Answering his mobile phone over the din of a friend’s wedding reception, 32-year-old software engineer Mark Darwin could just about hear the voice of a female police officer who had some incredible news for him.
It was December 2007, five years after Mark’s father John was presumed to have died in a canoeing tragedy off the north-east coast of England. Yet now he had apparently turned up in a London police station, alive and well.
‘I think I might be a missing person,’ he’d announced. Although he had no ID and seemed to be suffering from amnesia which had prevented him getting in touch with his family for many years, he knew his name was John Darwin and that he was from the seaside town of Seaton Carew, 20 miles from Sunderland.
It was enough information for the police to track down Mark, who was overjoyed when he heard the news.
‘My whole world stopped,’ he recalled. ‘My heart was pumping. I couldn’t believe it.’
The moment that sunk Canoe Man: TV drama depicts John Darwin and wife Anne posing for the photo that exposed his lies
John and Anne Darwin pose for photo with agent Mario in Panama in July 2006… an image that led to the conman’s fake disappearance being unravelled
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, an ITV drama about canoe couple John and Anne Darwin airs on ITV in April
Sadly his happiness was short-lived. For, as we now know, 57-year-old John Darwin, or ‘Canoe Man’ as he was dubbed by the world’s Press, had never gone missing at sea at all.
He and his wife Anne had faked his death as part of the infamous insurance scam which is the subject of a new four-part ITV drama series starring Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as the fraudulent couple.
As we saw in Saturday’s Mail, the programme-makers are telling the story from the viewpoint of Anne Darwin whose inner monologue, as voiced by Dolan, provides the narration for the series.
This approach reflects the defence of ‘marital coercion’ which the unassuming doctor’s receptionist put forward at her trial, claiming that she had been bullied into cooperating with her domineering husband.
Yet her actions both before and after her husband’s surprise resurrection make it hard to feel sympathy for a woman who appears to have acted as selfishly and criminally as her spouse throughout — even putting her sons through the ordeal of giving evidence against her in a desperate effort to save her own skin.
While her husband was coming back to life in London, Anne was still in Panama City where the couple had fled in the summer of 2007, after the ill-gotten gains of their insurance fraud had paid off their huge debts in the UK.
The drama stars Monica Dolan as Anne Darwin (pictured)
Actor Eddie Marsan (pictured) plays John Darwin
57-year-old John Darwin, or ‘Canoe Man’ as he was dubbed by the world’s Press, had never gone missing at sea at all
The real Darwins pictured with their sons years before John Darwin faked his own disappearance
There, John had come up with an idea almost as insane as both the faking of his death and his subsequent ‘resurrection’ — that they should buy nearly 500 acres of uninhabitable jungle and, despite not speaking the language or having any experience of tourism, attempt to turn it into an ‘eco-resort’.
They spent some £300,000 on the land, and another £75,000 on an apartment in a suburb of Panama City.
But their plans for a new life were jeopardised when new laws required those seeking permanent residency to provide a letter from a police force back in their own country confirming that they were of ‘good character.’
Since John was living under a false name, this was clearly impossible and so he decided to return to the UK, declare that he had been alive all along and then eventually fly back to Panama under his real name and with the reference required.
While he anticipated some problems with the insurance and pension companies who’d paid out some £500,000 to them, he thought they would accept his story and let them off.
If not, then all their assets were safely protected in Panama — which they believed to be out of the clutches of the British authorities — so no one would get their hands on anything without a fight.
Unaware of any of this, both Mark and his younger brother Anthony were stunned to be reunited with their father at the police station.
‘When I first saw him he called my name and we hugged,’ said Anthony. ‘I just sat and stared at him for about ten minutes and didn’t say a word.’
Clearly their mother was as good at acting as their father. When Mark rang her to break the news she feigned complete surprise as he passed the phone to John.
‘Is that really you John?’ she asked the husband she had dropped off at the airport in Panama only the day before. ‘Where have you been? Are you OK?’
Anne Darwin seen for the first time since ITV new drama has been filmed about the canoe couple
She was filmed outside next to a dog while carrying a bundle of flowers
As far as the police were concerned there was no reason to detain John and it was decided that he would stay with Anthony and his wife Louise in Basingstoke.
Mark and his girlfriend Flick also slept over that night and in her autobiography Out Of My Depth, published in 2016, Anne describes how Anthony emailed her a photo of his father sitting on the sofa and looking slightly dishevelled.
She replied with a picture of her riding a horse on holiday in Costa Rica a few weeks earlier. Her sons assumed it must have been taken by a fellow holidaymaker, unaware that it was really snapped by the man sitting next to them on the sofa.
Sitting up late with their father that night, Mark and Anthony showed him old family photographs, hoping something would jog his memory. While he could somehow remember both their dates of birth, he played vague on many other things, unable to remember what baked beans were or whether he took sugar in his coffee.
His sons didn’t suspect a thing but John and Anne had not bargained for the interest the Press would take in his sudden reappearance. After Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette learned the local police had been contacted by colleagues in London trying to establish John’s identity, the story hit the headlines nationwide.
When it was revealed that Anne was living in Panama, she was tracked down by David Leigh, a journalist dispatched by this newspaper, and agreed to an interview. She managed to stick to the version of events she and John had agreed: that she had moved to Panama because she didn’t like the cold weather in England, and that she was as surprised as anyone when she’d heard that her husband was still alive.
That was followed by a narrow escape when Leigh and photographer Steve Dennett offered to take her to lunch and drove to a restaurant which she and John had frequented.
