John Darwin disappearance case

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John Darwin
Born (1950-08-14) 14 August 1950 (age 68)[1][2] 1954[1][2]
OccupationFormer teacher and prison officer[2][3]
Criminal statusReleased on probation
Spouse(s)Anne Darwin (née Stephenson)[3] (divorced)[4]
ChildrenMark Darwin, Anthony Darwin[3]
Criminal chargeFraud[5]

The John Darwin disappearance case was an investigation into the faked death of the British former teacher and prison officer John Darwin. Darwin turned up alive in December 2007, five years after he was believed to have died in a canoeing accident.

John Darwin was arrested and charged with fraud.[6] His wife, Anne, was also arrested and charged for helping Darwin to collect his life insurance of £25,000. The fraudulent death also allowed the couple to pay off their £130,000 mortgage. In December 2007, after it was revealed the couple had been photographed together in Panama a year earlier, Anne confessed to knowing Darwin was alive. Anne admitted that he had been secretly living in their house and the house next door, which allowed him to get the insurance money illegally for his own personal gain.[7] On 23 July 2008 John and Anne Darwin were each sentenced to over six years' imprisonment.[8]


John Darwin was born on 14 August 1950, in Hartlepool, County Durham.[2] He attended St Francis RC Grammar School and De La Salle College, Salford, Lancashire, where he studied biology and chemistry.[9] On 22 December 1973, John Darwin married Anne Stephenson in Blackhall.[10] Darwin then taught science and mathematics[11] at Derwentside for 18 years before leaving to join Barclays Bank. He later became a prison officer at HM Prison Holme House.[9] He and his wife, a doctor's receptionist, also ran a business renting bedsits in County Durham with 12 houses. They ran into debt after purchasing two houses in Seaton Carew in December 2000. The debts, amounting to "tens of thousands of pounds",[12] caused Darwin to talk about faking his own death to claim the insurance by early 2002.


John Darwin was seen paddling out to sea in his canoe on 21 March 2002, at Seaton Carew, in Hartlepool.[13] Later the same day, he was reported as "missing" after failing to report to work. A large-scale sea search took place,[13] during which 62 square miles (160 km2) of coastline were searched. There was no sign of Darwin,[13] though a double-ended paddle was retrieved from the sea near Seaton Carew, the following day. Later on 22 March 2002, the wreckage of John Darwin's canoe was found.[14] The North Sea was unusually calm and rescuers had been puzzled that Darwin could have got into trouble in such conditions.[15]

Missing years[edit]

During the years that Darwin was presumed dead, he lived for some time in a bedsit next door to the family home; he then secretly moved back in with his wife Anne in February 2003. Meanwhile, a death certificate was issued stating that John Darwin had died on 21 March 2002.[2] This allowed his wife to claim his life insurance; it is alleged that £25,000 was paid out from Unat Direct Insurance Management Limited (part of the AIG insurance group)[16] as well as a much larger amount which paid off the £130,000 mortgage.[17] Sometime that year, a tenant of the block of bedsit flats that the Darwins owned, Lee Wadrop, recognised Darwin and asked him "Aren't you supposed to be dead?" to which Darwin replied "Don't tell anyone about this". Wadrop later said that he had not told the police because he "did not want to get involved".[18]

In 2004, the Darwin couple decided to move abroad, considering Cyprus. John Darwin applied for, and obtained a passport using the false name "John Jones", but using his true home address.[19] In November 2004, the couple visited Cyprus to investigate buying property there.

In May 2005, an angler, Matt Autie, claimed to have met John Darwin—who was going under the name "John Williams"—at a lake near Penzance, Cornwall.[20] When back at home, Darwin is reported to have spent most of his time on the Internet where he encountered a woman from Kansas in the United States whom he flew out to meet. By November, Darwin was back in the UK and flew from Newcastle to Gibraltar, and then travelled to El Puerto de Santa María to view a £45,000, forty-two-foot (13 m) catamaran that he was considering buying from boat dealer Robert Hopkin.[21]

On 9 March 2006, Darwin is reported to have signed a planning objection to a neighbour's building work using a false name. Darwin and his wife began to consider Panama as a possible destination. The couple flew from Newcastle to Panama on 14 July 2006, where they were photographed by a Panamanian property agent, and the resulting photograph was posted on the Internet. In February 2007, they spent a further week in Panama.[citation needed] Newspapers from February 2007 were later found in the boarded-up gap between the Darwins' house and the bedsit where Darwin had hidden. In March 2007, the couple returned to Panama and formed a company called Jaguar Properties in order to buy a two-bedroom apartment in El Dorado for £50,000. The bedsit house next to the family home was sold under the name of the Darwins' son, Mark; the home had been transferred to Mark Darwin in 2006. The proceeds from the sale were then transferred to Panama.[22]

