She shocked the world by helping her husband fake his death in a canoe to cash in his life insurance.
In an extraordinary book first published in 2016, Anne Darwin revealed all. In a previous article, she told how she lied to her weeping sons that their father had died.
Here, she tells how her husband’s plan to live like millionaires in Panama goes horribly wrong…
With the police due to arrive the next day for a forensic search of the house — looking for any clues they might have missed, they said — my husband and I went methodically through every room, making sure there were no tell-tale signs of his presence.
It seemed incredible to me that the police were actually flagging up their visit, but thank God they did.
It was only three days since John had risked returning home, after faking his own death three weeks before by making it look as though he’d accidentally drowned at sea while in his canoe.
Fed up with camping on the beach in the small Cumbrian town of Silloth, more than 100 miles away from where we lived in the seaside resort of Seaton Carew, he had decided, with typical bravado, that the best place for him to hide until I could claim his life insurance money and pay off our £350,000 worth of debt was in the house next door — a house which we owned and was divided into rental bedsits.
However, even John knew it was far too dangerous and far too early to risk hiding next door while the police conducted their search. He wasn’t happy, but he realised his only option was to disappear again. With much grumbling, he booked himself into a B&B in Morpeth, an hour’s train journey north.
One of the first things the police did was to search our bedroom, carefully pulling back the duvet. Obviously there were some officers who felt there was more to John’s disappearance than met the eye.
They went through every drawer, bagging up dozens of letters and bills and taking away John’s computer.
I panicked when they briefly went through the connecting door to the ground floor of next door, and was mightily relieved when they didn’t search all the bedsits — probably because they would have needed individual search warrants.
The whole experience left me badly shaken, and convinced me more than ever that some detectives, at least, were sceptical about John’s vanishing act.
Meanwhile in Morpeth, John was finalising plans for a new identity. Although I didn’t know it at the time, he’d decided to steal the plot from Frederick Forsyth’s The Day Of The Jackal, a book he’d read many times.
He loved how the hero trawled graveyards looking for the headstone of a baby boy who, had he not died, would have been about the same age as the assassin, and whose identity could be adopted.
If it was good enough for the Jackal, then it was good enough for John.
He made an appointment with Morpeth council to search through the genealogy and archives department. There he found exactly what he was looking for: John Jones, born just five months before him in 1950 in Sunderland — where my husband was also born — who had died aged five weeks.
Same first name, common surname. For John, it was perfect. He jotted down the date of birth and reference numbers necessary to get a birth certificate — and sure enough, he duly got what he wanted. The new certificate was folded and refolded many times and rubbed into a grubby bit of carpet to look old and worn. John Jones mark two had been born.
Several days later, when he returned home, my husband joined the library in Hartlepool. He was now taking huge risks, going out and about through the front door of the bedsits, still in his dishevelled disguise and walking with a limp. But he was utterly brazen about it.
On April 22, 2002, John filled in an application form, showed the librarian his fake birth certificate and a tenancy agreement from our bedsits and was told that his membership card would be ready next time he called.
John was well aware that librarians were public figures and able to vouch for people on passport applications. Like so many of us, that librarian was just a pawn in his ruthless game.
As the year progressed and we waited for an inquest to be held, I was a bag of nerves. Only then would the money be released which would settle all our debts. John was constantly moaning about being a prisoner in his own home, and furious that things seemed to be moving so slowly.
Not surprisingly, our relationship deteriorated. We argued all the time about money and John infuriated me with his mood swings. Sometimes he was happy as Larry, confident it was all just a matter of time before things fell into place; at other times he was depressed and miserable.
I lost all interest in our sex life, leaving John — who never seemed to stop thinking about sex — angry and frustrated. He was bored, so began painting the bedsits, pretending to be my odd-job man. He was taking absurd risks, and that none of the residents recognised him as their former landlord is quite staggering.
On April 10, 2003, a coroner finally declared John officially dead. With the death certificate in my hands, the money started to come in. Between May and August that year, I received a total of £90,867 from pension and life insurance policies, and the mortgage protection policy paid out a further £137,400, paying off all but £130,000 of the global mortgage.
John was thrilled. For him, it had all been worth it. He had always been confident of getting away with it, and now he’d been proved right.
‘I’m a genius,’ he’d congratulate himself, seemingly with little regard for his sons, whose hearts he had broken, nor for anyone else.
He now turned his attention to getting a passport, and, thanks to the obliging librarian, obtaining it proved as ridiculously easy as everything else had been.
His plan was to sell up and move his money — and us — safely abroad. A few weeks later, on October 13, a shiny new passport for Mr John Jones arrived in the post. A new phase of our nightmare was beginning.
Eight months later, in June 2004, there was a call from the police. They had some news for me. They’d had a reported sighting of John near our house. Had I heard anything from him?
