By Dudley Althaus
SAN PEDRO, Belize (Reuters) - To the many people who crossed his path on a tropical island in Belize, it was apparent John McAfee’s life had taken some bizarre turns in the past few years.
The anti-virus software guru, who started McAfee Associates in 1989, has been in hiding since police said they wanted to question him about the weekend murder of his neighbor, fellow American Gregory Faull, with whom McAfee had quarreled.
Despite his disappearance, McAfee, 67, has remained in contact with the media, providing a stream of colorful bulletins over his predicament, state of mind and his claim that Belize’s authorities want to kill him.
Residents of the Caribbean island of Ambergris Caye and others who know him paint the picture of an eccentric, impulsive man who gave up a career as a successful entrepreneur in the United States for a life of semi-seclusion in the former pirate haven of Belize, surrounded by bodyguards and young women.
“Never mind the dog, beware of owner,” counsels a small sign, embellished with a sketched hand gripping a large pistol, tacked to the fence separating McAfee’s beachfront swimming pool from the pier that cuts into the azure sea.
McAfee, a yoga fan who has lived on the island for about four years, often moves around with bodyguards, wearing pistols in his belt. Since going into hiding, he has compared his lot to that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is battling extradition from Britain from inside the Ecuadorean Embassy.
Officials suspect McAfee used designer drugs, and neighbors say he tried to chase them off the public beach in front of his house. Inside his home, a blue-roofed cottage complex, he kept a small arsenal of shotguns and scope-fitted rifles.
There were also complaints about the millionaire’s numerous and noisy dogs. Officials say the poisoning of four of the dogs may be linked to the murder of Faull, a 52-year-old Florida building contractor who was shot dead at his salmon-hued two-story villa about 100 yards (meters) down the beach from McAfee.
Faull was one of the locals who had complained about McAfee’s attitude and his dogs.
McAfee told Wired magazine, with whom he first kept up a running conversation, that he was disguised and holed up in what he describes as a lice-infested refuge. In comments to the magazine, McAfee denied he shot Faull and said he fears that the police will kill or torture him. Police, who believe he is still in Belize, say they just want to talk to him about the killing.
McAfee, who has not responded to requests for comment by Reuters, blamed Belize’s “pirate culture” for his troubles in an essay Wired said he had sent to the magazine.
“Belize is still a pirate haven and is run more or less along the lines established centuries ago by the likes of Captain Morgan, Blackbeard and Captain Barrow,” McAfee said.
Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow has urged McAfee to help police with their inquiries, calling him “bonkers.”
In an interview with CNBC television by phone on Friday, McAfee said he would not seek refuge in the U.S. Embassy.
“What would happen? They will offer me either sanctuary where I will spend my days living in the embassy like poor Julian Assange or when I leave ... I will be nabbed by the police. My ultimate goal is they’ll figure out who killed the man, it will have nothing to do with me and they will leave me alone. Or if enough international pressure is applied,” he said.
Many locals in San Pedro describe the tattooed McAfee, who made a fortune developing the Internet anti-virus software that bears his name, as a generous but unstable man.
“He’s a good guy, he helped a lot of people. The problem was when he wanted something he wanted it right now. And when he didn’t get it, he’d get paranoid,” said one islander, a former McAfee employee, who like many people here spoke on condition their name not be used for fear of retribution.
“He’s a complex man, very impulsive,” the islander added.
Doug Singh, Belize’s former police minister, told Reuters he was at a loss to explain McAfee’s recent comments.
“Mr. McAfee seems to have a bit of a divorce from reality and it seems to be consistent in his behavior and some of the things he has said recently. He’s way out of line and out of proportion. Nobody has anything against Mr. McAfee,” Singh said.
After making millions with his anti-virus product, McAfee decided to abandon the United States for Belize, a languid coastal paradise. It is a path that has been taken by a number of rich Americans over the years.
He took a beachfront compound on the island’s isolated and exclusive north side, 6 miles from the town of San Pedro by boat or by driving over badly cratered asphalt and dirt track. It is a world away from California’s Silicon Valley, which he once called home.
He took the company public in 1992 and left two years later following accusations that he had hyped the arrival of a virus known as Michelangelo, which turned out to be a dud, to scare computer users into buying his company’s products.
Officials at the company he created and its parent, Intel, have declined to comment on the controversy.
