For an instant, John McAfee is anonymous. He is haggard, sleep deprived, and a bit unhinged, but anonymous. For the first time in days, there are no cops, guards, or handcuffs. No TV cameras or tape recorders or questions. But he can't escape them forever. Dressed in the same dark pinstripe suit he's been wearing since his release from a Guatemalan jail two days ago, McAfee ducks into a small sunglasses shop in South Beach. "I need a disguise," he says.
McAfee slips on a pair of Ray Bans. The salesman has no idea who this overly tanned customer is. No idea that McAfee has been accused of running a heavily armed harem of sex, guns, and bath salts on a tiny tropical island in the Caribbean. And no idea that McAfee is a "person of interest" in a bizarre murder last month in Belize. But then McAfee starts to talk, and it is instantly clear something is not right.
"I need a pair of these," McAfee says, holding up the shades. "Women are always tying to stab me in the eyes with needles."
McAfee is currently the most wanted man in the world: coveted by newscasters, Belizean authorities, and mobs of fans from Central America to South Florida. Yet, for some reason he agreed to let me into the quiet center of the chaotic shit storm his life has become. During that time, I heard him plead his innocence, watched him blow well over $1,000, and witnessed him hit on half a dozen women.
All the while, he was jovial and relaxed - almost zen master like. Not the supposedly bath-salt-snorting maniac some media have suggested. And certainly not what you would expect from a murderer on the run, as others have painted him.
But not normal, either. Far from it.
My afternoon with McAfee began just before noon, when he sauntered out of the Beacon Hotel on Ocean Drive and chucked a red frisbee into a crowd of reporters and tourists. Then he launched into his self-defense.
"I want to make this clear for the hundredth time, I had absolutely nothing to do with the murder in Belize," he said.
McAfee laid out his version of events in a raspy roar: Marco Vidal, the head of the Belizean police's Gang Suppression Unit, had demanded $2 million this spring, he said. When he refused to pay, 42 soldiers stormed his property on April 30, "shot my dog in the head, held me in the sun, handcuffed with my hands behind my back for 14 hours, destroyed half a million dollars worth of my property, then they let me go with no charges." McAfee said his problems with the police escalated after he again refused to pay up. "Since then they've attempted to charge me with everything," he said.
The bizarre spat blossomed into an international murder mystery on Nov. 10 when McAfee's next door neighbor, a Floridian named Gregory Faull, was found murdered. The next day, Vidal told reporters that McAfee was the "prime suspect."
McAfee hid from Vidal's officers and escaped with Samantha "Sam" Vanegas -- one of his two teenage girlfriends -- and two Vice magazine reporters to the border with Guatemala. Along the way, he paid a taxi driver $500 just so he could smash his phone and ensure that they weren't being followed, McAfee claims. But the plot unraveled when the Vice reporter tweeted a photo without removing the pic's GPS tag. Within minutes, their location -- the pool at the Hotel and Marina Nana Juana in Izabal, Guatemala -- was all over the Internet.
Four dozen Guatemalan police arrived shortly before midnight and arrested McAfee on immigration charges. For a week, he sat in jail, eating "moldy beans and rice" and "readjusting the perceptions of my guards." Then, just as McAfee was about to be deported back to Belize - "where I would have been killed" he claims - he feigned a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital, and the ruse gave his Guatemalan lawyer time to negotiate McAfee's deportation to Miami. He was put on a commercial flight to MIA arriving late Wednesday night.
But none of this explains who the hell McAfee really is. For that, I had to spend the whole day with him.
photo by Michael E. Miller
When McAfee finished his interviews, he was swarmed by tourists. He flirted with a pretty woman with piercings, and posed for photos. Then a young Puerto Rican cab driver named Franklin Camacho approached, offering to drive him around on his errands.
"You look too clean cut to be a cabbie," McAfee said. When Camacho explained that he was a recovering alcoholic McAfee said he, too, was "a friend of Bill." "If you're a friend of Bill's, you're a friend of mine," McAfee said, jumping into Camacho's cab. I jumped into the front seat, while a female reporter from the Miami Herald sat next to McAfee in the back.
What happened next was four hours of bath saltless insanity.
Our first stop was Ross Dress For Less. As muzak played, McAfee hunted for clothes. ("Dude, I was just taken out of a jail cell and shoved on a plane," he explained, pointing to his crumpled suit. "This is all I've got.") Then he took his shirt off in the middle of the store, exposing the giant tribal tattoo that arcs across his back.
McAfee also started opening up about his life. He said that he cared deeply for both his girlfriends, Amy and Sam, and was worried for their safety in Guatemala, but that monogamy and love were illusions. "This is a rare truth," he said, before quizzing his three listeners on whether they had ever had an affair.
"I don't sleep with Amy anymore," McAfee volunteered. "She tried to kill me four times. She stabbed me in the ass. I'm deaf in one ear because she tried to shoot me in the head. Since we stopped having sex, she hasn't tried to kill me. Not even once."
McAfee then offered to hook me up with his sadistic ex. "Amy is not going to want to skin you alive," he said, "because she will notice that you are actually faithful to women."
"Sure," I said, trying to laugh.