The following month, Anne Darwin returned to the UK to sell her home while John Darwin remained in Panama. In May 2007, the couple purchased a £200,000 tropical estate in the village of Escobal, Colón, Panama, near the Panama Canal, with the intention of building a hotel from where canoeing holidays could be run. In a later interview with John Darwin, published in Elizabeth Greenwood's book Playing Dead, he states that the canoe-rental aspect of this purchase was a story entirely fabricated by the media playing on the romanticism of his faked death. He and Anne Darwin visited Panama again in July 2007, staying for six weeks.[22] A police investigation was started in September when a colleague of Anne Darwin became suspicious upon overhearing a phone conversation between the couple.[23] The Darwin family home was sold for £295,000 in October 2007 and Anne Darwin subsequently left for Panama. In the third week of November, the couple holidayed in Costa Rica before returning to Panama. On 30 November 2007, Mrs Darwin bought an airline ticket for her husband to England because "he was missing his sons". On the same day, their son Mark left his property firm after working his notice period.[22]

Return and arrest[edit]

Following a change in Panama's visa laws, John Darwin emailed Anne on 14 June 2007 to notify her that their identities would have to be verified by UK police in order for them to receive now-required Panamanian "investors' visas." Knowing that his John Jones alias would not pass this level of scrutiny, Darwin decided to return to the United Kingdom under his real name and fake amnesia.[24]

On 1 December 2007, Darwin walked into the West End Central police station in London, claiming to have no memory of the past five years. His wife Anne—who had sold up her British properties and moved to Panama three months before his re-appearance—expressed surprise, joy and elation at the return of her missing husband.[25] The UK police by that time already suspected that Darwin might not be dead since Anne Darwin, despite portraying herself as a broken-hearted widow, took foreign holidays, planned to sell the family home in Hartlepool to move to Panama and transferred large sums of money abroad.[26] A police financial investigation into the case had already begun three months prior to Darwin's reappearance, following a tip from one of Anne's colleagues connecting her claim on her husband's life insurance and her subsequent emigration to Panama.

The Darwins' cover story unravelled after the Daily Mirror published a photo of John and Anne, taken in Panama in 2006. The photograph had been discovered when a member of the public searched for the words "John", "Anne" and "Panama" in Google Images. The photo had been featured on the website and was brought to the attention of the Daily Mirror and the Cleveland Police.[27] Anne reportedly confirmed that the photograph was of John, saying "Yes, that's him. My sons will never forgive me."[28] The police then arrested Darwin at his son Anthony's house in Basingstoke.

A police investigation discovered that John Darwin had been using a false passport by the name of "John Jones", an identity that had belonged to a baby from Sunderland who had died in 1950.[29][30] This technique featured in the 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Upon examining the false passport, police found that Darwin had made several trips to Panama in the previous five years.

John Darwin's two sons initially expressed elation at the return of their father,[31] but as the story unfolded, they issued a joint statement stating they felt they had been victims of a scam and implying that they wished to have no further contact with their parents.[22] Both sons were reported to have changed their jobs prior to their father's reappearance. On 6 December, one of John Darwin's sons allegedly disappeared after clearing out his North London flat and leaving a notebook reportedly containing coded messages for his girlfriend, as well as directions for her to get to London City Airport. Police emphasised that he was not suspected of any crime.[32]

On 8 December, the Daily Mail quoted Anne Darwin as saying that, although she initially thought her husband was dead, he turned up at their home in 2003 and secretly lived in an adjacent bedsit that she owned for about three years. He entered the home from the bedsit through a secret hole in the wall; the hole was hidden behind a wardrobe with a false back. The article stated that, two months after he had moved back in with Anne, she was persuaded to attend an inquest into his death so she could claim the life insurance. John was pronounced dead and the life insurance company paid only half of the £50,000 policy because no body had been found. Anne said he had faked his death to escape financial difficulties arising from properties they owned. She claimed that he had decided to return publicly because he missed his sons, who had not been aware he was still alive.[1]

Later that day, Darwin was charged with obtaining life insurance money by deception and making untrue statements to obtain a passport.[33] Anne Darwin was arrested at Manchester Airport the following day upon returning to the UK, and detained in connection with the allegations of fraud.[34] She appeared in court on 11 December in Hartlepool to face two charges of fraud—obtaining £25,000 and £137,000 by deception. She remained in custody until 14 December.[35] Darwin appeared at Hartlepool Magistrates' Court on 10 December, where he was also remanded in custody until 14 December.[16]

