Even in death, the John McAfee saga grows stranger.
More than seven months after he died in a Spanish jail, McAfee’s body remains in a prison morgue freezer somewhere in or near Barcelona. His daughter and ex-wife waged a legal fight over the body and a Spanish judge is continuing to conduct an investigation over the cause of his death.
At the same time, the first of what is expected to be several attempts to detail the hard-to-believe exploits of the antivirus-software pioneer has arrived, a book whose contents are vigorously denied by McAfee’s family.
It is unclear to those who were closest to McAfee why exactly his body has not yet been released. Two family factions had separately petitioned a Spanish court for possession of the body. The McAfee family, meanwhile, is still awaiting a Spanish judge’s final investigation report on the cause of his death. While deaths in the U.S. are determined by coroners who issue reports within a few months, authorities in Spain issue death reports under a court system led by a judge. Emails to the Spanish court were not answered after several days.
The convoluted case of John McAfee’s body and contentious fight over facts about his last years is a fitting bookend to a fantastical and eccentric life that continues to enrapture his followers. Much like when he was alive, it is hard to separate what is real from the fever dream that was McAfee’s final decade.
“It was usually smoke and mirrors with John,” Kyle Sandler told MarketWatch in a phone interview from an Arkansas prison. Sandler, who managed the British-born McAfee’s bid for the 2016 U.S. presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party, is serving the final year of a five-year sentence for stealing about $1.9 million from investors while working with McAfee.
This is the Cliff Notes version of McAfee. In 1987, he wrote the first commercial antivirus software, and founded McAfee Associates, which was eventually sold to Intel Corp. INTC, +1.14% for $7.68 billion in 2010, 16 years after McAfee resigned. In late 2017, Intel formed a strategic partnership with TPG to turn McAfee Corp. MCFE, +0.35% into an independent cybersecurity company as a joint venture.
McAfee was largely out of the spotlight until 2012, when he was named as a person of interest by authorities in Belize in the murder of Gregory Faull, an American residing in the Central American country who bragged of killing McAfee’s dog. Claiming he was the target of a shakedown by the Belize government, McAfee fled to the U.S., where he embarked on a bizarre string of high-profile incidents. Over the past decade, McAfee hopscotched from Portland, Ore., to Colorado, central Tennessee, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and, finally, Spain, according to those close to him.
More from the author: The bright (and very dark) John McAfee that I got to know
McAfee’s longtime former business associate, Francois Garcia, described one of McAfee’s last pit stops, the “McAfee Mansion,” for MarketWatch. “A sprawling property in Tennessee where heavily-armed hangers-on engaged in pump-and-dump operations.” McAfee habitually followed a self-destructive pattern of scams, globe-hopping, drug use, gun use, and conspiracy theories involving drug-cartel assassins, Garcia said.
“John often said ‘perception is reality,’” Garcia said. “He understood human behavior and controlling people around him. He didn’t care about anyone but himself. He had no friends, used people, stepped over them. Nothing was true. Nothing.”
By the time of his death, McAfee was down to $200,000 to $300,000 in cash, according to Garcia, who had access to McAfee’s financial records. It remains unclear if that money was spent. Another wild card, he added, is a cryptocurrency stash McAfee may have squirreled away.
Tracking McAfee’s finances was as confounding as his manipulation of the truth, Garcia said, because he bought and sold homes constantly while burning cash on cars, boats and travel.
“He was constantly in need of money because he spent like a drunken sailor,” Garcia told MarketWatch.
Three months before his death, federal prosecutors in Manhattan unsealed an indictment that charged McAfee and a former bodyguard, Jimmy Gale Watson Jr., of fraud and money-laundering conspiracy stemming from two cryptocurrency schemes. Watson has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. McAfee — who in mid-2017 predicted bitcoin BTCUSD, +0.33% would hit $1 million by the end of 2020, only to recant and insist he never believed it — was an advocate of cryptocurrencies such as verge, skycoin, docademic, bezop and latium.
Prior to his death at age 75, McAfee was also embroiled in a criminal fight with federal prosecutors who accused him of failing to file tax returns from 2014 to 2018 and concealing assets, including a yacht, according to an indictment unsealed in October 2020. He was arrested by Spanish authorities in accordance with a request by the U.S. Justice Department, which sought extradition.
McAfee garnered a cult following of more than 1 million Twitter followers with his outlandish, audacious behavior and actions before dying in a Barcelona prison in an apparent suicide. Some of those followers fiercely contend that the cybersecurity pioneer was assassinated, but those close to him say he was depressed in his final days and believe that he took his own life. They point to a suicide note in which McAfee referred to himself as a “phantom parasite” and vowed to “control my future which does not exist.” McAfee’s daughter and his ex-wife both agree it was in McAfee’s writing.
A delayed investigation into McAfee’s cause of death
Joy Athanasiou, the lawyer representing McAfee’s daughter, Jen, had hoped to resolve issues pertaining to McAfee’s death by the end of 2021. Athanasiou expected cordial negotiations with Javier Villalba, the lawyer for McAfee’s ex-wife, Janice McAfee, and thought things would wrap up relatively quickly. But the negotiations stalled due to the inability of either lawyer to reach Janice McAfee, according to Athanasiou and Nishay Sanan, the lawyer who represented McAfee in extradition cases while he was imprisoned in Spain.
