Security

John McAfee dead: Antivirus tycoon killed himself in prison after court OK'd extradition, says lawyer

British-American infosec renegade faced trial in America for tax evasion


British-American software tycoon John McAfee was found dead in his cell in a Barcelona prison on Wednesday.

Spain’s high court – the Audiencia Nacional – had just hours earlier agreed to his extradition to America to stand trial. He was accused of tax evasion, and of breaking securities law while pocketing $23m from cryptocurrency promotions and associated deals.

The 75-year-old antivirus baron – who founded McAfee Associates in the 1980s and made a fortune before more or less retiring in the mid-1990s – was being held in Sant Esteve Sesrovires. He was arrested at Barcelona airport in October 2020, and had been behind bars ever since.

McAfee's lawyer Javier Villalba told Reuters his client had been driven to despair by his incarceration, and died by hanging. Prosecutors confirmed the death, and said they are investigating.

"This is the result of a cruel system that had no reason to keep this man in jail for so long," Villalba was quoted as saying. McAfee feared he would die in prison in America if he was extradited and convicted for, among other things, failing to file tax returns as required as a US citizen.

In 2019, he declared, "I have not filed a tax return for eight years," claiming he had paid enough income tax and was living off the cash from his antivirus days. To avoid trial in America, he was living on a large yacht with his wife Janice McAfee – a sex worker he encountered in 2012 and married the next year – and their personal staff.

John McAfee in a Dominican Republic clink after he was briefly detained by the nation's authorities in 2019 ... Source: Twitter

Though he is known today as a renegade infosec pioneer, McAfee spent 20 years in the corporate computing world before setting up his eponymous antivirus software company in Silicon Valley. After getting a degree in mathematics in 1967, he spent two years as a programmer at NASA before going to UNIVAC and later worked as a systems architect at IBM. During that time, about 99 per cent of his income came from smuggling and selling drugs, he said in 2013, claiming a Mexican drug lord even smashed one of his testicles.

He also described himself as a not particularly brilliant programmer, and hired others to do his work for him. He then moved on to consultancy, and in the 1980s analysed a copy of the Brain virus, which is considered to be the first piece of malware for the IBM PC, and started making code to combat it. In 1987, he started up the antivirus company which still, after a few changes, bears his name today.

The Santa Clara-based biz was fantastically successful, owning about 70 per cent of the desktop antivirus market within five years. McAfee was well known for self-promotion even then. Exhibit A: the Michelangelo virus.

FUD merchant

Michelangelo was a simple piece of boot-sector malware that spread via floppy disk. It was discovered in 1991 and hit the headlines a year later. The software nasty was programmed to, among other things, wipe sectors of information from hard disk drives on Michelangelo's birthday: March 6. At the turn of 1992, McAfee got significant media coverage by claiming the virus would screw up at least five million computers that year, and so obviously one ought to buy and install his software.

March 6 came and went, and the number of computers infected was at worst in the thousands, and certainly not in the millions. The virus didn't even work properly on various PC XT-class computers. But who cares? Security software sales hit the roof.

In 1994 McAfee left the business he founded though kept his shares. When the company went public he amassed an estimated $100m fortune. And then came the wild-man years. For instance, McAfee set up a yoga retreat in Woodland, Colorado, went nuts with all-terrain vehicles and jetskis, and promoted aero-trekking – which involved flying small aircraft over the deserts of New Mexico.

But after the death of a nephew on a flight, and a $5m lawsuit, McAfee quit. He said the 2008 financial crash also wiped him out, leaving just $4m in the kitty. And so he moved to Belize. And it was there that things really went south.

Heart of darkness

McAfee moved to the Central America country with a business partner and biologist who had the idea of neutralizing bacteria using tropical rainforest plant compounds. The idea didn't work out, and in a 2016 docu-drama about those years, she suggested McAfee drugged and raped her.

Then Gregory Faull, a neighbor of McAfee in Belize, was found dead at his home in November 2012. He had been shot in the back of the head.

Faull and McAfee had been feuding over the latter's unruly behavior, which apparently included firing off weapons and owning unrestrained dogs. McAfee was already on the cops' radar – his compound was raided in May that year by officers searching for unlicensed firearms to confiscate. Though McAfee was not said to be a suspect in the murder case, he was sought for questioning by the police.

McAfee denied any wrongdoing, and suggested the killing could have been a case of mistaken identity by an assassin hunting him down, or that he was being framed. It's said he buried himself in the sand on the beach by his home, and put a cardboard box over his head, to hide from the cops when they came looking for him.

