ON THE RUN WITH JOHN MCAFEE: THE COMPUTER SECURITY ICON NOW KEEPS HIS GUARD UP FOR ASSASSINS
BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS, TENN. John McAfee’s distinctly British accent is on the other end of the cell call — and his instructions are precise. “Sir, upon your flight’s arrival, text me, and my people will coordinate their pickup of you,” he says. “We will determine our rendezvous point.” Two hours later, after a circuitous journey from Memphis, I encounter McAfee sitting on the back porch of a remote farmhouse nestled deep in Tennessee’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He is chain-smoking in a semicircle of weapons. McAfee travels with 10 guns — a Beretta .40 is hidden in the small of his back and a Ruger .380 is in his right front pocket. Often, he cradles a rapid-fire Kel-Tec shotgun bull patrols the 40-acre spread, keen to strangers.
It all sounds so LeCarre, but these are things one comes to expect from a rattled, sleep-deprived McAfee, who is convinced someone has put out a $650,000 contract on his life. He insists the initial hit was for $2 million, “so my value dead is in steep decline,” he jokes. McAfee is considered a legend in the computer industry for creating and popularizing antivirus software for the masses. But he cemented his place in the American zeitgeist with a murder mystery in Belize — he was named a “person of interest” in the case — and his desperate flight to freedom. That international adventure led to McAfee’s claims of widespread corruption in the Belize government and, he insists, a contract on his life by a drug cartel. He and his wife, Janice, have been on the run in the USA for several months. Authorities haven’t called him a suspect in the murder. Raphael Martinez, a spokesman for the Belize police, says McAfee has not been charged and there is no plan to extradite him. U.S. authorities have made no effort to question McAfee since he returned in December 2012.
For now, the mercurial McAfee’s immediate concern is updating me on his adventures since we last met, in Portland, Ore., nearly a year ago. Since then, he says, he has narrowly escaped an attempt on his life in Portland in September, traversed the country with his wife to avoid hit squads and hardly slept a wink. At the same time, he’s a frequent Fox TV contributor and was able to launch a start-up, Future Tense, based in Montreal. Its first product, DCentral 1, is about to be released. (“Our program makes you aware of apps that track you,” he says. “No one is anonymous.”) The product launch is nothing short of miraculous considering that McAfee may be the only CEO in America overseeing a start-up while on the run from what he believes is a Central American hit squad. “This is one of those things where truth is stranger than fiction,” says McAfee, who triggered worldwide headlines when he escaped the Central American country in disguise using old-fashioned tradecraft. He headed for Guatemala, then made his way to Miami.
“This is the age of paranoia, with the NSA, hit squads, government snooping — you name it,” McAfee says, checking the sight on his Ruger pistol. For McAfee, so much has changed since he was named a person of interest in the unsolved 2012 murder of Gregory Viant Faull, an American expatriate and McAfee’s neighbor in Belize. McAfee says he was blamed for Faull’s death because he had refused to pay Belize officials a $2 million bribe months earlier. McAfee says the FBI takes the threats against him seriously — so seriously that he is in almost daily contact with an agent. He shows me texts to back up his account. McAfee says the FBI has offered to place him in protective custody, but he is loath to accept such a fate because he considers the prospect of working in a grocery store in the Deep South under an assumed name “akin to a death sentence.”
Dave Joly, an FBI spokesman in Denver, would neither confirm nor deny McAfee’s claims. An investigative reporter says his research on the case backs up McAfee’s story. John Casaretto, a reporter for website Silicon Angle who spent three days with McAfee, says that a mountain of documents shows McAfee’s claim of an elaborate plot against him isn’t a hoax. “There is too much evidence, too many coincidences, for this not to be true,” Casaretto says, adding, “he’s been nothing but honest and open to me.”
So far, the national press has largely ignored the latest chapter in McAfee’s improbable journey. McAfee laid it out to me over two days from the haven of the mountain retreat. A couple, one packing heat, was hosting him. “If anyone comes around (to harm McAfee), they’re dead,” says John, one of McAfee’s hosts, showing off his handgun with glee. “I don’t miss anything from 1,000 feet when I shoot.” The cast of unlikely characters sounds like something out of a Martin Scorsese film, based on a Quentin Tarantino script. The star is McAfee, 68, a brilliant software developer who almost single-handedly created the antivirus software industry — and will be the first to admit he is “not normal, if you will.”
UNDER COVER OF NIGHT
McAfee has plowed through that many phones and venues to evade a team of assassins, he says. The short-term plan is to zigzag the USA, paying for hotels with cash under anonymous names like James Corwell. With each phone, McAfee meticulously scrubs data, removes the GPS antenna and disables all apps. One trick McAfee, an amateur magician, employs is duct-taping active phones to 18-wheelers to confuse those hunting him via cellphone signals. Properly configured, a phone, with its GPS reinstalled, can run for six days.
While we’re in Tennessee, McAfee tailgates a propane truck. When it comes to a stop at a red light, he jumps out, drops a phone in the lip of the truck’s back and jumps back in. The goal: to confound his trackers by having them chase the movements of a random propane truck. “This should set (the cartel) on a merry chase,” McAfee says, laughing. McAfee is going to elaborate lengths to hide in plain sight because he and others are convinced at least one attempt was made on his life and another may come soon. “I’m scared, but I feel alive,” McAfee explains. “So many people lead dead lives, which is tragic. But I would gladly trade for a few of those days.”
Instead, McAfee and his wife, whom he married last October, crisscross the country in an SUV tricked out with police lights, spotlights and infrared vision. The McAfees frequently change the vehicle’s color, license plates and registration. As for that new start-up, McAfee says, “Running a company while on the run is not easy.” He does so with a cadre of helpers in North America that includes Tom Gusinski. “We talk once a day — it can be 10 a.m. or 5 a.m.,” Gusinski says. “John is an amazing, intelligent man. Miraculously, he has been able to lay out what he wants, and our job is to get it done.” B
By Saturday afternoon, McAfee and his wife are on to the next stop on their whirlwind tour of cheap hotels, tucked-away safe houses and backwoods roads. They check their guns, the truck’s spotlights and supplies before hopping into the vehicle for the next leg of their improbable journey. “We’ll see you down the road,” McAfee says. “I don’t know where it will take us, but I’m sure it will be interesting.”
JOSH ANDERSON FOR USA TODAY John McAfee and wife Janice relax with dog Tequila in another random hotel.
John McAfee launched a start-up, Future Tense, while on lam. JOSH ANDER
Jon Swartz @jswartz USA TODAY
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