Revisiting The McAfee Saga
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.
Writer James Salter has a new novel. It's been 34 years since his last. I had a great conversation with him about his legacy and culture of the Kardashians. Well, they come up briefly, so stick around for that.
But first, you've likely heard of McAfee security. You may even have McAfee virus protection on your computer. John McAfee, the company's brilliant founder, cashed out, made millions and went on to lead a colorful life in Belize. But then last year...
JOHN MCAFEE: I had absolutely nothing to do with the murder in Belize.
RATH: John McAfee's neighbor was discovered shot in the head. Suddenly, McAfee was on the run from Belizean police, and he began giving increasingly paranoid interviews to news outlets from various hiding spots.
MCAFEE: If they're not after me, why did they send 42 soldiers? Why on earth would I want to buy bath salts while I'm living in a country where everybody's on cocaine? I've changed my hair radically. I've dyed it black. If I were a mad man, how can I judge?
RATH: Journalist Jeff Wise profiled McAfee several times. In the latest edition of Psychology Today, he admits to being completely taken in, even manipulated by the man he ultimately came to think of as deeply troubled. Jeff Wise joins us now. Welcome to the program.
JEFF WISE: Thank you very much.
RATH: Can you talk about the first time you met McAfee? This was in 2007, right?
WISE: Right. The first time I met McAfee, I was on assignment to write about this new sport that he was promoting, which involved flying very small aircraft very low over the desert.
RATH: You talked about how he was kind of a mesmerizing character. Was that part of the allure for him?
WISE: Yeah. I think he's just a really interesting character. He's a great storyteller. He's very charismatic. He really carries himself with flare. He's got tattoos and frosted hair. And even though he's in his late 60s, he really has a kind of rock 'n roll aura about him. And I was quite charmed. And when I left, I wrote a very flattering article. He left me with an open invitation to come back and visit him any time I wanted.
RATH: And did you take him up on that?
WISE: A few years later, I was reading the news and I saw that there was an article in The New York Times about how he apparently had become bankrupt in the downturn of 2008. So I contacted him. He was in great spirits, said he'd never been happier, that he was looking forward to his new life in Belize where he was going to plumb the rainforests for new biochemicals that could be used to help cure disease. And really, it's helped save Belize, helped save the world.
RATH: At what point did you start to get the sense that you weren't getting the whole picture of who this guy was?
WISE: Well, I was on a very tight deadline. I bashed a piece together in a couple of days, sent it to my editor. And he read it and he said, you know, something is missing here. And I don't know what it is, but could you just do some more digging and find out what's really going on?
There were rumors flying around that he hadn't gone to Belize to look for miracle cures in the jungle, that he, in fact, was trying to elude a wrongful death lawsuit that had arisen from his aero tracking activity in New Mexico several years before.
RATH: And you started to dig in at that point, and what else did you find?
WISE: So I wound up writing a fairly critical piece where I sort of just took a look at some of the claims he was making and raising questions. What was really significant about the article for me was that in the aftermath, people who knew McAfee well started to come forward to me.
RATH: This is when you went to Belize in April of 2012?
WISE: Right. I got an assignment from a magazine to go to Belize, talk to people on the ground and find out what was happening down there. Nobody would tell me anything. There were rumors. You know, people had heard things, but nobody would go on record.
And while I was frustrated trying to get anything out of anybody, he found out that I was in town, and he called me up. And he said: Come out to my house. You can stay here. I'll send a boat to fetch you.
So I go into the house and I turn around and there's this guy who's holding a pistol. And he says, this is so-and-so. He's security. And I'm sure he could just see the panic flashing on my face. And I just, you know, just tried to keep it together, but I was like, I'm such an idiot that I've walked right into this.
We went and sat on the porch, and he told me this incredible story about how he needed to have people with guns surrounding him because people had tried to kill him 10 times. And each time these gunmen had tried to kill him, he had hired them.
RATH: And at this point, you don't really know what to believe from this guy.
WISE: I don't know what to believe. I go back home. I write up my report. The story gets published in Gizmodo. And then three days later, I get an email from police officials, saying that McAfee's neighbor has been murdered. McAfee is nowhere to be found, and he is the prime suspect.
RATH: And so what was your reaction when you heard that?
WISE: It's one of these strange things where part of you is like, that's unbelievable. And another part of you has been expecting it all along.
RATH: Like it all makes perfect sense now.
RATH: Jeff, let me ask you. You know, you go into this situation. Didn't you have bells going off, a warning flag in your head at some point saying I'm getting too close to this guy. I need to ask more skeptical questions?
WISE: I've written about some pretty oddball characters before. The lesson for me is just, you know, people can surprise you any time. So - but life is not much fun if you walk around, you know, having a big question mark over your head the whole time. I think you just have to, you know, have a good time and trust. And, you know, keep an ear attune for the red flags, but don't let it rule your life.
RATH: So what happened with McAfee? Where is he now?
WISE: He's somewhere out there. You know, his last confirmed sighting was in Portland, Oregon. No one really knows. He was in cyberspace Wednesday, answering questions on an online forum.
RATH: But what about the murder charges?
WISE: He was never charged with murder. He was only ever officially a person of interest. They wanted to talk to him they said. They never formally accused him of anything.
RATH: What a bizarre story. Jeff, thank you so much.
WISE: My pleasure.