She shocked the world by helping her husband fake his death in a canoe in order to cash in his life insurance.
In an extraordinary book published in 2016, Anne Darwin revealed all. Here, she tells how she and her husband made a last-ditch attempt to save their skin — and the awful consequences for their children . . .
London, Saturday, December 1, 2007
Even among the hordes of Christmas shoppers, the balding, suntanned man in his 50s must have looked somewhat out of place as he wandered aimlessly around a Topshop store in Oxford Street in London’s West End.
He seemed confused and, when an assistant asked if he was all right, she was taken aback to be told he had lost his wife, his children and his Rottweiler dogs. She called a security guard, who walked him around the corner to the West End Central Police Station. It was about 7.30pm.
‘Yes sir, how can I help you,’ asked the officer on duty.
The man peering through the glass screen shifted uncomfortably from side to side. ‘I think I might be a missing person,’ he responded, a little shakily. ‘My name’s John Darwin. I’m from Seaton Carew.’
I’m sure the officer must have raised his eyebrows, thinking, I’ve got a right one here, as John put his ludicrous amnesia plan into action.
When he’d first told me his plan a few weeks earlier in Panama, he was convinced he could carry it off.
There was no alternative, he thought, because new rules introduced by the Panamanian government meant he couldn’t stay there permanently as a foreign national unless he could produce a letter from his local police force back home in Cleveland stating that was of good character.
And as he had a false identity, John Jones, having faked his own death at sea paddling a canoe five years earlier in order to use the life insurance money to pay off our debts, that simply was not going to be possible.
Somehow I didn’t think for a moment he would get away with it, but when he asked me to come up with something better, I couldn’t. We talked about what he’d say to the police, although in truth he had little regard for what they thought.
As John saw it, they hadn’t exactly covered themselves in glory when he disappeared, and then returned to live in his own home right under their noses just three weeks later. He’d fooled them once, he said, and he was convinced he could do it again.
As for our two grown-up sons, Mark and Anthony, he thought they would be so thankful he had returned from the dead that they’d barely question him, and would welcome him back with open arms.
And although he’d have some explaining to do with the insurance and pension companies who’d paid out, he believed they, too, would accept his story and let us off.
As he also pointed out, all our assets were in any case safely protected in Panama, well away from the clutches of the British authorities.
In his mind, it was all so simple. We’d settle down for a nice life in Panama, the eco-retreat would make us wealthy beyond words and our sons could come and visit whenever they wanted. What could possibly go wrong?
So I bought John a single flight to Heathrow for Friday, November 30. It felt very surreal as I drove him to the airport, and when he left it was quite emotional.
I was going to stay in Panama on my own and he was going home with his story, which I didn’t think anyone would believe. Here we go again, I thought.
John, who was wearing walking boots, baggy, dark blue trousers, a blue shirt still showing the folds from being packed for the flight, a grey, crew-neck jumper and a leather jacket, said he wasn’t sure where he had come from or how he had arrived at the police station.
‘I see, sir,’ the officer said. ‘John Darwin, you say? Yes, sir. Can you just wait there for a minute?’
It didn’t take the policeman long to discover there was indeed a John Darwin who had disappeared off the Cleveland coast in 2002, but he wasn’t missing — he was dead.
He rang Hartlepool police station to see if anyone there could throw any light on the curious case he now found himself dealing with on a cold December evening.
‘He thinks it’s still June and asked why all the Christmas decorations are up.’ The officer had already established that ‘Mr Darwin’ had no form of identification on him, simply a wallet containing £140 and a key ring with several keys attached. He claimed not to know what any of the keys were for.
Our son, Mark, was partying at a friend’s wedding in Balham, South London, when his mobile rang.
It had just gone 9pm and the reception was in full swing, making it difficult to hear over the beat of the music, but Mark could just about decipher that the woman was saying she was a police officer from Hartlepool, so he moved outside.
‘We have someone who is saying he is your dad in the West End Central police station in London,’ the duty inspector, Helen Eustace, told him. ‘He appears to be suffering from amnesia.’ Mark began shaking and was rooted to the spot. ‘My whole world stopped,’ he said later ‘My heart was pumping. I couldn’t believe it. I was overjoyed.’
He rushed back inside to tell his girlfriend, Flick, and they hastily left for the West End, not really daring to believe it could be true.