Worried that the staff might ask where her husband was, she persuaded them to go elsewhere, but the game would soon be up.
The shattered remains of his red canoe were later found washed up on a beach near Hartlepool, Cleveland. The above photo of John Darwin (pictured) was received from police
The back-from-the-dead canoeist, pictured under a coat, leaves Basingstoke police station tonight as he is taken to Cleveland Police area for questioning
Back in England, one enterprising newspaper reader Googled the words ‘John, Anne, Panama’ and came up with a photograph posted online by Mario Vilar, a relocation agent based in Panama City.
The previous year, he had advised the couple on land and properties to buy and asked if he could have a photograph taken with his new British friends.
The photograph, snapped by his wife, was time-stamped 14/7/2006 — four years after John had supposedly died at sea.
When David Leigh confronted Anne with the photo, she realised her secret double life had finally been exposed — but still she continued to lie, claiming she really had believed that he had drowned and that it had been quite some time before she learned he was still alive. That way she could argue that she had made the insurance claims in good faith and they might not lose everything.
Back in England, this refusal to come clean made life no easier for Mark and Anthony as they struggled to understand how their parents could have deceived them in this way.
Anthony rang relatives in tears, asking what they should do, and later the brothers issued a statement via the police to say if the claims were true they wanted nothing further to do with either Anne or John. By then their father had already been taken in for questioning and soon afterwards Anne flew back to the UK to be interviewed, too.
She was held in HMP Low Newton, a maximum security prison outside Durham which also housed notorious murderers and violent offenders — among them Rosemary West and Tracey Connelly, the mother of murdered toddler Baby P.
‘I had always warned my husband that we’d both end up behind bars, but I never really thought it would actually come to this,’ she wrote. ‘Before all this I’d never been in trouble with the police. In fact, I’d only ever had one parking ticket in my whole life.’
While she claimed that her ‘shame was complete’, this did not stop her remaining remarkably savvy in police interviews.
At one point she hastily corrected detectives when they said she was the sole owner of the properties bought in Panama, pointing out that they had been purchased via a Panamanian corporation.
Anne Darwin is pictured leaving Manchester Airport police station in north-west England
This had been done in the belief it would put them outside the reach of the authorities if they ever tried to recover the Darwins’ assets. ‘Even at this stage I was continuing to try to protect what I knew were properties bought with fraudulently obtained money,’ she admitted in her autobiography. ‘I was continuing to play a role in our deception.’
Unlike John, who pleaded guilty, she chose the marital coercion defence, which involved proving that her wishes had been over-ridden to such an extent that he had total control of her actions.
If it succeeded, she would walk free, but it meant that there would be a very public trial at which her sons would both have to appear and she claims to have agonised over the pros and cons for many weeks.
The couple were sentenced to six years for the insurance fraud which fooled thousands
‘I hadn’t even considered that my children would be called by the prosecution,’ she said. ‘I will never, ever forgive myself for making my sons give evidence against their own mother. It is a decision I bitterly regret.’ Regret it or not, she stuck to her not guilty plea.
When the trial went ahead, in July 2008, both her sons were put through the ordeal of appearing in court, with Anthony describing how he had presumed at first that the photograph of his parents in Panama must have been doctored. Only later did he realise he had been so badly duped.
His older brother told the court the revelation had ‘crushed my world’ and the two later expressed their hurt in an interview for the Mail on Sunday in which Mark described his mother as ‘a hideous lying b***h who had gone to outrageous lengths to con us’.
‘It’s bewildering,’ said Anthony. ‘They’re as bad as each other. Dad told one nasty lie and disappeared and said he was dead, but she lied for six years, she was the face of the lies, she kept on lying even when the evidence was so overwhelmingly against her. She dragged us through hell by forcing a court case.’
Anne Darwin was arrested upon her return to the country from Panama. British police awaiting Anne Darwin’s arrival on an overnight flight from Atlanta, Georgia, arrested her shortly after her plane touched down Sunday morning at Manchester’s airport.
The trial lasted nine days and Anne was found guilty of deception and money laundering and sentenced to six and a half years in prison, while John got three months less for pleading guilty.
In imposing what he described as ‘a particularly severe sentence,’ the judge pointed to ‘the duration of the offending, and in particular the grief inflicted over the years to those who, in truth, were the real victims, your own sons’.
Remarkably, both Mark and Anthony eventually forgave their mother, visiting her in prison and remaining in her life afterwards. But while Mark also got in touch with his father, Anthony cut off all contact with him.
Two years into her sentence, Anne told John that she wanted a divorce and it was finalised by the time they were both released on licence in early 2011, halfway through their sentences.
With the police having confiscated every last penny from their bank accounts in Panama and the UK, an amount totalling just over £500,000, they began their new lives apart.
The photo shows the ‘canoe couple’ on their wedding day
John, now 71, is living with his 48-year-old second wife Mercy Mae in her native Manila. Last month she made the bizarre claim that he was going to help Ukraine in its fight against Russia, but this week he still appeared to be in the Philippines where Mercy Mae blasted the new ITV drama for dredging up the past again.
‘I know what he did, he knows, and he paid penalty, he doesn’t need to be reminded,’ she said.
As for Anne, she initially moved to sheltered housing in York, where she had a part-time £10-an-hour job with the RSPCA but now lives quietly in a village outside Middlesbrough.
Like John, she has not co-operated with the making of the ITV series and she has declined to talk about it. But all the signs are that it will cast her in a far more favourable light than her husband — the man she claimed coerced her into helping him but many believe was her partner in crime.