We go on a double-date with John McAfee and Samantha Vanegas
When John McAfee sent me a mysterious text message asking me to leave the country with him with a wad of dirty cash in my shirt pocket and no assurances on where I was going, I just hoped I'd come back alive. But sitting in a vanilla hotel room with him and his taciturn bride, oh, what I'd give for a car chase. Or a speedboat accident. Or a meth lab explosion or bath salts overdose. Alas, it turns out the man whose life is dangerous and exciting enough to warrant two film deals has an irrepressibly mundane quality. Hanging with John McAfee is – his quips about partner swapping and anal sex aside – surprisingly like spending a day with your weird uncle at the mall.
Nevertheless, here he is, laughing at me.
In my search for the purpose of this trip out of the country, I had picked up on clues I was sure he’d left on purpose, clues that led to his impending marriage to Samantha Vanegas. But no.
“If I wanted to hide something, I wouldn’t leave a bag in the car,” McAfee says with a mixture of offense and pride. What I had thought was a crafty series of hints turned out to be nothing at all. “We won’t get married this weekend,” he continues, “We will be married, but on our own terms.”
The expensive ring on Sam’s finger? Just a gift. But if McAfee didn’t bring my partner and me here to document his wedding and subsequent importation of his Belizean bride, then what the hell are we doing here in the Caribbean? I’m still convinced that something crazy is going to happen on this trip, but so far it’s been surprising placid. No illegal border crossings, no sudden elopements, no shady dealings with thugs of any kind. I was kind of hoping he brought two journalists all this way so we could document something – anything – exciting. With him there always seems to a threatening undercurrent. But lately it’s been all innuendo and foreplay but no action.
Is John McAfee getting soft?
It’s Sunday, and we leave tomorrow. Susan and I are at McAfee’s hotel, setting up chairs for a formal taped interview. Sam is lounging on a loveseat biting her elaborate acrylic nails and swinging her foot over crossed legs, looking every bit the bored teenager. Several times during this trip I’ve been struck by just how young she is. I know McAfee’s into deviant sex and all, and the adoration between Sam and he does appear to be legit, but I can’t help feeling like the age difference is just creepy. I excuse myself to the bathroom, hoping to snoop around and find something worthwhile. I’m opening drawers and cabinet doors as quietly as possible when I notice a plastic bag on a linen chest. I flip over the bag. Ah ha! Finally.
Inside are a syringe, and a couple of small vials of liquid.
At last, evidence that McAfee is on drugs. But further inspection reveals a total letdown: The vials are medically prescribed testosterone. I go back into the main room. “Hey John,” I ask point blank, “Why do you have a bag of testosterone? It was sitting right out in the open.” He smiles and I get the feeling I’m being laughed at again. “I’m an old man,” McAfee explains, “I have to take hormones.” If nothing else, I’ve figured out how a 67-year-old guy can juggle 10 Central American girlfriends in their 20s. I feel like a failed pseudo-sleuth. Nothing about this trip is nearly as bombastic as I’d anticipated.
With the cameras rolling, we sit down to start the “official” interview. Sam is quiet at first, letting McAfee talk about her future plans. “I’ve enrolled her in a jewelry-making school in Portland,” he says, “They learn how to set stones, cast gold. It’s a good job, a good future.”
But when Sam’s asked what she wants to do, she says her dream is to become a lawyer: “I want to finish my education. I don’t think I will want to go back to Belize. Belize is my past and I’m looking for the future.” She won’t miss her family, she says, because “I do not have a close connection to them. I was separated from them for a while. It’s a long story.” But her family is woven through the McAfee story: Her Guatemalan uncle is one of McAfee’s lawyers, and her dad helped the couple escape during a police raid. Does she want to talk about it? A pained look crosses Sam’s face but then she smiles awkwardly. “No, I would not like to.”