Anthony, meanwhile, was at home in Basingstoke, Hampshire with his wife, Louise, when the police got hold of him. Like his brother, Anthony could barely believe what he was hearing.
He tried to call Mark, but couldn’t get through because his brother was on the Tube, so he rang the London police station directly and was talking to an officer when Mark and Flick walked in.
Over the phone, Mark told his younger brother to stay put until he had seen the man purporting to be their father, to confirm if it really was him.
Mark braced himself for the meeting, terrified it would be some cruel hoax or a man who had simply assumed his father’s identity — but, of course, it wasn’t.
Standing there in front of him, with a little less hair and looking older and thinner than the man he remembered, was the dad who had disappeared from his life more than five years earlier. ‘It was as though everything was stopped in the room,’ said Mark.
‘I remember us looking at each other as he walked in and I said: “I didn’t believe it was you.”’ Mark was in tears as he hugged his dad, who asked where his mam and the dogs were. Mark said the dogs had long since died but Mam was fine — and living in Panama.
Mark called Anthony, who had by then been anxiously waiting at home for nearly half an hour, and told him the man was indeed their long-lost dad and said he’d better get to the police station as quickly as he could.
Anthony and Louise jumped in their car and headed towards the city, but Anthony was in such a state that he soon got lost. He ended up having to call the police and, after explaining his predicament, was obliged with an escort to the station.
Anthony was as stunned as his brother when he first set eyes on his father, telling me later: ‘When I first saw him, he called my name and we hugged. I just sat and stared at him for about ten minutes and didn’t say a word. I felt overwhelming joy that he was there.’
Mark rang me before Anthony got there. He couldn’t wait to let me know that his dad had returned from the dead.
His fingers shook as he punched in the phone number to my Panama apartment. He rambled on before finally saying: ‘Brace yourself — I am sitting here next to Dad.’
Of course, I had been waiting, dreading, this call since the moment John had left the previous day. I had played it out in my mind a thousand times, trying to work out what best to say to feign complete surprise.
Mark said ‘Would you like to speak to him?’ and, of course, I said that I would.
It was a very strange conversation to have. I said something along the lines of: ‘Is that really you, John? Where have you been? Are you OK?’ We had a fairly brief stilted conversation and then he handed the phone back to Mark, who said his dad was confused and couldn’t remember anything.
It was an incredibly emotional moment for me. Mark and Anthony were reunited with their dad after nearly six years, and now everything, I thought to myself, would surely come to a head.
I sat for a while, unable to move, but then I started to pace the floor not really knowing what I was supposed to do now.
Think, Anne, think. I was about to call Mam and Dad but remembering the time difference, with the UK being five hours ahead of Panama, it would have been around midnight and they’d be asleep. I decided to wait until morning.
I couldn’t settle to do anything. My thoughts were in that London police station, but I had no idea what was happening. Would John now be arrested?
Would the police see right through his story? How are the boys feeling? Do they believe him? What happens next? I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t read; I tossed and turned all night.
As far as the police were concerned, John was free to go. He wasn’t a wanted man, and although it was certainly a strange old case, there was nothing to stop him leaving with the boys. Officers said they would be in touch the next day and advised them to keep a very close eye on their father.
It was decided that John would stay with Anthony and Louise in Basingstoke, as they had more room at home than Mark, so all five of them headed off to Hampshire together in Anthony’s car.
When they arrived, they sat chatting and looking at old family photographs until the early hours, hoping that something would jog John’s memory.
Anthony took a photograph of his dad sitting on his sofa, looking slightly dishevelled, and emailed it to me. I sent back a picture, taken a few weeks earlier, of me riding a horse in Costa Rica.
The boys simply assumed the photograph must have been taken by a fellow holidaymaker. Little did they know the picture had been taken by the man they were sitting with.
Next morning, Anthony drove his dad to the nearby Asda supermarket, as the only clothes he appeared to have were the ones he was wearing. He bought John some jeans, several T-shirts, three pairs of underpants and some socks.
There was one brief moment of panic for Anthony when he suddenly turned round and couldn’t see his dad, who had wandered off into another aisle.
Anthony was terrified he had disappeared again and ran from aisle to aisle looking for him before eventually finding him.
