At the Q&A following the premiere of Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, a question came from the front of the audience: now that the film was out, was the director Nanette Burstein concerned for her safety? “We do have security here,” Burstein said, “there were some threats made by his acolytes threatening they were going to come.” It wasn’t clear whether Burstein was joking, and a patter of uneasy laughter rippled across the room. “Fortunately,” she said scanning the theater, “it seems okay.”
Burstein has reason to be wary. Over the course of an hour a half, her documentary (a Showtime Documentary Film, premiering September 24th) lays out a searing body of evidence that suggests McAfee not only paid a hitman $5,000 to torture and kill his neighbor Greg Faull in Belize, but that he also had David Middleton, a local who had robbed his home, abducted, mutilated with knives and tasers, and dumped on the street to die. In addition, the film alleges McAfee drugged and raped his business partner Allison Adonizio. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, may be the most unexpectedly damning documentary since Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx.
Gringo opens on police car dashboard footage of McAfee’s from the summer of 2015, when McAfee was arrested for driving armed and under the influence. "You probably know about me," he tells his arresting officers. When they say they don’t, he launches into a glorified autobiography. Later, he points the officers to an article about himself that he keeps in his car.
McAfee is a master at framing his own narrative, baiting and manipulating media into complicity. The McAfee antivirus empire was built on its founder’s calculated media fearmongering about Michelangelo, an early '90s virus that he threatened would cripple thousands, if not millions, of machines. (Only a few hundred were infected.) And in the three decades since he’s entered the public spotlight, his story has been told and retold often, most memorably in a 2012 Wired profile by Joshua Davis.
McAfee is a master at framing his own narrative
In 2009, McAfee told reporters that the previous year's market collapse had devastated his finances, and he sold off his properties. (Later he said he’d lied about the loss of his fortune.) He shuffled off to Belize, where he built a compound, and focused on a pharmaceutical operation that would harness the properties of local plants. But things took a dark turn — the pharmaceutical enterprise failed, and reports emerged of McAfee steeping himself in lurid activities: fostering a harem of teenage girlfriends, associating with armed criminals, and establishing an armed force to protect himself and harass a nearby village. He was, by all accounts, engaged in paranoid and delusional behavior. The local politicians were after him, he said, as were the gangs. Then, in the winter of 2012, McAfee’s neighbor Gregory Faull — who’d previously butted heads with McAfee — turned up dead, taser marks scarring his body and a gunshot wound to the head. Alleging he’d been framed, McAfee fled, illegally crossing the border into Guatemala before finally returning to the US in 2012.
All this would seem like insurmountable disgraces, but in the last four years McAfee has, remarkably, reinvented himself. All the accusations out of Belize have been cast as some unfortunate tropical nightmare and he is, once again, the respectable, if eccentric, godfather of cybersecurity, often called upon as an expert on cable news networks. In late 2015 he announced his candidacy for the 2016 presidential election on a Libertarian ticket. (Though he never secured the nomination, he made a respectable showing.) And in May 2016 he became the CEO of a small tech outfit in Virginia, pushing the company’s stock up 700 percent on the strength of his name alone. Out of the ashes, McAfee rises again.
But Burstein still wanted to know: what actually happened in Belize?
The documentarian traveled to Belize for three months late last year, sitting down with those McAfee spent his time with — from his masseuse, local journalists, and his girlfriends to his bodyguards, the town mayor, and others. What emerges is a shocking portrayal of an expat whose activities weren’t just questionable, but sadistic, psychotic, and outright villainous. Burstein (who directed the 2002 Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture) is a dogged documentarian, confronting those at the center of the alleged murders and placing herself in the middle of a series of unsolved crimes.
When I spoke to her the day after the Gringo's debut at TIFF, Burstein said McAfee had harassed her through the film’s production and post-production. Even that morning, hours after the premiere, Burstein says she received an email with the subject line "You are a horrible person." The email threatened to dig through her past. "If I can’t find anything, I’ll make it up," she recounts the email. "We are watching you…"
"It didn’t say, I am John McAfee, but it sounded like him," she told me. "That weighs on me because I get these emails a lot. They don’t stop."
Michael Zelenko: When did you first start following McAfee?
Nanette Burstein: I’d been following John’s story since he was fleeing to Guatemala and I read that Wired piece. Being a documentary film maker you get fascinated with these types of stories. [But] I didn’t pursue anything at the time. Then I was approached two years ago — Spike was doing a series where they wanted to do something on John… following him day to day as a parallax view: is he paranoid? Or [are] the Belizean government and cartels actually after him? They sent me some footage that they had shot and I thought, I don’t get this.
A year later, Jeff Wise, who is a journalist who’d been following [McAfee for] years, shot some footage. Because he’d written about John so often, people came out of the woodwork… to say, I have a lot more to this story that you should know about. And so he shot a couple interviews. And because he’s a journalist and not a filmmaker, they contacted me — Showtime was interested. And then I became very interested and I decided to take it on.
The story had been told so many times before, what convinced you that there was something more here? That you weren’t going to be retelling the McAfee narrative?
Well, I started spending a lot of time in Belize. I knew that the Middleton murder was something new. As I got more into it I realized, Wow, there’s a bigger story here. I did learn a lot of unexpected things … Alison’s story — I knew that he had business with her but I had no idea about the whole story until we started talking a lot. And then what happened with the Gregory Faull case also came as a surprise. There was a lot of learning in the moment. At first I thought maybe this would just be a character study with one new thing to add to it.
You only spent three months in Belize — how did you build trust with the your subjects within that time? Did they have concerns for their own safety?
Yes, they did. [With] some people, there was no way they were going to talk to me.