That phone call threw me into a state of complete and total panic.
Two years after my husband had faked his own death to claim the insurance money, he was taking ridiculous risks every day — wandering around town disguised as a scruffy odd-job man and hoping that no one would recognise him. It was amazing that nothing like this had happened before.
I told the police that I hadn’t seen him, of course, but I was petrified that they would want to come round and turn the house upside down again. If they had knocked on the door that day instead of phoning, I don’t know what I would have done.
It turned out that a former colleague of John’s from the prison where he used to work had spotted my husband walking along the seafront. He’d told the police that the man he’d seen had a long grey beard and resembled Saddam Hussein at the time of his capture, but that he was ‘100 per cent sure’ that it was John Darwin.
My heart was pounding as I put the phone down. How could John be so reckless? After all, apart from the beard, his appearance hadn’t changed all that much.
But rather than coming to the house to check out the sighting, the police fortunately — or perhaps foolishly — simply rang me.
We’d got away with it this time, but clearly we needed an escape route — and, frankly, the sooner the better.
It would be another three years, however, before John could put his master plan of moving us abroad into action. His idea was to get the money we’d falsely claimed — and the two of us — safely out of Britain to a place where, even if our fraud ever came to light, we couldn’t be touched by the authorities.
The country that caught his eye was Panama.
He loved everything he read about the exotic-sounding Central American location: the climate, the scenery, the way of life.
According to one of his guidebooks, the country was famous for attracting ‘adventurers and entrepreneurs, schemers and dreamers, misfits and full-on nutcases’ — and I had to admit he ticked quite a few of those boxes.
Panama really did look like the perfect place for us to start afresh, especially when John found out that if you set up a corporation there your assets couldn’t be touched, even in the case of a legal action from abroad.
‘I’ve hit the jackpot!’ he crowed. It was his sole topic of conversation.
Not that he cared what I thought, but I had serious doubts about whether it was the sort of place you could put down roots and feel it was home. But, as usual, I just went along with things, as I had done for years.
It was long before dawn on the morning of July 12, 2006, when John and I left our home for our first recce visit to Panama.
I must have looked a comical figure as I tiptoed down the steps of our seafront home that morning. I had a good look round, glanced up at the windows of the neighbouring houses, and then, satisfied the coast was clear, went back inside to fetch John.
We grabbed our luggage, loaded it into the boot of the Range Rover and slowly set off across the gravel drive, trying to make as little noise as possible. What a ridiculous, furtive way to carry on — and yet it had been our life for so many years now.
In advance of our visit, John had been corresponding — using a false name, of course — with a man named Mario Vilar, head of a relocation agency in Panama. He’d made all the arrangements for our holiday accommodation, and had plenty of ideas about how to make John’s dream of buying some land and building a property a reality.
A few days into our visit, we went to see Mario in his seventh-floor suite in a high-rise building in the heart of Panama City’s banking district. When he asked if he could have his photo taken with us, we had no time to think or make an excuse as his wife Karina appeared with a Polaroid camera and took the picture.
The date, July 14, 2006, was automatically burned into the front of the photograph in an orange font.
John and I were both conscious that keeping a low profile was very important, but we didn’t have time to object. It was just a memento for Mario, we reassured ourselves, and thereafter we didn’t give it a lot more thought.
Little could we have imagined how that seemingly innocent snap would come back to haunt us 17 months later.
Six months after this, in early 2007, I decided to tell our two sons I was thinking of emigrating.
I said I was fed up with windswept Seaton Carew; that the house held too many unhappy memories of their father and that every day I was forced to look out over the very spot from where he had set out on his ill-fated canoe outing.
‘It’s as if my life is on perpetual hold,’ I said. Now that all the debts were paid off I told them that I would be putting my two remaining properties on the market and starting a new life. It was the only way I would ever get closure, I said.
Though shocked that I — supposedly a widow — was contemplating moving halfway across the world to a place in which I’d never expressed the slightest interest, Anthony and Mark both supported my decision.
It was just another of the wicked lies I told them, which I will regret to my dying day.
Before I left for good, I asked the boys if they would like a keepsake from their father’s possessions. Mark chose a pair of black onyx cufflinks and his wristwatch, while Anthony opted for his pocket watch, wedding ring and passport.
He also selected some books, one of which he later realised had been printed in 2003, long after his dad had supposedly ‘died’. Another had an American sticker on it, and Anthony realised that it must have been bought while his supposedly deceased dad was on his travels.
But at the time of the handover of their beloved father’s personal belongings, the boys were grief-stricken. It was very emotional for me to see their reactions. I was happy that they had something of John’s but I felt awful because I was, yet again, deceiving them.
John, meanwhile, was already back in Panama where he’d found and bought a small apartment for us to live in while we looked for a place to build our dream home.
