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Icarus Descending

The long, strange fall of software mogul John McAfee,
and his detour through Rodeo, NM.

by David A. Fryxell

 

 

Before John McAfee was the world's most prominent techno-fugitive, on the run from authorities in Belize for questioning in the fatal shooting of his neighbor and profiled in Wired (a ebook special) and the New York Times (front of the Sunday Business section and two solid pages inside), he was a minor celebrity in Rodeo, NM. This was, of course, after McAfee founded and sold — for $100 million — the antivirus-software company that still bears his name.

mcafee
McAfee in 2007, before relocating to Belize — and trouble.

What brought McAfee and some 200 fellow "Sky Gypsies," ages 11 to 84, to a remote corner of southwest New Mexico was "aerotrekking," zipping in and out of desert canyons in souped-up ultralight aircraft. "It's the dream that Icarus had — to fly like a bird," McAfee told me in the fall of 2007, when I interviewed him ("The Dream of Icarus," November 2007).

That dream also had a deadly downside. The year before, McAfee's 22-year-old nephew and a 61-year-old flight student, Robert Gilson, had been killed when they inexplicably flew into the side of a canyon on a calm day. In April 2008, McAfee was named in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Gilson's family. (The plaintiffs' attorney, Frank Fleming, called me out of the blue in April 2011, cheerfully announcing he was going to "ruin my day" by subpoenaing me, if necessary, to testify to the facts in my article about McAfee. After I cited press-shield laws, while expressing a willingness to attest to the accuracy of the article in a notarized statement, I have not heard further from Fleming.)

Fleming recently told the Times that he thinks the lawsuit was a factor in McAfee's decision to relocate to Belize: "I think he believes that because the US and Belize don't have a bilateral treaty, a judgment in a US court is worthless in Belize. I don't think he's right about that."

That's a moot point, as in mid-December McAfee returned to the US — after escaping to Guatemala, where apparently he faked a heart attack to buy time. The 67-year-old McAfee is now trying to get his 20- and 17-year-old girlfriends to America.

 

On Belize's Ambergris Caye, in any case, McAfee found far more serious trouble than a lawsuit. Whatever his motivations for moving there, he sold all his US property, the last piece being the Rodeo ranchland, auctioned off in 2009. He claimed to have lost most of his fortune in the recession, his net worth down to $4 million.

In Belize, according to the Times, the "priapic 67-year-old, with an improbable mop of blond-highlighted hair and a rotating group of young girlfriends," may have experimented with MDPV, a powerful psychoactive drug. Or maybe his online interest in the drug was an elaborate prank, fodder for his blog. Belize's prime minister, Dean Barrow, called McAfee "bonkers."

It is clear that McAfee had words with Gregory Viant Faull, a 52-year-old American neighbor who complained about McAfee's noisy dogs. Then several of the dogs were poisoned. Then, on Nov. 11, Faull was found shot dead, lying in a pool of blood in his house. His laptop and iPhone were missing, and a 9-millimeter shell was found nearby. Police announced that McAfee was "a person of interest" in the case.

McAfee "quickly melted into the island's lush green jungle," according to the Times. Even as 20 police officers and members of Belize's Gang Suppression Unit pursued him, McAfee kept up a string of high-tech communications with the press, protesting his innocence and expressing fears that Belize authorities were seeking to frame and/or kill him.

 

None of the recent press reports sound much like the genial guy who offered to take me up in a "kite plane" over New Mexico's Chiricahua Mountains. (I politely declined.) McAfee had discovered aerotrekking on a 2002 flight to Nepal with his then-girlfriend Jennifer Irwin, 22, while reading the inflight magazine. They moved to Arizona to learn to fly ultralights, then began searching for a place to build an airstrip.

McAfee and Irwin spent a total of 17 weeks driving a yellow Hummer across the desert in search of a site removed enough from civilization to base the "Sky Gypsies." He explained the decision to pick Rodeo: "There are other, less-populous areas, in Nevada and Utah, but here you have mountains, desert, playas, canyons — it's so varied and beautiful, it makes every day a different day when you fly. You could spend a month here and go to a different place every day."

He built a 7,200-foot airstrip outside of town and ultimately invested nearly $12 million in a network of ultralight landing spots — an 1,100-mile circuit throughout southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona.

To keep the Sky Gypsies fed and entertained between flights, McAfee also created a café serving espresso, quiche and imported soft drinks and hosting Friday-night karaoke. He opened a 35-seat "Galaxy Cinema" movie theater showing foreign films and pre-1945 Hollywood classics from his 6,000-DVD collection. He housed his buddies in 15 gleamingly restored Airstream trailers, each paired with an antique auto of precisely matching vintage.

Neighbors in Rodeo and nearby Portal, Ariz., didn't quite know what to make of all this. After complaints about the buzzing of ultralights overhead, McAfee began inviting folks over for flights and movies, whose showings were advertised at the post office in Rodeo.

 

Other than the recession, it's not clear what happened to turn this cheerful "Sky Gypsy" into the "horrible neighbor" with guns, armed guards, prostitutes and noisy dogs described in the New York Times. Always a thrill-seeker, maybe John McAfee just got bored.

Or perhaps he failed to take his own advice and didn't foresee how badly his Belize foray would all turn out — he didn't think far enough ahead. On that sunny morning in 2007, he'd told me, "The problem with the Western world is that we don't think far ahead enough. People are ambitious, wanting to get ahead in business, and that becomes their life. Then they retire, get a gold watch, and what the heck do they do now?"

He'd also told me, however, "I encourage young people to really think about their lives. It's not just about getting lots of stuff right now. Life is a lot bigger than that. You have to recognize opportunity as it floats by.... Life is a very fluid thing. Sometimes if you're willing to abandon something you hold dearly on an off chance to grasp what's floating by, you'll be more satisfied. Life becomes a moveable feast."

But sometimes you should just stay put and be satisfied with what you have. Sometimes you should let that "off chance" float on by. Maybe John McAfee should have stayed in New Mexico, with the canyons and the coyotes, up in the clouds like Icarus.

 

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.His original story on John McAfee is available online at www.desertexposure.com/200711/200711_mcafee_icarus.php.

 

 

The Tumbleweeds Top 10

 

Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. With election news fading, we can start worrying about whether Virgin Galactic will stiff New Mexico and our brand-new Spaceport.

    1. (3) New Mexico wolves — 9,550 hits (▲)
    2. (4) New Mexico drought — 7,030 hits (▲)
    3. (-) New Mexico spaceport — 5,001 hits (▲)
    4. (-) Virgin Galactic — 4,150 hits (▲)
    5. (-) New Mexico Bowl — 3,860 hits *
    6. (5) Gov. Susana Martinez — 1,890 hits (▼)
    7. (2) Ex-Gov. Gary Johnson + president — 1,460 hits (▼)
    8. (-) Sen. Tom Udall — 1,010 hits (▲)
    9. (-) Richard Branson + New Mexico — 1,002 hits (▲)
    10. (6) Ex-Gov. Bill Richardson — 933 hits (▼)



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