Who is 'canoe conman' John Darwin and why did he fake his own death?

  • ITV Tyne Tees' reporter Gregg Easteal recalls working on the story back in 2007

A new ITV drama tells the story of the "back from the dead" canoeist John Darwin who faked his own death to claim life insurance and avoid bankruptcy.

The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe is told in four parts focusing on how Anne Darwin became complicit in her husband’s deception.

Who is John Darwin?

John Darwin from Hartlepool had taught at Derwentside College for 18 years before leaving to join Barclays. He later worked as a prison officer at HM Prison Holme House.

Alongside his wife Anne, a doctor's receptionist, he also ran a business renting bedsits across twelve County Durham properties, but they ran into debt in 2000 after purchasing two houses in Seaton Carew.

Anne and John Darwin. Credit: PA Images

What did he do?

On 21 March 2002, John Darwin went missing while canoeing off the coast of Seaton Carew in Cleveland.

A large-scale sea search took place which found the wreckage of the kayak, but there was no sign of Darwin.

Rescuers were puzzled how he could have got into trouble because the sea was unusually calm, but a death certificate was issued allowing Anne to claim his life insurance.

The couple eventually decided to leave Seaton Carew and move to Panama City to start a new life together before their secret was exposed by the discovery of an infamous photo of them posing in a Panama real estate office in July 2006.

The infamous photo in Panama. Credit: Police handout

It turned John had faked his own death to avoid bankruptcy, as he'd run up debts of £64,000.

Anne was complicit and spun a web of deceit when questioned by police.

She lied to their sons, Mark and Anthony, for five years whilst her husband secretly lived in a bedsit next door to their home.

What happened to them?

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.

By that time, the UK police had already suspected Darwin might not have been dead.

A police investigation discovered that Darwin had been using a false passport by the name of John Jones; an identity that had belonged to a baby from Sunderland who'd died in 1950.

He was charged with obtaining life insurance money by deception and making untrue statements to obtain a passport.

Anne was arrested at Manchester Airport and detained in connection with the allegations of fraud.

On 23 July 2008, John and Anne were both convicted of fraud - John faced an additional charge relating to his fake passport and was sentenced to six years and three months in prison.

At her trial, Anne pleaded not guilty, arguing that she had been coerced into the plot by her husband, but the jury didn’t believe her and she was sentenced to six years and six months.

John Darwin being taken into police custody. Credit: PA Images

How did the ITV drama come about?

The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe has been written by acclaimed screenwriter Chris Lang, based on the unpublished manuscript by journalist David Leigh - the first journalist to find and interview Anne in Panama.

It's been filmed in the North East and will feature Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John and Anne.

Marsan said: “I’m so thrilled to be working with Chris Lang, one of our greatest writers, and to get the chance to work with Monica Dolan.

"The story of how and why John Darwin faked his own death to defraud insurance companies is fascinating, and if it weren’t fact, you’d think it unbelievable.

“I can’t pretend to understand what was going on in his head when he made those choices, but I’m going to do my absolute best to portray him, and I can’t wait to get started.”

Dolan said: “The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe tells the story of surely the most outrageous fraud of modern times - and my favourite kind of drama is when the outrageous comes from the prosaic.

“As breathtaking as their managing to pull this deception off in the first place, is how spectacularly the couple wrecked it for themselves as soon as they had got away with it.”

You can watch The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe on the ITV Hub here.

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