Canoe man John Darwin, whose audacious fake death scheme is the focus of new ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, was rumbled by a photo obtained by The Mirror
Canoe man John Darwin managed to ‘stay dead’ for five years before he simply walked into a police station.
The former teacher and prison officer, now 71, had officially last been seen paddling out from Seaton Carew beach near Hartlepool in his canoe in March 2002.
His disappearance sparked a massive search and rescue operation when Anne Darwin reported her husband missing – and he was presumed dead after the wreckage of his canoe was found.
A death certificate was issued and Anne claimed £250,000 on John’s life insurance policy, which allowed her to pay off the family’s debt and go on exotic holidays abroad.
However, John seemingly rose from the dead in December 2007 when he set foot in a London police station and claimed he had no memory of the last five years as he was suffering from amnesia.
Initially his remarkable return was hailed as a miracle, but the couple’s lies started to unravel when a photograph exposed their sick scheme.
Get the news you want straight to your inbox. Sign up for a Mirror newsletter here .
What had really transpired was that John hatched a plan to fake his own death because of their crippling debt, leaving Anne to play the grieving widow.
John smashed up his canoe and left it to be found then hid in a bedsit next door to the family home which the couple also owned.
They lied to the police, friends and even their two sons, Mark and Anthony, who were convinced their father had actually died and were left devastated.
Anne collected the £250,000 in life insurance payouts, while John grew a bushy beard as a disguise so he could boldly make trips into town and even answer the front door.
They decided to move to abroad and John obtained a fake passport under the false name ‘John Jones’, but remarkably still using his home address.
Using their ill-gotten gains, John travelled to Cyprus and Spain to look for properties before finally settling on Panama as the place to start their new life.
The couple flew to Panama in July 2006 and were happily photographed by a Panamanian property agent after renting an apartment – an image which would come back to haunt them years later.
In May 2007, they purchased a £200,000 tropical estate in the village of Escobal, Colón, Panama, near the Panama Canal, where they intended to build a hotel.
However, a change in Panama’s laws meant John would need to have his identity verified by the UK police to obtain an ‘investor’s visa’ and his ‘John Jones’ alias would not be accepted.
In a strange twist, John decided to come back and tell the police he was suffering from amnesia, which sounds remarkably similar to the Harold Bishop storyline in Neighbours.
The scheme may have worked had it not been for the photo at the property agents, which saw the lying pair alongside Mario Vilar, head of the firm Move To Panama.
A police financial investigation had already begun three months before John reappeared as they had suspicions about Anne, who was taking foreign holidays and transferring large sums abroad.
But they got the confirmation they needed when The Mirror published the incriminating snap along with the the headline ‘Canoe’s this in Panama?’.
The photograph had been found simply by searching for the words ‘John’, ‘Anne’ and ‘Panama’ in Google Images.
When confronted with the picture, Anne broke down as she told reporters her life had become a “nightmare” and confessed: “Yes, that’s him. My sons will never forgive me.”
Former Daily Mirror journalist David Leigh, who found Anne in Panama after John returned to the UK in 2007, explained the photo from Panama was the evidence that brought down their lies.
“It was emphatic proof Anne had been lying about her husband’s faked death to everyone she held dear, not to mention the police and the insurance companies.
“It was a massive scoop and it was incredible to be such an integral part of a jaw-dropping story that was making front-page headlines day after day. But it was quite emotional watching someone’s life crumble before my eyes.
“When I showed her the image, Anne sobbed. She kept repeating, ‘What have I done? The boys are never going to forgive me’.”
John was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for admitting deception by faking his own death, while Anne received six-and-a-half years behind bars for fraud.
He was released from prison in January 2011 after serving half his sentence, while Anne got out in March 2011.
The pair got divorced while behind bars and John went on to move to the Philippines and marry Filipina bride Mercidita, otherwise known as Mercy, who is 23 years his junior.
Rowan Griffiths/Daily Mirror)
His new life was a far cry from the one he dreamed of as the swindler helped to flog his market trader wife’s £4.35 a time undies and T-shirts on her stall in a giant indoor market.
Last year it was reported that the couple moved out of crowded capital Manila to a new home around 30 minutes away and John was still receiving a UK state pension of around £134 a week.
Now the remarkable crime is the focus of new four-part ITV series The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, with both John and Anne reportedly refusing to cooperate with the filmmakers.
Writer Chris Lang went through 50 press stories, 1000 pages of police interviews and another 1000 pages of court documents as well as an early manuscript of a book by the journalist who broke the story.
John, who is played by Hollywood actor Eddie Marsan, says the conman lacked empathy and had “delusions of grandeur”.
“In a narcissistic way, he thought he was smarter than everyone else,” explains Eddie. “That’s why he had the cohones to try this. He thought he could outsmart everyone else.
“He saw other people as merely two-dimensional and thought he was the only three-dimensional person in the world. But he underestimated people’s ability to see through him.”
*The Thief, His Wife and the C anoe is on ITV at 9pm from Easter Sunday to Wednesday 20th April
Do you have a story to share? Email [email protected]