The row of imposing Victorian houses in Seaton Carew, County Durham, offered a breathtaking panoramic view over the beach and the North Sea coast. Husband and wife Anne and John Darwin lived at No3 The Cliff – a seven bedroom property with large rooms and historic charm.
They also owned the neighboring house at number 4, which had been converted into sleeping quarters. It was part of the couple’s real estate rental business, which included several other single-family homes in the area.
Hartlepool-born Darwin, 51, had been a teacher for 18 years but in 2002 he was working as a prison officer at HM Prison Holme House in Stockton. Anne, 50, was a doctor’s assistant. The couple had been married for 30 years and had two sons, Mark, 26, and Anthony, 23.
Darwin drove a Range Rover with a personal number plate and Anne attended church regularly. They were a picture of seriousness. Then, on March 21, 2002, at 9:30 p.m., Anne reported her husband missing.
She said Darwin finished a shift in prison and went out to sea in his red canoe, named the Orca, at 4:30 p.m. But he hadn’t returned. A massive search was launched, with police and coastguards combing over 60 miles of coastline.
Despite air searches and five RNLI lifeboats working for hours, Darwin could not be found. By the next evening only a single paddle had been found and the search was called off.
It was determined that although the water was calm when Darwin paddled out to sea, he must have gotten into trouble and most likely drowned.
Anne was dismayed by the tragedy, as were her two sons. While they were hoping for a miracle, Darwin’s battered canoe washed ashore.
The sad tale was widely shared and the public had nothing but sympathy for the heartbroken Anne, who tearfully waited for the sea to give up her husband’s body while she supported her grieving sons.
“All I want is to bury his body. It would allow me to move on,” she emotionally told reporters. “It’s difficult to grieve without bringing things to an end, but as it is, I’m in limbo.”
Life insurance payout
In April 2003, Darwin was pronounced dead and a death certificate issued. It allowed Anne to claim Darwin’s life insurance payout along with benefits from his pension and mortgage insurance. The total ended up being well over £500,000.
It made Anne a wealthy widow, but no one doubted that she would rather have Darwin back. Most believed that she and Darwin were already doing well, but it turned out they weren’t.
In fact, before Darwin disappeared, he and Anne were in deep financial trouble, having bought the two oceanfront properties a year earlier and overextended themselves. They were in debt and faced bankruptcy.
The £500,000 payout had solved all their problems. If only Darwin had lived to reap the benefits…
It was only him. And the true story of what happened to him was so shocking that it still captures the public’s imagination to this day. Darwin had faked his own death and his wife was his accomplice.
On the morning Darwin disappeared, there were phone calls between the Darwins’ home and the medical center where Anne worked. On one of those calls, Darwin said to Anne, “That’s it… pick me up later.” Their conspiracy went into action.
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Darwin climbed into his canoe and paddled to North Gare, where he hid in a tent on the shore. He pushed his empty canoe out to sea again. As agreed, Anne picked him up in her Skoda at 6pm and dropped him off at Durham station. She then returned home to report him missing.
Darwin made his way to the Lake District, where he lay low and waited for the dust to settle. He grew a long beard and began to walk with a limp. Anne barely recognized him when she went to pick him up and take him back to No3 The Cliff.
Brazen Darwin continued to live in the family home. If anyone showed up, including his two sons, they would enter a secret passage hidden behind a fake backed cabinet that led to #4 next door.
Find a fake identity
Darwin’s sons mourned their father, unaware that he was still alive, and even went public. Darwin pulled a hat over his head and hobbled down to the beach with a cane to go for a walk.
He discovered through old records that a baby had been born five months before him and had died when he was only a few months old. So he took the name John Jones and used it to get a birth certificate and passport.
There were a few close encounters. Once Darwin was spotted by an old fellow prisoner, but Anne convinced him it was just a cousin who looked like him.
There was also a tenant in No4 who came across Darwin and said, “Shouldn’t you be dead?” But he didn’t want to interfere and didn’t report it.
Fresh start abroad
Anne and Darwin decided to start a new life abroad, eventually settling in Panama, Central America. Darwin sent for property details and in July 2006 they flew off to look for a piece of land to build on.
There they posed for a photo next to a real estate agent. He put it on his website and it would come back to haunt the fugitive couple.
Then, just as their escape plan materialized, Darwin had a massive change of heart and decided he could no longer live a lie. On December 1, 2007, he entered a London police station and told officers, “I think I’m a missing person.”
Darwin said he had amnesia and claimed he couldn’t remember his life before the year 2000. When news of his reappearance broke after five years, his sons were thrilled.
Anne was traced back to Panama and she told reporters it was incredible news. But immediately the police were suspicious of the man who had come back from the dead.
And the photo of Darwin and Anne posing together in Panama proved that Anne knew her husband wasn’t dead – and that Darwin was lying.
On December 5 Darwin was arrested and charged with fraud and using false information to apply for a passport. Anne flew back to the UK and was arrested at the airport.
Detectives quickly cleared Darwin’s sons of any involvement in the elaborate plan. They had been deceived and the public was appalled that two parents would do this to their children.
In March 2008, Darwin pleaded guilty to seven counts of obtaining cash through fraud and a passport offense. Anne pleaded not guilty to deception and charges of using criminal property.
Anne said Darwin forced her to go along with the plan. But even her sons testified against her, and she was found guilty of helping her husband fake his own death.
Darwin was sentenced to six years and three months while Anne received six years and six months. They were sent to separate prisons and divorced.
After both serving less than three years, Darwin and Anne were released in 2011. Both had to pay back over £679,000.
Anne, now 69, earned skills in prison that allowed her to start a new life by working at an animal shelter while trying to rebuild her relationship with her sons.
Meanwhile, Darwin was still looking for his next adventure. In 2013, he was arrested on his return from Ukraine, where he had met a woman he met online. At this point, he should not leave the country.
Darwin, 71, now lives in the Philippines with his new wife Mercy, 48.
A four-part ITV drama series, The thief, his wife and the canoebegins tonight at 9 p.m., with Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan playing the couple.
20 years later, Anne and John Darwin’s daring conspiracy is still making headlines. Whether it was sheer cunning or just luck, Darwin tricked many people. His plan was to disappear, but his obvious need for attention meant he would never sneak away quietly.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/inside-canoe-man-john-darwins-26699326 In canoeist John Darwin's conspiracy to fake his own death - and an extraordinary new life