But one long-time McAfee manager who recently left said company executives were likely monitoring the news closely. He said they have tracked reports of John McAfee’s activities over the years out of concern they might need to do damage control.
A case is already pending in Belize against McAfee for possession of illegal firearms, and police previously suspected him of running a lab to make illicit synthetic drugs.
But McAfee said this week he was opposed to drugs.
“My life is fucked up enough without drugs, and always has been,” McAfee told Wired magazine.
For all his trouble with authorities, McAfee has worked hard to be the island’s benefactor. Upon arriving in Belize he bought a $1 million boat for the country’s new coast guard, and donated equipment to the local police force, according to local reports.
He tipped generously everywhere he went, and hired a steady stream of taxis for frequent female guests on the $150 round trip from the small airstrip in San Pedro out to his house.
“Not two or three, a lot of women,” said Artemio Awayo, 24, a local waiter. “Every time I saw him it was a different woman.”
Those who knew him said he didn’t drink and never hung out at the island’s many bars. But employees at a restaurant near the pier where McAfee’s water taxi company is based said his actions grew more bizarre following a police raid last April on his mainland hacienda outside the town of Orange Walk.
Even for casual lunches, McAfee began regularly coming to town with at least two bodyguards, clad in camouflage and each packing pistols, they said.
“Generally, you don’t need a bodyguard in Belize,” said Jorge Alana, a San Pedro Sun reporter who interviewed McAfee several times, noting top elected officials don’t have them. “It does call attention when you move with so many guards.”
McAfee’s home is in a stretch of Ambergris where the wealthiest foreigners hole up. Raw lots of land 100 feet by 200 feet can cost up to $500,000 here. Even modest-looking houses reflect multimillion-dollar investments.
On Thursday afternoon, a 23-year-old calling herself Tiffany used a key to enter McAfee’s home with another young woman and said he had spent Saturday night with them - around the time police said Faull’s murder took place.
They had not spoken to McAfee since Sunday, she said.
On Friday, an outside light was still on at his beachfront complex, and a dog roamed freely around the grounds.
Like McAfee, many of his north shore neighbors tend to favor being left alone, rarely coming to town and loath to mix with tourists.
“That’s why they come to San Pedro,” said Daniel Guerrero, the tour guide and real estate broker now serving as the town’s mayor. “They like the quietness. They like the isolation.”
But even fishing, scuba diving and sunset daiquiris can get tiresome. Accustomed to hard work and achievement, newcomers established and kept up the island’s charities, locals say. Quite a few foreigners, like McAfee, started local businesses. And some fall out of synch with local culture.
“It’s one thing to vacation here and another thing living here,” said Wyoming native Tamara Sniffin, owner and editor of the San Pedro Sun, the local newspaper.
Immortalized in song by Madonna as La Isla Bonita, Ambergris Caye stretches 27 miles along the blue Caribbean below the Mexican border, flanking the world’s second-largest barrier reef and some of its finest sport fishing waters.
Those attributes have attracted well-heeled foreign retirees and celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who owns a small island nearby.
“Here it’s just party, party, work, party,” said Iris Mavel, 27, a waitress at a restaurant favored by McAfee. “A lot of couples who come here leave divorced. That’s why they call it Temptation Island.”
The island also has a darker side. Dumped at sea and carried ashore by the tides, bundles of Colombian cocaine flow through the island not far from McAfee’s house and on, many say, toward the Mexican border. Cocaine not recovered by the smugglers is collected by islanders, supplying a thriving local drug market that has sparked low-level gang feuds and occasional killings.
International fugitives have taken refuge here. In the summer, a Slovak man accused of murdering a woman, her 10-year-old son and a gangster in his home country was arrested on an international warrant, processed for extradition but then released by a Belizean judge.
Some townsfolk suspect McAfee is hiding on a yacht off of San Pedro. Others note that Mexico is only an hour away by the sort of fast boat McAfee owns and that passports are never checked for people landing in the oceanfront villages there.
San Pedro’s mayor believes he will surface.
“I have the feeling that this guy will turn up,” Guerrero said. “But he’ll turn up with his attorneys. He’s a big guy.”
Additional reporting by Jose Sanchez in Belize, Jim Finkle in Boston, Noel Randewich in San Francisco and Mike McDonald in Guatemala; Editing by Dave Graham, Kieran Murray and Bill Trott