John McAfee: the tech maverick who lost a $100m fortune

John McAfee made his name pioneering software to protect against computer viruses. He lost nearly everything in the financial crash and lived a life on the run, killing himself to thwart the US authorities.

John McAfee
(Image credit: © ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP via Getty Images)

When John McAfee attempted to run for the White House in 2016, he invoked a mantra from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in his campaign video. “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes.”

McAfee, who committed suicide in a Spanish prison last week aged 75, “fitted each of these descriptions – and more”, says the Financial Times. The pioneer of antivirus software “built and lost a fortune”, later recasting himself as “a libertarian politician” and “a cryptocurrency hype man”. In 2017, he predicted that the price of bitcoin would reach $500,000 within three years.

“Paranoid, even bonkers”

Still, it was McAfee’s repeated brushes with the law in exotic locations that latterly came to define him, says The Independent. In between relatively calm domestic periods in the US – where he formed a yoga retreat, and indulged in aerotrekking (flying unlicensed microlights at low altitude) – he spent years as an international fugitive, embracing a life of “drugs, guns and sex”.

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In 2012, McAfee was sought for questioning in connection with the murder of his neighbour in Belize (a crime he always denied). In 2019, officials in the Dominican Republic linked him with a yacht carrying “high-calibre weapons, ammunition and military-style gear”.

With McAfee, it was always hard to tell fact from fantasy. “I don’t want to be rude to the gentleman, but I believe he is extremely paranoid, even bonkers,” observed the prime minister of Belize. In August last year, McAfee told his social-media following that he had been detained in Norway mid-pandemic “for refusing to replace a lace thong with a more effective mask”, says The Times.

In October, he was arrested at Barcelona airport at the behest of the US; in time-honoured tradition, they got him for tax evasion. He killed himself last week just hours after Spanish courts approved his extradition.

McAfee once shocked a Wired magazine reporter by appearing to play Russian roulette during an interview. Violence, as he remarked, was always a lurking shadow. Born in 1945 on a US army base at Cinderford, Gloucestershire, he was a GI baby whose parents later moved to Salem, Virginia.

McAfee Sr, an alcoholic, regularly beat up his wife and son – eventually shooting himself when McAfee was 15. “Every day I wake with him,” McAfee told Wired. “Every relationship I have, he’s by my side…the negotiator of that mistrust.” After studying maths at Roanoke College, Salem, he took a series of jobs in the nascent tech industry.

Crystallising fear

The turning point in McAfee’s life came in 1986 when he was working as a computer programmer for Lockheed, says The Times. It took the form of the world’s first known PC virus, Brain. Gripped by the threat, he formed McAfee Associates from his home, aiming to detect and eliminate malicious software. The resulting product was the world’s first “all-in-one” virus scanner.

McAfee made a fortune “from spreading fear”, says The Times, crystalising it when McAfee listed on Nasdaq in 1992. Two years later, he sold out completely. By 2008, he was reported to be worth around $100m, but lost nearly everything during the financial crisis.

Drawn by his deep distrust of the state into the world of cryptocurrencies, he made a second fortune touting initial coin offerings – prompting a fraud investigation this year. He spent his final months conducting a “Free McAfee” campaign from his cell. But he was determined he wouldn’t end his days in a US jail. By taking his own life McAfee, as ever, had the final word. He died unconvicted of anything.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.