True story behind ITV drama of canoe conman who faked own death — and wife who helped

The row of imposing Victorian houses in Seaton Carew, County Durham, had stunning panoramic views over the beach and the North Sea coastline.

Married couple Anne and John Darwin lived at No3 The Cliff – a seven-bedroom property with grand rooms and period charm.

They also owned No4 next door, which had been converted into bedsits.

It was part of the couple’s property rental business that included several other bedsit properties across County Durham.

Hartlepool-born Darwin, 51, had been a teacher for 18 years, but by 2002, he was working as a prison officer at HM Prison Holme House in Stockton. Anne, 50, was a doctor’s receptionist.

The couple had been married 30 years and had two sons, Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29.

Darwin drove a Range Rover with a personal number plate and Anne was a regular churchgoer. They were a picture of respectability.

Then, at 9.30pm on 21 March, 2002, Anne reported her husband missing. She said Darwin had finished a shift at the prison and had gone out to sea at 4.30pm in his red canoe, called the Orca. But he hadn’t returned.

A massive search was launched, with the police and coastguard scouring over 60 miles of coastline.

Despite air searches and five RNLI lifeboats working for hours, Darwin could not be located. By the next evening, only a single paddle had been found and the search was called off.

It was determined that despite the waters being calm when Darwin had paddled out to sea, he must have got into difficulties and most likely drowned.

Anne was distraught over the tragedy and so were her two sons. As they held out hope for a miracle, Darwin’s battered canoe washed up on the shoreline.

The sad story was widely reported and the public had nothing but sympathy for heartbroken Anne, who was tearfully waiting for the sea to give up her husband’s body, while supporting her mourning sons.

“All I want is to bury his body. It would enable me to move on,” she emotionally told reporters at the time. “It’s difficult to grieve without bringing things to a close but as it is, I’m in limbo.”

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In April 2003, Darwin was declared dead and a death certificate was issued. It allowed Anne to claim Darwin’s life insurance payout, along with benefits from his pensions and mortgage insurance. It eventually totalled well over £500,000.

It made Anne a wealthy widow, but no one doubted that she’d rather have Darwin back.

Most believed that she and Darwin were already well off, but it turned out that wasn’t the case.

Before Darwin vanished, he and Anne were actually in a great deal of financial difficulty after buying the two seafront properties a year earlier and overstretching themselves.

They were in debt and facing bankruptcy.

The £500,000 payout had solved all their problems. If only Darwin had been alive to reap the benefits…

Only he was. And the real 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 vanished, there were phone calls between the Darwins’ home and the medical centre where Anne worked.

In one of those calls, Darwin told Anne, “This is it…pick me up later.” Their plot kicked into action.

Darwin got into his canoe and paddled to North Gare, where he hid in a tent on the shore. He pushed his empty canoe back out to sea.

Anne picked him up in her Skoda at 6pm, as arranged, and dropped him at Durham train station. Then she returned home to report him missing.

Darwin headed to the Lake District, where he laid low and waited for the dust to settle. He grew a long beard and started walking with a limp.

Anne hardly recognised him when she went to pick him up and brought him back to No3 The Cliff.

Brazen Darwin continued to live in the family home. If anyone turned up, including his two sons, he would access a secret passageway hidden behind a fake cupboard with a false back, which led next door to No4.

Darwin’s sons grieved for their father, completely unaware he was still alive and even went out in public. Darwin would pull a hat down over his head and limp down to the beach for walks with a stick.

He discovered, through old records, that there had been a baby born five months earlier than him that had died when he was just a few months old. So he took the name, John Jones, and used it to get a birth certificate and a passport.

There were a few close calls. Once Darwin was spotted by an old prison colleague, but Anne managed to persuade him it was just a cousin who looked like him.

There was also a tenant at No4 who bumped into Darwin and said, “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” But he didn’t want to get involved and didn’t report it.

Anne and Darwin decided they needed to start a new life abroad and eventually settled on Panama in Central America.

Darwin sent off for property details and in July 2006, they flew out to look for a piece of land to build on. While there, they posed for a picture next to an estate agent.

He put it on his website and it would come back to haunt the fugitive couple.

Then, just as their escape plan was coming together, Darwin had a massive change of heart, deciding he could no longer live a lie.

On 1 December, 2007, he walked into a police station in London and told officers, “I think I’m a missing person.”

Darwin said he had amnesia and claimed he couldn’t remember his life before 2000.

As news got out about his reappearance after five years, his sons were elated. Anne was traced to Panama and she told reporters it was incredible news.

But straight away, the police were suspicious about the man who had come back from the dead.

And the photo of Darwin and Anne posing in Panama together proved Anne knew that her husband wasn’t dead – and that Darwin was lying.

On 5 December, Darwin was arrested and charged with fraud and using false information to claim 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 scheme. They had been deceived and the public were horrified that two parents would do that to their children.

In March 2008, Darwin pleaded guilty to seven charges of obtaining cash by deception and a passport offence. Anne pleaded not guilty to deception and charges of using criminal property.

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Anne said that Darwin had 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. Anne received six years and six months. They were sent to separate prisons, and they divorced.

After both serving less than three years, Darwin and Anne were released in 2011. They were both ordered to pay back over £679,000.

Anne, 69, gained qualifications in prison that allowed her to start a new life, working in an animal shelter while she tried 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’d gone to meet a woman he’d met on the internet. At that point he wasn’t supposed to leave the country.

Darwin, 71, is now living in the Philippines with his new wife, Mercy, 48.

A four-part ITV drama series, The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe , starts on Sunday 17th April at 9pm, with actors Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan, playing the couple.

Even 20 years on, the audacious plot of Anne and John Darwin continues to make the headlines.

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