Later that day, Mark and Flick left to return to London, as Mark was starting a new job the following morning. It was left to Anthony and Louise to continue gently trying to coax information from John as he carried on his charade of not being able to remember anything after the year 2000.
He said he didn’t know what baked beans were and couldn’t recall whether he took sugar in his coffee, yet he remembered both our sons’ dates of birth.
I spoke regularly on the phone to John, but we were obviously careful what we said to each other.
The boys seemed slightly puzzled when I explained that I couldn’t return straight away because I was sorting out some problems with my visa, but they didn’t press me. They were just thrilled to have their dad back.
The following evening, Simon Walton, a reporter on the Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough, was making his last round of calls to his local police force before the end of his shift, checking for late- breaking stories.
He was going over some details with a duty inspector at Cleveland when she mentioned she had another story that may be of interest. They’d been contacted by colleagues in London, she said, and been told that a local man named John Darwin had mysteriously turned up in the West End suffering from memory loss, having been missing for many years.
For a few seconds the name rattled around the journalist’s brain — then it hit him. Some years earlier, he had been a junior reporter in Hartlepool when he had covered the story of a canoeist who went missing off Seaton Carew. The man’s body was never found and he was presumed drowned. His name: John Darwin.
The astonishing tale was the main story in the following day’s paper, and before long it was being followed up by every news organisation in the land.
The media interest was something John and I simply hadn’t bargained for. How naïve we had been.
The amazing canoe story quickly gathered steam, with journalists and the public alike desperate for information. The questions which they most wanted answered were: where had he been and where was his wife? The race to find me was on.
It was a journalist from this newspaper, David Leigh, who eventually tracked me down in Panama and, with one brief conversation, finally brought to an end my secret double life. ‘I’ve got a photograph to show you,’ he said, ‘and I’m afraid it’s not going to be very easy for you.’
It was, of course, the photograph of John and me with the estate agent Mario Vilar, taken in Panama the summer before last. ‘The game’s up, Anne,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. We know you’ve been lying.’
Astonishingly, a member of the public had found the picture simply by Googling the words ‘John’ and ‘Anne’ and Panama. That is how easily our years of lying came tumbling around our ears.
Just weeks after leaving England to begin a new life in the sun, I would soon be heading back to face a very bleak and uncertain future. David Leigh told me that Cleveland police were now questioning John, and that it would soon by my turn.
I was only too aware that we could both go to jail if we were found to have committed fraud, which seemed highly likely. The prospect was terrifying beyond words.
AS THE plane taxied across the runway at Manchester airport, I found myself fighting back tears. The relentless drizzle seemed to reflect exactly my state of mind. Just how much trouble was I in?
For much of the long flight back from Panama, I had been lost in thought. The fear of never being reconciled with my two sons, now my lies to them had been exposed, was what terrified me the most — far more than the thought of going to prison. I was sure that they must hate me, and I felt utterly ashamed.
Then there were my poor parents, elderly and not in the best of health, and the rest of my family and friends — all, no doubt, horrified at what I’d done.
Who in their right mind would spend nearly six years pretending their husband had died, like I had? Lying to everyone I had ever cared about? Protecting him, covering for him, even living with him in the same house? And then moving abroad with him on the proceeds of ill-gotten gains? How could anyone want anything more to do with me ever again?
The plane came to a standstill at terminal two and the doors swung open. It quickly became apparent, however, that this was no ordinary airport arrival.
First on board were a Greater Manchester police sergeant and five other officers, some of them armed with sub-machine guns. ‘We would like to speak to a Mrs Anne Darwin,’ announced the sergeant to the startled flight attendants.
Passengers, already out of their seats and reaching for their bags, were instructed over the Tannoy to sit back down. There was a buzz of confusion and then excitement as people started to realise they had shared their flight home with me, Anne Darwin, the now infamous ‘canoe widow’ whose face had been all over the newspapers and TV.
All eyes were on me as, ashen-faced and totally panic-stricken, I made my way forward to the front of the cabin. I confirmed to the police officers that I was, indeed, who they thought I was, and they told me I was being arrested on suspicion of fraud.
I was shocked at the speed at which everything was happening. I really hadn’t expected my homecoming to be like this, or to be arrested in such a public way. It’s fair to say I was petrified.
- Anne Darwin will donate 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.