While the negotiations went sideways, proceedings in court were also slowed by the Spanish legal system. Spanish Judge Victor Espigares Jimenez has presided over the investigation into McAfee’s cause of death and will make the final determination. It’s unclear to Athanasiou exactly why the investigation has not yet concluded, but she speculates that a backlog of medical examinations of COVID-related deaths in Spain has added to the delay.
“To my knowledge, they have done nothing to the body,” Athanasiou told MarketWatch. “It has been sitting there [in a freezer] all these months.” Athanasiou, Jen and Fran, McAfee’s first wife, told MarketWatch that McAfee’s body remained in a Spanish prison morgue.
“This is one of the strangest cases I have seen in my career,” said Sanan, the lawyer who represented McAfee in extradition proceedings.
Jen, who is the next of kin to John, wanted the remains of her father to be cremated and transported to the U.S. But she recently gave up her legal claim to the body to prevent additional delay of her father’s burial.
““John often said ‘perception is reality.’ He understood human behavior and controlling people around him. He didn’t care about anyone but himself. He had no friends, used people, stepped over them. Nothing was true. Nothing.””
It is unclear what Janice McAfee, who was divorced from John in early 2019, wishes to do with his body. Both sides were also haggling over family heirlooms and sentimental items.
Jen, who asked that her last name not be used out of concerns for her family’s safety, deferred all legal questions to her attorney. Janice McAfee did not reply to email messages over several weeks.
In one of her last public appearances, at a press conference in Barcelona with Villalba following John McAfee’s death, Janice McAfee insisted John was not suicidal and blamed U.S. authorities for “this tragedy.” She is presumed to be living in Spain, according to McAfee’s family and recent social-media posts by Janice McAfee from Spain. Villalba did not respond to an email message seeking comment.
“Since John’s death there has been an effort to guarantee that I would not make it to my next birthday although I believe the ultimate goal is to ensure that I do not leave Spain alive,” Janice McAfee ominously wrote on her Twitter and Instagram feeds on her 39th birthday on Dec. 10. “Obviously the dragging out of the investigation is meant to keep us from finding out about what happened to John and I also believe it’s meant to keep me here in Spain.”
McAfee’s first wife, Fran, who asked that her last name not be used, has questions about whether John died by suicide. She said he could have had someone kill him, and she believes he attempted to kill himself once before while in prison in Spain, maybe in early 2021. She has theorized the process has been slowed by the courts out of fear that prison officials could be liable for negligence in not putting McAfee on suicide watch. She says she has also heard that two autopsies have been performed on McAfee.
Difficulty in reaching Janice has complicated an already thorny situation. The Spanish court has insisted that Athanasiou represent her client in person or find a local attorney to do so. “We need someone physically there to file documents or formal court actions,” Athanasiou said.
“We have communicated through email as well as online communications systems in Spain, but it does not count as a formal submission,” she added.
The John McAfee tapes
There are several documentaries in motion to chronicle McAfee’s outsize life. The first book to be published is being strongly disputed by family and friends.
In 2019 and 2020, McAfee spoke extensively to Mark Eglinton, a Scottish author of heavy-metal biographies who recorded the conversations with McAfee’s consent. In January, a book based on 30 hours of those interviews with McAfee, “No Domain: The John McAfee Tapes,” was released, earning praise from none other than Steve Bannon, yet drawing scorn from McAfee’s family over alleged inaccuracies, fabrications and myths, including John’s boast that he had 47 children and experienced a three-month drug trip. While under the influence, McAfee claimed he was told by God to kill his mother, wife and daughter.
In a statement to MarketWatch, Jen said the book should not be viewed as biographical but instead as simple entertainment. She said McAfee routinely embellished events to promote himself and his ideals, and that Eglinton’s book makes it incredibly difficult for the reader to dissect truth from fiction.
“While little morsels of truth are scattered throughout, the book is filled with inaccuracies, exaggerations and outright fairy tales. My father was a master manipulator who thrived on having this larger-than-life persona, and the cultlike following it spawned,” Jen said. “I was surprised that author Mark Eglinton did little to separate fact from fiction or even to call my father out on some of the most basic and verifiable untruths.”
Garcia, McAfee’s former business associate, was taken aback by one of the book’s passages, in which McAfee depicted him as an underworld figure from Venezuela. Garcia, who has never been to Venezuela nor spoken to Eglinton, is a Canadian film producer with a media business.
“With John, you had to constantly peel back the layers to find the truth,” Garcia said.
Eglinton, who has sold the documentary and film rights of his book to director Amanda Milius, the daughter of legendary Hollywood screenwriter John Milius (“Apocalypse Now,” “Dirty Harry”), said he was merely presenting the thoughts of the mercurial John McAfee at a time in his life under a question-and-answer format. In a nod to McAfee’s relationship with the truth, Eglinton refers to him as the “King of Misinformation” in the book.
“I understand the skepticism people have about John, as I did myself,” Eglinton told MarketWatch in a Skype interview. “Those weren’t my words. They were John’s. These were his thoughts from 2019 and 2020. His end is a void of unknown, with no end in sight.”