On 14 December, Anne and John Darwin appeared separately before Hartlepool Magistrates' Court and they both were remanded in custody to appear again on 11 January 2008.[36]

On 9 January 2008, John and Anne Darwin returned to Hartlepool Magistrates' Court to face further charges of deception. John faced an additional charge of obtaining £137,000 by deception (the same charge his wife was already facing) in addition to the existing life insurance charge against both of them for £25,000 and John's separate charge of obtaining a passport by deception. They were then both charged together from obtaining more money from a teachers' pension scheme (two separate amounts of £25,186 and £58,845), plus obtaining money from the Department for Work and Pensions (two separate amounts of £2,000 and £2,273). They were remanded in custody once more to appear in court again on 18 January 2008.[37]

On 18 January, they each appeared separately at Hartlepool Magistrates' Court by video-link and were remanded in custody until 15 February, when they faced committal to Crown Court.[38]

On 13 March, John Darwin admitted seven charges of obtaining cash by deception and a passport offence at Leeds Crown Court. He denied nine charges of using criminal property; these charges will remain on file, according to prosecutors. Anne Darwin denied six charges of deception and nine of using criminal property.[39]


On 23 July 2008, John Darwin and Anne Darwin were both convicted of fraud. John Darwin faced an additional charge relating to his fake passport and was sentenced to six years and three months in prison. Anne Darwin, who was described by the police as a compulsive liar, was sentenced to six years and six months.[8] Both appealed against their sentences[40] and on 27 March 2009, both appeals were denied by the Court of Appeal.[41]

The Crown Prosecution Service has vowed that all profits from the "callous and calculated" fraud committed by the couple will be confiscated.[42] John Darwin was released on probation in January 2011[43] and Anne Darwin was released in March 2011.[44]

On 14 February 2012, the CPS announced that the entire £501,641.39 in life insurance and pension payouts received by Anne Darwin had been recovered, part of which involved the sale of two properties in Panama. Kingsley Hyland, head of the North East CPS Complex Casework Unit, said: "It is important that fraudsters see that not only will we prosecute them wherever possible, but we will also make every effort to retrieve their ill-gotten gains to return them to those they have defrauded."[45]

In April 2014, it was reported that Darwin had repaid just £121 from the £679,073 that the judge had ordered him to repay.[46] However, this was because all the assets were in Anne Darwin's name. By July 2015, the pair no longer had any assets, having repaid a total of £541,762.39.[47]

In popular culture[edit]

