Drawn to Craziness: The artist who brought millionaire fugitive John McAfee to Portland admits he’s getting a bit wigged out himself. (Willamette Week: January 16, 2013)
Along the way, McAfee milked the international media attention, mocking police who sought him and spinning increasingly strange stories about Hezbollah conspiracies and poisoned dogs.
In no time at all, McAfee became the most mysterious and crazy-sounding celebrity since Charlie Sheen.
And now McAfee is here.
As WW first reported last week, the 67-year-old McAfee says he plans to call Portland home for the next year and a half. He slipped into town, seemingly content to wait until the city woke up to his presence.
There’s only one person aside from McAfee who knew his twisted path would lead him here: Chad Essley, an obscure artist raised as a Mormon who is living an otherwise quiet life in Southeast Portland.
And that just creates more mystery: Who the hell is Chad Essley, and how did he get entangled with a Col. Kurtz-like figure notorious for cohabitating with a harem of young women (some former sex workers) before fleeing the law in Central America?
In short, Essley says he had hoped to turn McAfee’s cartoon life into a graphic novel. But in the meantime, McAfee’s story blew up in a way neither expected. Essley now finds himself closely tied to a man who seems to enjoy making himself appear nefarious.
Essley, 41, is soft-spoken and slightly nervous in the way computer and comics geeks often are. He’s been drawing comics since he was a kid growing up in Utah. “I stopped going to church at 12 because it happened when The Brady Bunch was on,” Essley says.
He moved to Portland in 1992, got a job at Kinko’s and drew pictures using Deluxe Paint software on his Amiga computer. There was another local artist using the now-extinct Amiga for animation: Jim Blashfield, director of music videos for artists like Michael Jackson.
Essley joined Blashfield’s studio and later worked at local animation houses such as Will Vinton Studios (now Laika) for clients such as Ritz Crackers and Microsoft.
“Microsoft hired me to work on a kid’s tablet computer and do all the graphics for the game,” he says. “They paid a lot of money, which enabled me to get out and do something on my own.”
“I do these anti-bullying children’s music videos, essentially, that are animated,” he says. “They’re lessons that are sold to schools. It’s pretty fun stuff.”
Essley says his interest in comics has an edgier side.
“My background has always been through studying artists like Robert Crumb and the underground, so in my own personal sketchbooks I’ve always had a little darker tilt,” he says. “And the McAfee story, it’s not for children.”
Two years ago, Essley says he logged into a secret members-only message board and noticed “a guy posting photos of himself driving his boat around and saying he had all these businesses.”
Essley saw a potential wealthy client. So he pitched a Web animation proposal to a man whose identity he didn’t know beyond a screen handle.
The reply from the man on the message board? “‘Sure, do it,’” Essley recalls. “Then he immediately wired me $5,000. All of it. Up front. That’s when I realized who he was.”
The mystery client was John McAfee.
In the 1990s, McAfee sold the antivirus software company that still carries his name for about $100 million. He’s since pursued increasingly eccentric and often unsuccessful ventures before retreating to his Belize estate about five years ago.
McAfee later canceled the animation project but invited Essley to Belize in April. Essley decided to go despite having read about a Belize government raid on McAfee’s estate.
His wife had reservations. “She told John she’d kill him if anything happened to me in Belize,” Essley says.
In Belize, Essley says, he witnessed McAfee’s “peace talks” with a Colombian drug lord he says was later shot by Belize’s Gang Suppression Unit.
He also interviewed six of McAfee’s live-in girlfriends-—some former prostitutes—about the rough upbringings that led to their bleak lives in the sex trade.
Essley says he went to Belize to witness what was going on in McAfee’s life and translate it into humor. He looked the other way even though the vast age differences between the girls and the near-septuagenarian McAfee made him uncomfortable.
In November, police in Belize said McAfee was a “person of interest” in the shooting death of his neighbor, Gregory Faull. McAfee denies having anything to do with Faull’s death but fled Belize into Guatemala to avoid being questioned.
There, authorities arrested and deported him to Miami in December.
McAfee has spun an increasingly bizarre tale of corruption and power that culminated when he wrote a post on his blog Jan. 3 accusing officials in Belize of partnering with Hezbollah to train Lebanese terrorists. He also claimed to have launched a convoluted counter-surveillance campaign of loading laptops with keystroke-monitoring software and giving them to his enemies.
In media reports and interviews, McAfee often seems paranoid. Essley says he knows why, given the government raids on McAfee’s estate and a failed attempt to kill McAfee by one of his girlfriends.
“Shady characters would walk up the beach and approach the house, wanting to talk to John,” Essley says. “After five or six years of living there, and all these raids and being deaf in one ear after [the girlfriend] tried to shoot him, wouldn’t you be a little paranoid?”
It may be rubbing off. As a condition of talking to WW, Essley asked that his photograph not be published with this story.
Essley has big plans for his material. He’s got video footage, photos and recorded interviews in addition to his graphic novel, called The Hinterland.
He and McAfee meet every day now, eating breakfast at Portland restaurants and discussing plans for an animated film version of the graphic novel and a potential video game.
Essley notes that McAfee’s life story has just sold to Hollywood, with Sacha Baron Cohen slated to play McAfee. But the movie was based on a Wired magazine piece.
“Everyone is making money off this story except for John,” Essley says.
Essley claims he has passed up big money, waiting for the right deal.
“I was approached by a literary agent from New York who said, ‘I can get you $500,000 from a publisher for your story,’” Essley says. He says he turned it down.
“Business advice from John: ‘Tell them that’s an insult,’” Essley says. “And I did. Writing that email, as a destitute cartoonist, was possibly the hardest thing I ever did. But he emailed back within a day and said, ‘I apologize, sir. What I meant was seven figures.’”
None of it has materialized yet, leaving Essley with a collection of wild tales, hopes of riches, and his unlikely relationship with McAfee.
“Throughout everything, I am poor,” Essley says, “but I am still a loyal friend.”
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