During this period, he was constantly bombarding me with instructions in preparation for our move — emails that were frequently saucy and full of sexual innuendo. He even claimed to have written some of them while sitting on the balcony in the nude.
The very thought disgusted me. My husband appeared to be becoming more insane by the day.
But when I finally moved out to join him in the autumn of 2007, the picture changed totally. After six long years of hiding, we could live openly together as man and wife. It was lovely, and I was very happy.
For the first time in years, John seemed relaxed again. It was as if our marriage was reborn; as if a huge weight had been lifted from both of our shoulders. It was the first time I had felt normal in a very long time.
The flat was a modern, top-floor apartment in a four-storey block in a city suburb called El Dorado. I was particularly pleased because there was a small Catholic church within walking distance. That had always been one of my top requirements when looking for a flat.
There was a large, open-plan lounge/diner with a cloakroom off, a large, fully-equipped kitchen with white units, and two bedrooms, one with en-suite shower room. Leading off the lounge was a balcony covered with pot plants, which was a very pleasant space to relax.
We soon settled into our new way of life, rising early and starting the day on the patio with a breakfast of yoghurt and fresh fruit — peaches, melons, mangoes, papaya (my favourite) and bananas.
I would potter around the apartment, usually in my bikini, then make the most of the tropical climate by sunbathing on the terrace for an hour or so before the heat became too intense.
I marvelled at the exotic, brightly coloured birds I saw from the terrace: parakeets and tiny hummingbirds. It was like having our own personal wildlife display.
Not that the show from our balcony was anything compared with what lay in store for us on the plot of rugged land which John had agreed to buy at a cost of $389,000 in Escobal, a small rural village on the shores of Lake Gatun, two hours’ drive from the capital.
It was at the northern end of the Panama Canal, on the country’s north coast. It was partly jungle — there were steep ravines and swamps — but there were also wide open spaces and some of the land bordered the shores of the lake, meaning it would be ideal for boating.
Talk about rose-tinted spectacles. It covered a huge area (481 acres) but there was no running water or electricity and the road to it was rutted with potholes.
As per usual, though, John wasn’t about to let reality get in the way of his dreams. His plan was to build an eco-tourist resort there, where we’d rear animals and grow fruit to feed our guests the freshest, most perfect organic produce imaginable.
He also wanted to spend a further $100,000 building a villa, Jaguar Lodge, where we’d live while developing the resort. And when he’d heard there were plans afoot to build an international airport at the region’s main city, Colon, and another bridge over the canal, making the area far more accessible, his mind was made up.
It would mean that land prices would shoot up, he’d told me — so we’d better move fast.
‘It will soon be worth millions,’ he bragged. ‘And we’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.’
It was a massive project he was planning — in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language and wouldn’t be able to communicate with the builders.
But the land was, I had to admit, truly gorgeous: home to howler monkeys, tapirs, wild boar, toucans and butterflies galore. On one visit there, for the first time in years, we felt happy to pose for photographs. At last, we thought, we really were anonymous.
It wasn’t long before the honeymoon was over. John began criticising me for opening what he thought were the wrong sort of Panamanian bank accounts. As far as he was concerned, I could never get things right.
He returned to his old self — and I realised I’d been naïve to think it would be any different.
Then John dropped a bombshell. He told me there’d been a change in the law and anyone wanting to be granted permanent resident status would, without exception, need a letter from the police force in their home country, stating that they were ‘a person of good character’. Without that, foreigners would only be able to visit on a tourist visa, like the one John held, allowing a stay of only three months at a time.
John knew that getting a reference letter from Cleveland Police would be an impossibility; he was there under a false identity and the kind of checks needed for a reference would reveal this.
What’s more, the Panamanian government were planning a crackdown on foreign nationals overstaying their welcome, and anyone found to be repeatedly renewing their tourist visa to stay in the country illegally would face arrest.
John simply wouldn’t be able to pop over the border to neighbouring Costa Rica every three months to renew his visa any more.
I was astonished to learn that John had known about this for four months — and hadn’t said a word. That’s when he came up with yet another insane plan: he was going to ‘come back to life’.
He said he’d have to go back to the UK and reinvent himself as John Darwin, so that he could return to Panama with his real identity re-established.
For a while I was speechless. ‘How?’ I finally managed to ask.
Simple, he said. He would claim that he had amnesia. He thought that if he went back saying he’d lost his memory and remembered nothing for the past seven years, it would all be fine.
I told him he was crazy. But, as usual, he didn’t listen. He was sure he knew best.
- Anne Darwin will donate any proceeds from the book to the RNLI and the RSPCA.
Adapted from OUT OF MY DEPTH, by Anne Darwin with David Leigh, published by Mirror Books. To order a copy for £8.09, call 020 3308 9193 or visit the Mail Bookshop. P&P free on orders over £25.