drugs, guns, adventure, prostitutes and cryptocurrency — and wasn’t shy in discussing his proclivities. He also was accused of sexual assault, labeled by Belizean authorities as a person of interest in an unsolved murder investigation and indicted by U.S. authorities for tax fraud. He denied all wrongdoing.
Born in 1945, McAfee was raised in Virginia. He founded the company that bore his name, one of the first major antivirus software development companies, in 1987. It searched for and removed self-replicating malicious software, which were becoming known as computer viruses to the general public. Even early in his career, he was a heavy drug user, he later said.
McAfee’s antivirus program, which often ran slowly and came pre-installed on many Windows machines, became a staple of 1990s computing. The company went public five years after it was founded, and he sold his remaining shares in 1994.
McAfee and his company became inexorably linked, though each party tried to distance itself from the other. In a profane, drug-filled satirical video he published to YouTube in 2013, McAfee mocked both his own reputation for hedonism and the software’s for being slow, omnipresent and inconvenient.
“Every time I turn on the f—— computer it’s there looking at me. Something went wrong,” he says in the video, surrounded by guns and scantily clad women, his face covered in white powder. “Fifteen years ago I had some beautiful software and they took it over. I don’t know what they did.”
Suddenly wealthy after selling his company, McAfee spent the next two decades relatively quiet. He led a now-defunct company called Tribal Voice, flew small aircraft, wrote several books on yoga and developed a 280-acre yoga retreat in Colorado.
But the financial crisis that began in 2007 took a heavy toll on his finances. McAfee sold his Colorado estate and moved to Belize in 2008 at the age of 63, intending to retire there. Instead, he was accused of a serious crime and became embroiled in scandal.
In the documentary “Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee,” a former business partner accused McAfee of drugging and raping her in Belize. McAfee denied the accusation, as well as others presented in the documentary, in a four-part blog series, stating that she had “concocted” her story and writing that he found her “unattractive.”
In 2012, McAfee’s neighbor in Belize, with whom he had long butted heads, was shot and killed. McAfee immediately fled the country, and was discovered hiding in Guatemala after a Vice story about him neglected to remove the location data in a published photograph of him. Guatemalan authorities arrested McAfee, then deported him to the U.S. Belize named McAfee a person of interest but never charged him in the investigation. However, a U.S. federal judge ordered McAfee to pay the man’s estate $25 million in a wrongful death suit in 2019.
Back in the U.S, McAfee would continue to make headlines. He ran for the Libertarian Party’s 2016 nomination for president, lost, and rebranded himself as a bitcoin expert and enthusiast. That set him on a path that would eventually lead to charges from the Justice Department and his arrest in Spain.
McAfee’s enthusiasm for cryptocurrency in his later years was unmatched. He made a variety of outlandish claims and repeatedly insisted that he would consume his penis on television if the price of an individual bitcoin didn’t reach $1 million by the end of 2020. Neither happened.
He also began to frequently tweet that he believed some little-known cryptocurrency would soon be worth more money, an alleged scam that would lead to his arrest. According to charges filed against him, he was secretly having associates buy such currencies at cheap prices before each tweet and selling them for a profit, all without mentioning he had invested in them, as required by law.
Despite plenty of public accusations that he was scamming his followers, McAfee amassed a loyal army of cryptocurrency enthusiasts. In the summer of 2018, after the then-head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jay Clayton, announced a crackdown on that practice, McAfee encouraged his followers to harass him. Nearly 100 of them wrote the SEC chair angry emails on McAfee’s behalf.
But McAfee’s actions constituted tax evasion, the U.S. Justice Department said. In October 2020, Spanish police arrested him on behalf of the U.S. government. A Spanish court ruled Thursday that he could be extradited to face charges in the U.S. He was found dead in his prison cell hours later.
Four days before his death, his wife, Janice McAfee, posted to Twitter that incarceration was taking its toll on her husband.
“These eight months John has spent in prison in Spain have been especially hard on his overall health both mentally and physically, as well as financially, but he is undeterred from continuing to speak truth to power,” she wrote.