The story of John and Anne Darwin was dramatised in the BBC Four programme Canoe Man in 2010. The film starred Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves as John and Anne Darwin, respectively.[48] Musician Martin Gordon documented the story with the song "Panama" from his 2009 release Time Gentlemen Please. In fiction, it inspired a 2009 novel by Adrian Gere called Return from the Dead,[49] and a 2010 storyline in the ITV soap opera Coronation Street saw the character Joe McIntyre attempt the same thing.[50] In 2015, it was mentioned in the BBC soap opera EastEnders when it was revealed that the character Kathy Beale and her husband faked their deaths in South Africa for insurance payouts. The song "Simian Son" by Jez Lowe concerning incidents in Hartlepool references the incident. The 2018 novel Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh in which a husband and wife apparently commit suicide was inspired by the John Darwin story, mentioned by the Author in the Authors Notes section of the book.[51] The case was also covered on a September 2018 episode of Swindled, a podcast about white-collar crime.[52]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Clarke, Natalie; Leigh, David (2007-12-08). "Canoe widow's full confession". London: Daily Mail. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Revealed: The document that shows Darwin was officially dead". London: Daily Mail. 2007-12-05. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  3. ^ a b c "The Mystery of John Darwin". London: The Guardian. 2007-12-05. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  4. ^ "Canoe fake death wife Anne Darwin: I'll feel guilt until I die". BBC News. 2016-10-05. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
  5. ^ "'Missing' man charged by police". BBC News. 2007-12-08. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  6. ^ [1] CNN
  7. ^ [2] Daily Mail
  8. ^ a b "John & Anne Darwin sentenced to jail". BBC. 23 July 2008. Retrieved 24 July 2008.
  9. ^ a b Jones, Aidan (2007-12-03). "Detectives to question long-lost canoeist". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-12-10.
  10. ^ "An unexpected anniversary..." Hartlepool Mail. 2007-12-08. Retrieved 2007-12-11.
  11. ^ Weaver, Matthew (2007-12-05). "Canoe mystery man arrested for fraud". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-12-10.
  12. ^ Canoe widow's full confession Daily Mail 8 December 2007
  13. ^ a b c "Sea search for Missing Canoeist". BBC News. 2002-03-22. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  14. ^ "Missing Canoeist - Wreck is Found". Hartlepool Mail. 2002-05-08. Retrieved 2007-12-14.
  15. ^ The 'dead' canoeist John Darwin, his wife and the Panama connection Archived 26 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ a b "Court remands canoeist in custody". BBC News. 2007-12-10. Retrieved 2007-12-10.
  17. ^ "Darwin's bolt hole". News of The World. 2007-12-09. Archived from the original on 10 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  18. ^ Copping, Jasper; Leach, Ben; Sawer, Patrick (2007-12-09). "Canoe man's wife lands back in Britain". London: Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  19. ^ Altman, Alex (2007-12-09). "Canoe Man and Canoe Wife — Sunk". Time / CNN. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  20. ^ Allen, Nick (2007-12-08). "'Dead' canoeist used a fake passport". London: Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  21. ^ John Darwin's fake passport trip Daily Mirror Stewart Maclean 07/12/2007
  22. ^ a b c d "'Back from the dead' canoeist's son flees leaving 'coded' message for his girlfriend". London: Daily Mail. 2007-12-06. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  23. ^ "EXCLUSIVE: Overheard phone call led to investigation". Hartlepool Mail. 2007-12-06. Retrieved 2007-12-11.
  24. ^ Bunyan, Paul Stokes and Nigel (23 July 2008). "Why canoeist John Darwin came back from the dead" – via
  25. ^ Richard Edwards, Paul Stokes and Tom Leonard. Wife of canoeist John Darwin admits she knew he was alive Archived 26 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Glendinning, Lee (23 July 2008). "Detectives suspected Darwin was alive". The Guardian.
  27. ^ Weaver, Matthew (2007-12-06). "Woman found canoeist photo via Google". London: Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  28. ^ "Wife confronted with Panama photo". London: Guardian Unlimited. 2007-12-06. Archived from the original on 3 January 2008. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  29. ^ Allen, Nick (2007-12-08). "'Dead' canoeist used a fake passport". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  30. ^ "Did Darwin Steal Dead Baby's Name? (Sky News)".
  31. ^ "Canoeist sons 'victims of scam'". 6 December 2007 – via
  32. ^ Peck, Sally; Leonard, Tom (2007-12-07). "Canoeist mystery: new twist as son disappears". London: Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  33. ^ Police await canoeist wife move BBC, 2007-12-09
  34. ^ Canoeist wife arrested back in UK BBC, 2007-12-09
  35. ^ Canoeist wife remanded in custody BBC, 2007-12-11
  36. ^ "Christmas in prison for Darwins". 14 December 2007 – via
  37. ^ "Further charges for canoe couple". 5 January 2018 – via
  38. ^ "Canoe couple remanded in custody". 5 January 2018 – via
  39. ^ "Missing canoeist admits deception". 13 March 2008 – via
  40. ^ "Canoeist appeals against sentence". BBC Sport. 2008-09-05. Retrieved 2008-09-05.
  41. ^ "Canoe pair lose jail term appeals". BBC News. 2009-03-27. Retrieved 2008-03-27.
  42. ^ Booth, Jenny; Hines, Nico (23 July 2008). "John and Anne Darwin sentenced to total of more than 12 years in jail". The Times. London: News Corporation. Retrieved 4 December 2009. Gale Gilchrist, a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "There is no doubt that this was a callous and calculated fraud ..." Ms Gilchrist said that prosecutors would be working with the police to make sure that the Darwins were forced to repay the proceeds of their crimes.
  43. ^ "Canoe man John Darwin walks free from jail". Daily Telegraph. 18 January 2011.
  44. ^ "Anne Darwin released after serving time for canoe disappearance fraud". The Guardian. 2011-03-09. Retrieved 2011-03-09.
  45. ^ "CPS recover £500k from canoe fraudster wife Anne Darwin". BBC News. 14 February 2012. Retrieved 2012-02-14.
  46. ^ "Fake death conman John Darwin 'has repaid just £121'". BBC News. 8 April 2014. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
  47. ^ "Canoe fraudsters John and Anne Darwin 'have no assets'". BBC News. 16 July 2015. Retrieved 16 July 2015.
  48. ^ "Canoe Man". BBC Online. Retrieved 26 March 2010.
  49. ^ "Novel no 2 for grandad". Croydon Post. Northcliffe Media. 2 December 2009. p. 13. Adrian Gere, 70, was thrilled when he found out his new book Return from the Dead, inspired by John Darwin, aka the Canoe Man, was going to be printed by US Company Publish America... The names, locations and main storyline are completely different although there are some similarities with what really happened.
  50. ^ "Corrie's Joe 'set to do a Darwin'".
  51. ^ "The Book Trail Let Me Lie'".
  52. ^