John Darwin, a prison officer from Hartlepool, was last seen paddling out to sea in his canoe on 21 March 2002 and was later reported missing after failing to turn up for work. A large-scale sea search commenced but all that was recovered was a paddle, followed by the wreckage of his canoe. Darwin was eventually presumed dead, leaving his wife and two sons absolutely devastated.
Five years later on 1 Dec 2007 John Darwin reappeared, walking into a London police station, saying he thinks he’s a missing person, and claiming amnesia. However, what eventually transpired was a plot straight out of a hollywood movie, where Darwin had faked his own death to claim on the insurance money after falling into huge amounts of debt.
During his “missing years” he’d secretly lived in a bedsit next to the family home, and even eventually moved back in with his wife, who it turns out was fully aware of the plot and had been helping her husband from the very beginning. However, their two sons were not aware that their father was still alive, believing that he really had died in a canoe accident out at sea.
Eventually, whilst still in hiding, Darwin decided that it would be a good idea to move abroad and start a new life, and so using a fake passport under the name of “John Jones” he went to live in Panama, and it was in Panama that the famous photo of him and his wife was innocently taken by a panamanian property agent whilst they were out house-hunting with their new found wealth.
Sometime in May 2007 they purchased a £200,000 tropical estate in a village in Panama with the intention of building a hotel there. However changes in Panama’s law meant John would need his identity verified by the UK police and knowing they wouldn’t buy his “John Jones” identity, he bizarrely decided to head back to the UK and claim amnesia instead.
When he did so, turning up at the police station in London, his wife was shocked and overjoyed to find out that her husband was still alive, as were his sons, but as the truth unravelled John and his wife were eventually charged and sent to prison, with their sons choosing to disown them for the hurt they had caused and for all the lies.
The photo taken in Panama was used in evidence to prove Anne knew her husband was still alive, and she in fact received a longer prison sentence than her husband, who is now living it up in Manilla with his much younger Filipina bride.
Photo: John and Anne Darwin property hunting in Panama
What to watch
The full and intriguing story of this British fraudster can be viewed on the excellent ITV drama series “The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe” which first aired in 2022.