By Aara Ramesh
In the late evening of Wednesday, June 23, John David McAfee, whose name is virtually synonymous with anti-virus software world over, was found unresponsive in his cell in a prison near Barcelona. He was being held there pending extradition to the U.S. on charges of tax evasion and commodities and securities fraud. Medical personnel at the scene failed to resuscitate him. The matter is being investigated but Spanish officials say all signs point to McAfee having taken his own life, with some media reporting that he had hanged himself. He was 75 years old.
To say he had a reputation for being unconventional would be doing a disservice to how truly eccentric McAfee appeared to be to many. Following the announcement of his passing by his lawyer, traditional and social media alike flooded with tributes, analyses, remembrances, and obituaries. Variously described as a “magnate,” “tycoon,” “myth,” “larger-than-life,” and “legend,” McAfee was notorious for his escapades, extremely Libertarian views, and his singular quirks.
Born in Gloucestershire, England, at the tail-end of World War II in 1945, McAfee spent most of his life in Roanoke, Virginia, in the U.S, with his parents, a road surveyor and a bank teller. McAfee characterised his parents’ marriage as “unhappy,” and said his father was a heavy drinker who was physically abusive towards both his wife and son. The senior McAfee shot himself when his son was only 15.
McAfee rose to fame three and a half decades ago in 1987, when he started his software enterprise in Santa Clara, California. In 1992, the value of his founder’s stock soared to $80 million when McAfee Associates went public. Just two years later, however, he resigned from his eponymous company, just as it was in its ascendancy.
McAfee lost most of his fortune in 2008 during the Great Recession and by 2010 his net worth had fallen from a peak of $100 million to a mere $4 million. His next steps can only be described as nomadic. In 2008, he moved to the Central American country of Belize in search of a more affordable lifestyle. Meanwhile, computing giant Intel bought McAfee Associates for roughly $7.7 billion in 2010.
McAfee’s first public brush with the law came in 2012, when local law enforcement raided his Belize home, suspecting that it was a front for a methamphetamine manufacturing lab. When they arrived there, they found McAfee in bed with a sixteen-year-old girl.
In the process of executing the raid, police shot his dog, and seized his passport and legal weapons. He was detained only a short while before the charges of unlicensed drug manufacturing and unlicensed weapons possession were dropped.
Things only got worse for McAfee from there. Later in 2012, his much-publicized, long-standing feud with a neighbor threw him into the spotlight once more when he was named a person of interest in that man’s death. McAfee and Gregory Faull had clashed for some time over the former being unruly, hosting multiple parties, not taming his nine loud dogs, and bringing home underage girls. Faull was found by a maid dead, with a bullet wound to his head.
McAfee fled Belize before he could be arrested, but was eventually caught in December 2012 when he tried to enter Guatemala. His petition for political asylum, citing that authorities were trying to “silence” him, was dismissed. His back-up strategy, however, worked: he was deported to Miami after he faked two heart-attacks while in Guatemalan prison, to avoid being sent to Belize.
He lived briefly in Montreal with his wife before moving to Tennessee, where he was arrested in 2015 for driving under the influence and possessing a firearm while under the influence. That same year, McAfee created the “Cyber Party” and ran for president, before switching to the Libertarian Party. He did not win the nomination.
As he became more outspoken in his views and more eccentric in his business ventures, the company he once founded that still bore his name scurried to distance itself from him. It tried rebranding itself as “Intel Security,” but failed. In 2016, Intel sold its majority stake in the firm and the McAfee name was restored to the company once more.
In 2019, John McAfee was ordered by a Florida court to pay Faull’s estate $25 million in a wrongful death claim. That same year, he and some associates were also detained in the Dominican Republic on suspicions that the yacht they were traveling on had on board high-caliber weapons, ammunition, and military-style gear.
However, the troubles that would eventually see him charged by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for various financial crimes began in earnest when McAfee tweeted that he had not filed tax returns for eight years.
In 2020, while in exile, McAfee ran for president on the Libertarian ticket once more. But his endeavor was cut short when, in October last year, he was apprehended at the Barcelona airport, just as he was about to leave for Turkey, on the behest of the United States government.
His homeland was seeking to extradite him after an unsealed indictment accused him of tax evasion and willfully failing to file his tax returns in Tennessee between 2014 and 2018. He had supposedly not reported the substantial income he made from touting cryptocurrencies, engaging in consulting work, speaking at various venues, and selling the rights to his story for a documentary.
According to the June 2020 indictment, over this four-year period, McAfee funneled his earnings into bank accounts and cryptocurrency exchange accounts that were in the names of nominees. He also allegedly concealed assets such as property and a yacht under the names of others. His bill was over $4 million. In addition to lengthy prison terms, he was also facing a period of supervised release, fines, restitution, and various other monetary penalties. The DOJ took pains to highlight that John McAfee had not received any income from nor was he in any way still connected to the company McAfee.
Then in March, while McAfee was fighting his extradition, he was further charged with conspiring to commit commodities and securities fraud, conspiracy to commit securities and touting fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and substantive wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracy offenses. The freshly unsealed indictment resulted from two schemes in which McAfee and his associates falsely promoted cryptocurrencies to investors.
Prosecutors specifically called out tweets sent to McAfee’s followers — numbering in the hundreds of thousands — that explicitly misrepresented information to encourage the purchase of various cryptocurrencies, which they called “scalping.” The people they victimized by the “pump-and-dump” scheme lost around $13 million to McAfee and his team between December 2017 and October 2018.
McAfee told Spanish authorities deliberating whether to extradite him or not that he was facing “political persecution” in the U.S. for his views on taxation, for criticizing the IRS, and for opposing fiat currency, which angered central bankers and other officials.
On Monday, June 21, the Spanish National Court dismissed those statements as meritless and approved his extradition to the U.S. to face the 2016–2018 charges only, which could have sent him to prison for up to 30 years. The court’s ruling was announced on Wednesday, just a few short hours before McAfee’s body was discovered.
Though authorities have said signs suggest he committed suicide, in recent months, McAfee’s tweets raised some concerns about his state of mind. Spanish authorities are also investigating whether there were video cameras present in the cell that may have captured his last moments.
“This is again the US government trying to erase John McAfee,” a lawyer of the deceased said to the media after the news broke of his passing.
Regardless, the self-described “wealthy eccentric” will be remembered as a “fighter,” according to that lawyer, who also said that “in the minds of everyone who knew [McAfee], he will always be a fighter.”
McAfee is survived by his wife Janice.
Find a comprehensive but not complete timeline of John McAfee’s various brushes with the law across the U.S., Central America, the Caribbean, and Europe here.