On the trail of software guru McAfee
Belize City bus station is a small building set on a dusty street in the downtown area of the capital. Its only entrance gives on to a long and narrow waiting room with a spine of wooden benches set back to back and two-tone walls on either side - wheat-coloured to the thigh and yellow from there up.
A crisp breeze was blowing through the terminal, which on this Saturday morning was full of Belizeans wrapped in coats and even scarves as they waited for their ride - former US school buses now in their final phase of life - to different corners of this tiny Central American country.
I noticed all of this because I had time on my hands - about an hour, according to the deep, oaky, American voice that had called my mobile a while earlier and told me to wait exactly where I was.
The voice belonged to John McAfee, mathematician, multimillionaire, creator of the ubiquitous McAfee antivirus software, alpha male. Except that in Belize, the country of about 350,000 people to which he had moved four years ago, he was now the focus of a nationwide manhunt - a “person of interest” in an investigation into the recent murder of Gregory Faull, a US citizen and a neighbour of McAfee’s on the picture-postcard island of Ambergris Caye. In other words, McAfee was on the run.
My people-gazing stopped suddenly when I realised that a perfect stranger - middle-aged, medium height, plain clothes - was looking right at me. “A mutual friend would like to see you,” he said with an outstretched hand to take my bag.
The next half an hour was a movie reel of Belizean side streets, back alleys, highways and byways - anything and everything to shake off potential tails. We pulled over and waited for a couple of minutes. A check in the rear-view mirror and we were moving again, zigzagging our way through a string of neighbourhoods - middle-class but only just. And then, just as it all began to seem routine, we stopped again. “Step out of the car, you’re going to cross the road and then keep walking. Somebody will meet you.”
One hundred yards later, a figure rounded a corner and started walking in my direction. He was white, about 6ft, in a black short-sleeved shirt, black baseball cap, black shorts and those Vibram five-toe shoes popularised by “barefoot” ultra-marathon runners. Only this man was no athlete: he was dragging his right foot, kicking up dust as it trailed behind him. His right arm was bent up, tight like a cooked chicken wing, and his fingers were twisted into a claw. “Follow me, please, sir,” he said. It was McAfee, the most wanted man in the country.
How a 67-year-old English-born, Virginia-raised multimillionaire ended up on the lam in a Central American country the size of Wales is a long story, or several stories. It is still unclear, for example, why McAfee sold his portfolio of US properties at knock-down prices and headed south in the first place. One theory suggests it was for tax purposes: after the recession started, McAfee helped spread the word he had lost almost all his money. In 1994, when he sold his remaining shares in the company that bears his name, this fortune had been estimated at about $100m.
But Jeff Wise, a journalist who knows McAfee, believes he did not lose his fortune. Instead, Wise believes McAfee went to Belize to sidestep a potentially hefty financial payout from a lawsuit after one of the customers at his “aerotrekking” venture died in an accident while at McAfee’s New Mexico property. McAfee was a pioneer of aerotrekking, a sport involving flying souped-up microlight aircraft at breakneck speeds sometimes just a few feet off the ground. He and his flying friends called themselves “sky gypsies”.
Ask McAfee why he moved to Belize and he will tell you that the main reason is the former British colony’s unique traits: a Caribbean paradise of white-sand beaches and turquoise seas in which English is the official language; a part of Central America but until recently without the horrendous crime problems of its neighbours; swaths of unspoilt jungle laced with meandering rivers and dotted with ancient Mayan archaeological sites. “Who wouldn’t want to live here? I mean, get real,” McAfee had told me in a phone call before the trip.
The place in which McAfee was now hiding was on the top floor of a block that, from the outside, looked more like an industrial warehouse than a residential building. There was a kitchenette and, beyond that, a single bedroom with a large double bed set on a white-tiled floor, and another door to a small balcony. Decoration was sparse save for a couple of chintzy paintings of rural scenes hanging on the white walls. One of them showed a country lane leading past a thatched cottage surrounded by hollyhocks, foxgloves and other plants you might find in a serene and tranquil English garden.
There was nothing serene or tranquil about McAfee. As soon as he closed the front door, he ditched the limp and the crippled arm. Then, hands trembling, he reached for one of several cigarette packets lying on the table.
“I’ve been smoking pretty heavily for two weeks,” he told me. “Under the same circumstances, you might do the same.” He flicked ash nervously out of the semi-open door that led to the balcony. He said he was averaging 15 a day. A quick calculation later suggested 30 would be more accurate.
His distress, and that of Samantha, his feisty 20-year-old Belizean girlfriend - during the interview, she accused me of being scared: “I’m young and smaller than you and I’ve got more balls” - was more than understandable given the saga that their lives had become over the previous few weeks.
To start with, there were the first nights sleeping rough and on the run on the island of Ambergris Caye, where he has property close to that of Faull, whose body was discovered on November 11 lying face up in a pool of blood. There was a gunshot wound to his head and police found a 9mm shell casing next to the body.
McAfee lifted his shirt to reveal an impressively toned torso covered in mosquito bites. “I slept all over,” he explained. “In my house, in the bush, at my condo, I just kept moving constantly. It is very uncomfortable to sleep at night in the jungle.”
Then there was the escape from the island itself. The idea had been to get to the house of a friend, who would then take him and Samantha across the 30-mile stretch of water that separates the island from the mainland. “So we got to the house, everything was set and the engine wouldn’t start on the boat. And you can hear the police sirens as they’re going by. I’m looking through these big cracks through the walls to see if anyone is coming, looking to see if there is anywhere we can hide.”