Instead, she talks about first meeting McAfee. “Everybody was talking about this white guy,” she says with emphasis, “This white guy that feeds kids to crocodiles. I wanted to know who is this guy, and I needed a job. I did not finish my high school.” Sam went with a friend to McAfee’s house and asked for him. “Then I saw this white guy coming with a gun holster. I was freaked out,” she says.
McAfee admits, "I did run around armed constantly,” and attributes his initial reputation in Carmelita to the fact that “I was the only white man there, and the assumption was that I had to have some cojones.” The “fearsome guards and 15 vicious dogs” at the compound didn’t hurt. McAfee says he only armed himself and his guards because, he says, “Orange Walk is a very high-crime district. People are very poor and will kill you for $10.” He claims his life was threatened many times.
I ask Sam to verify whether Belize is that violent: “Yes. You can expect anything from Belize. It’s very dangerous, even though it’s a small country. But people are very bad over there.” A subtle sadness grows across her face. With raised eyebrows, she nods her head and fidgets a bit in her chair. At 19, what has Samantha Vanegas experienced of the world already?
McAfee says the violence and corruption of Belize is the price paid to be in “the most beautiful place in the world. But I didn’t survive it, so here I am.” I ask about the troubles of the past year and what led him to flee. “The troubles really started last April, when they stormed my compound, kept me handcuffed for 14 hours, and didn’t charge me with anything.” He says the party demanded a bribe (couched as a “donation to the party”) and offered him “all kinds of benefits” in return, and when he replied that he wasn’t interested, the harassment began. McAfee says he went to the international press to try and get the party off his back, an approach that seems to have backfired and steamrolled into a deadly game of dueling espionage between McAfee and the Belizean government.
He says he knew the big October raid was coming because “I had everyone in the country wired,” and told Samantha what night the raid was supposed to occur. He didn’t know the expected time, and Sam’s father agreed to keep watch two miles down the beach. Sam says she answered the phone when her dad called in the raid at 4:40am and passed it off to McAfee, who says he heard “Eight police, two golf carts, automatic weapons, dressed in black” come from the other end of the line. Without a shirt or shoes, McAfee grabbed a pistol and Sam’s hand, and the two ran north on the beach under cover of night.
The rest of the story has been well documented: McAfee went into hiding, was pursued by coast guard “frog men,” Gregory Faull was murdered, and the blame directed his way. Somehow at the tail end of our decade’s greatest real-life spy thriller, he ended up in Portland, Oregon – and I ended up on a tropical island with him and his girlfriend.
After the interview, everyone is hungry. We head to a local fish place on the waterfront. Susan and I sit across from McAfee, who’s dressed in a half-open white linen shirt, and Sam, all 80 lbs of her twinkling in a long white dress dotted with sinewy lines of red sequins. After we order, Sam leaps up and runs away from the table, causing McAfee to track her nervously with his eyes. She comes back with four individual roses wrapped in plastic tubes, bought from one of the many nomadic vendors who stroll about hawking their wares, occasionally whispering “I got that weed” as you pass by – and begins daintily placing the flowers one at a time next to our plates.
“It would have been rude to only get one for John,” Sam says.
“Aw, how romantic,” I say, and realize this may be the oddest of all the moments I have spent on my month-long voyage with John McAfee.
During the past month, I’ve accompanied him to various odd locations, interviewed the graphic novelist working on his biography, been targeted by his stalker, gotten calls from Portland escorts who claimed McAfee as a client, and received email from people basically looking to get their hands on McAfee’s money. Now, it appears, we are on a double date. I point this out to McAfee, who grumbles, “I don’t understand the concept of the double date. If you don’t swap at the end, what’s the point?”
When Susan and I get back to our own hotel later that night, I’m exhausted. McAfee’s intensity, his crazy stories and constant boasting, it wears on me. I still can’t quite figure out why we are on this island. It’s a mystery how all the events of the past month led here.
Guess it’s just another day in the life of a couple of 30-something Portland lesbians, a 19-year old Belizean exile escaping poverty as well as her country, and a horny old man who was once one of the world’s richest software developers.
[Photos by Susan Martin]