[Belize] is very small country, only 300,000 people. And then you’re talking about these very small areas. So maybe three months isn’t a long time, but when you’re down there and you make yourself known, and you’ve met people who know them well, it sort of happens. The [girlfriends] weren’t commenting on the murders — they were just commenting on their own personal experiences. There’s a youth and naïveté about it.
Other people felt really burned by what had happened to them. Eddie [McAfee’s body guard] felt like his life was at risk, Cash [a member of McAfee’s staff] had gone to jail. When John went on the run, they arrested the people in his house. Cash was there and there were illegal guns in the house — he went to jail for three months, just for being there.
McAfee refused to be in your documentary, but he continued to email you, sometimes obsessively. Why do you think he did that?
It was weird. I have so many more emails than were in the film. And now he’s claiming that he never personally wrote me these emails. But at the same time he’d write me emails and say "my fingers are sore" and then call me on the phone. So it’s hard for me to believe that I was catfished. Sometimes they were friendly, sometimes they were threatening, sometimes they were nonsensical — like, I don’t even know what you’re saying. He had a huge grudge against this guy Jeff Wise, who stepped back from the project, but he never believed me about that. He always had this narrative that Jeff had concocted this whole project and that I was just stupid and naive beyond belief.
Ultimately, do you feel like McAfee is a dangerous character?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I don’t think he’s committed any crimes in the States — I think he recognizes that there’s a difference between [these] places. Belize has a different economic bracket, a different culture, a different way of investigating crimes. It’s very different than the US and I think he made a judgement call when he was there that he would not make here — I hope. But at the same time, you never know. I guess we’ll find out.
Do feel that McAfee is guilty of the three crimes you’ve laid out?
Yes, I think so. With Allison, yes. With Middleton, yes. With Gregory Faull, I think so. There’s certain things I can’t check. I can’t check Eddie’s alibi. I’m not an FBI agent. I can’t go and subpoena bank records. I can lay out my theory, which is a huge responsibility in making sure that I think that’s true. But at the same time, I’d like a real investigative unit to take it from there and do things I can’t do.
But it’s challenging. How well is any DNA evidence preserved? I don’t know. I know that the FBI has been investigating it, but unfortunately it was much later that they were called in to do it — it was only this year. In the beginning, it would’ve been a different situation.
Why do you think the media was so ready to close the chapter on McAfee’s time in Central America?
Because we live in a 24-hour news cycle. Once you get your headline you move onto the next thing. Who’s going to be crazy enough to spend three months in Belize and find out what really happened with something that occurred four years ago?
He was [at the point that I started shooting] running as a Libertarian candidate — he’d just announced … In some ways that felt really important to me. This guy is running for president as a serious Libertarian candidate. And now he’s a CEO. And as I was investigating this, his star was rising in the media. I had him on Google Alerts and there would be 5 [stories] a day — he’s talking about the iPhone hack, or he’s talking about WhatsApp, or he’s doing this, or he’s running here. He’s no longer in the Cyber Party, now he’s a Libertarian candidate. It was all coinciding at the same time. But this is where documentaries are filling in a hole in journalism. Which is unfortunate, and it’s because our culture changed, the way the media’s changed, it doesn’t follow up in this investigative way.
Is there something unique about John that let him get away with these possible crimes?
Well, he’s very good with the media. That is one of his fortes. He’s very charming, he caters to the press. But he also knows how to spin yarns and it makes for a good story. He’ll say, I lost all my money, and then he’ll say, Oh I made all that up. Or, I posted 100 times on this drug website about using bath salts — but I made that up too! He presents himself as this titillating subject, but then pulls back from it. [He’s] like Teflon because of that — nothing sticks. He’s just good at spinning, and he has made it an art since his Silicon Valley days.
It sounds maddening to an observer — either he’s a psychopath, or he’s incredibly calculating.
I think he’s very calculating, but I also think he may be a loose cannon to a degree. At least these days he’s always on top of what he should be doing and when he should be doing it. I think that he does rely on certain tropes still. For example, he went and hired someone to interview people in Belize and say that I paid them all to create this fiction. Three of those people I’d never met in my life, and they were like, ‘Yeah, Showtime interviewed me. They wanted me to say that John killed Gregg F.’ I was like, I’ve never even met you. Some of these people I did, after the fact, end up licensing photos from. I’ll be first to admit that, and that’s generally a practice that’s done. But I didn’t pay people for interviews, or pay them to lie on camera.
"He’s said it to me before: If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll take you down."
But he paid them $1,200 each to do this. I called a couple of those people that I did interview and I was like, 'Why would you say this?' And I recorded those phone calls. And they were like, ‘They paid me $1,200 and I needed the money.’ That’s crazy — he’s doing what he’s accusing me of doing. That is so John McAfee.
What’s been his reaction to the film?
Well, that ‘you are a horrible person.’
So you really think those emails last night were from him?
I do. Yes. But of course he can’t email me because he’s pretending he never emailed me. He can’t not email me. I’ve gotten emails also from his acolytes now. Now that he’s pretending that he never emailed me, I’m starting to get these people coming out of the woodwork, writing to me, yelling at me. Including his current wife, who I hold no grudge against at all, calling me a b-i-t-c-h every other sentence. And he has a very different voice than that — a very specific [written] voice. Very specific. So I can tell it was him [last night].
He’s said it to me before: If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll take you down. He’s now echoing that. He said that to me in May and then he forgot for a while. So I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve done a film where I don’t have a close personal relationship with the subject. I have a strange cyber relationship. So it’s very hard to gauge.
Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee debuts on Showtime September 24th.
Update: This piece has been updated to credit Showtime Documentary Films.