"You have courage, my friend," McAfee said. "I would want you in the jungle with me. All you are lacking is a bit of self-confidence. We'll fix that by the end of the day."
He would certainly try. Over the next three hours, he would frequently suggest that I take the Herald reporter on a date, only to warn he was going to swoop in for the kill if I didn't get my game on.
photo by Michael E. Miller
We reached the Ross cash register. McAfee forked over a crisp $100 bill, which he explained had come in a package of cash delivered to him at his hotel the night before thanks to the guy running McAfee's blog (whoismcafee.com). We turned to leave, but the cashier called after us. McAfee had forgotten more than $20 in change. "I'm dying for some sushi," he said as we hopped back in Camacho's cab.
In the car, McAfee vented about how he had spent three hours the night before giving an interview, only for the reporter to ask him to keep quiet. "This guy said he was my friend," McAfee says bitterly. "But if he was my friend, he wouldn't ask me that." McAfee would touch upon this theme of betrayal several times. In one moment he promised to tell me the absolute truth. In others, he said he disdained journalists and admitted to playing "practical jokes" on them by routinely lying to them.
Ten minutes after leaving Ross's, we settled at a small table inside Sushi Samba on Lincoln Road. Without looking at the menu, McAfee ordered $400 worth of nigiri. Then he proceeded to hold court for two hours, like a more charming but no more sane Charlie Sheen.
"There are two ways to live, my son," he told me. "You can live according to the formula. We all know it: you go to school, you learn as much as you can, you find the right [partner], you settle down and have children. You live 20 years for your children, another 15 for your job, you retire, get a golden watch, and enjoy your life."
"Or, there is no formula," he said. "There is nothing to live by, except what is happening in that moment. Life is infinite. You can't have rules for infinity. The only rule is this here," he says, tapping the female reporter over her heart.
"Your life seems like endless chaos," I said at one point. "That can't be fun."
"Life is fun," he said. "You've been hanging out with me here in chaos for hours, yet you're enjoying it because you're in the moment."
Maybe that's the thing about McAfee; the key to his mix of childlike wonder and desperation; the secret of his chaos. He has burned his past behind him in Belize. And he refuses to commit to the future.
"I have no future, no dreams, no plans," he said. "If you don't have plans, then life is nothing but chaos." McAfee paused. "Here's the truth of life," he said. "You can be the president but if nobody pays attention to you, you don't exist."
And suddenly I understood why McAfee looked so old, so ragged. Without a past or a future to retreat to, his life had become one frenetic moment: an endless search for recognition. Without his young women around, he had turned to reporters for validation.
"Life is boring," he said. "Play is the only noble thing."
He had been playing hide and seek for weeks with the authorities, he said. Even his infamous blog posts, in which he discussed testing and perfecting mysterious drugs on himself were, he now claimed, just part of a bet with a friend. He had played Russian roulette in front of a reporter in Belize, he said, just to fuck with the man's mind. (He even boasted of screwing with a reporter from New Times sister paper in Colorado over a story about yoga.)
We left the restaurant, but not before McAfee ordered $24 worth of green tea ice cream. We walked along Lincoln eating it with chopsticks. Eventually, he turned to me with a warning. "You've got 10 minutes to ask her out," he said, pointing to the female reporter. "After that, I'm going to enter the competition."
I demurred again as we wandered into and out of phone stores until McAfee found one that would sell him a phone capable of calling Guatemala. He instantly started flirting with the woman behind the counter, taking out a Marlboro and asking her for a light. "Do I know you?" she said with a laugh.
"I dated your sister, remember?" McAfee bullshitted. "She got so upset when I snuck into your room that one night. But it was worth it. You did things that I don't even think there are names for." He forked over $438 for a phone, including $300 credit to call Amy and Sam -- his girlfriends in Guatemala.
By now, McAfee apparently felt that his lessons had been wasted on me. I have not become the "King Kong" he said I really was, so he turned to the Herald reporter. "I haven't seen a movie in two years," he said. "You want to go see a movie tonight?"
We climbed into Camacho's cab once more. Moments later we were near the Beacon Hotel. Camacho pulled over, and McAfee and I climbed out. He lit up his Marlboro and we walked south on the crowded street. I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to tell me, anything about the murder. Anything he regretted. McAfee stopped.
"I hardly even knew Greg Faull," he said. "He liked to drink. I gave up drinking nearly 30 years ago." And what about the reports that he had been in the bar the night of the murder, staring daggers at his neighbor? "I own a bar, and I won't even go inside. That was just somebody making shit up to get on TV."
But there is something he regretted, he said. He had left his long-time partner in order to embark on this insane international media circus. McAfee asked me not to print her name -- the only time all day he made that request -- and for a moment I watched him envision his past, or imagine an alternate future. Then he ducked into the sunglass store for a disguise.
Within two minutes, TV cameras began to crowd the doorway. Our time was up.
"Did you really expect to be able to hide from them for that long?" I asked, extending my hand.
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"I don't expect an honest article," McAfee told me, donning his new sunglasses. "But it better at least be well written. Otherwise, I'm going to send Sam to kill you."
Then he smiled, and was lost in the churning crowd.