Belizian Prime Minister Dean Barrow called McAfee "bonkers" and urged him to turn himself in and talk to the police, though the plea was to no avail. While on the run from the plod, McAfee was still giving media interviews and at one point claimed he disguised himself as a drunk German tourist and as a burrito seller.

However, after giving an interview to Vice magazine, which published online photos taken of him including EXIF metadata revealing his exact whereabouts, McAfee was located and arrested in Guatemala. He tried to seek asylum from persecution in Belize, though later said he was instead forced to apologize to the Guatemalan president and was put on a plane back to the United States.

In 2018, McAfee was found liable by a US court for the death of Faull, and ordered to pay $25m to the man's family.

Startups and political ambitions

Once back in the Land of the Free, McAfee tried in 2013 to sell his story to Hollywood and moved to Portland. It was around that time he released an NSFW-ish video – see below – explaining how to remove McAfee antivirus software. We won't spoil the ending. He also tried to sell a $100 router that allegedly protected you from government spying.

McAfee became something of a regular feature during the annual DEF CON infosec conference in Las Vegas, though not as a speaker – they wouldn't have him, we're told – but as someone who hosted a party every year at a nearby strip club where fans swarmed the man. He obviously loved the attention. He also claimed to have fathered at least 47 children and had dated women as young as 17 – such as his 17-year-old girlfriend in Belize.

He tried launching Chadder, a supposedly secure chat app, then Android device auditing software called Cognizant, and a password manager called EveryKey – even a supposed Google-killer called Sentinel. Meanwhile Intel, which had bought the McAfee business, changed the name of the biz, a move McAfee contested and then settled.

After these projects bombed, he turned to politics, hoping to become US president in 2016 and 2020 as a Libertarian Party candidate. "I don't see how I can lose, I'm serious," he said, but neither campaign got off the ground. He was also arrested in Tennessee, and charged with driving under the influence of Xanax and possession of a handgun while intoxicated.

As mentioned above, McAfee liked to boast that he didn't pay taxes. Now while plenty of tech millionaires and billionaires don't either, they do at least get their accountants to file their tax returns, and McAfee didn't even do that.

In 2018, McAfee caught the cryptocurrency bug and started hawking Bitfi, a supposedly "unhackable" hardware wallet. He launched a bug bounty program that would give hundreds of thousands of dollars to anyone who could defeat the gadget's defenses, and when that was achieved within a week, he hid behind some fine-print, refusing to pay up. The debacle earned him the Lamest Vendor Response gong at that year's Pwnie Awards, which he didn't collect.

Nevertheless, McAfee became popular in cryptocurrency circles and was an enthusiastic promoter of the technology. He also, it's claimed, reaped large, and unreported in tax terms, financial rewards for doing so. And that is where his downfall came.

Can't beat the taxman

By 2020, McAfee was living outside the United States, in his yacht in a Havana harbor, as a fugitive avoiding the US taxman. Uncle Sam's Department of Justice and the SEC had charged McAfee and his security guard, accusing them of tax evasion.

"John McAfee earned millions in income from promoting cryptocurrencies, consulting work, speaking engagements, and selling the rights to his life story for a documentary," prosecutors said. "From 2014 to 2018, McAfee allegedly failed to file tax returns, despite receiving considerable income from these sources."

In October that year, he was cuffed in Spain while trying to fly to Istanbul, and escorted to prison. There he fought for nine months against his extradition to America, where he would face charges that could have put him behind bars for 30 years if convicted.

This week, that attempt to avoid trial failed. Now he is dead.

Charismatic but crazy

This hack interviewed McAfee a few times. McAfee would usually give a great, seemingly spontaneous quote, which one suspected was carefully prepared, the kind of talk journalists lap up. But he was about as useful as a chocolate teapot if you were looking for anything, you know, based in fact and reality.

Case in point, in 2019, McAfeee claimed on Twitter the US government was trying to drive him to suicide, tattoo and all.

He also said last October, after his arrest in Spain, "Know that if I hang myself, a la Epstein, it will be no fault of mine." And no, he wasn't trying to be figurative.

Now, thanks to that, people are convinced McAfee was killed by Uncle Sam. It's claimed he had dirt on the Clintons, which is music to the ears of QAnon supporters. But what's more likely? The US government, having exactly what it wanted – the chance to drag McAfee back home to make a literal prime-time example of him – decided instead to end him in a Barcelona cooler.

Or that a 75-year-old McAfee was done running. Which is more likely? ®

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