A former detective has revealed that ‘Canoe Man’ John Darwin might have escaped justice if only he had stayed in Panama.
Hartlepool prison officer Darwin tried to disappear in 2002 so his wife Anne could claim life insurance money, sparking a large-scale search involving the scouring of 62 square miles of coastline.
Darwin was caught out in 2007 and jailed for six years for the fraud.
Tony Hutchinson, a former detective with Cleveland Police, is co-author of the book The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe – which inspired a new TV drama of the same name which premiered on the weekend.
He wrote in the Mirror that John Darwin might have escaped justice if he had not given himself up 15 years ago and instead chosen to stay in Panama – because the country had no extradition treaty with the UK except for murder cases.
If Darwin had not flown home to organise his ‘resurrection’, it is likely that the ‘infamous’ photograph of him and his wife Anne at a Panama estate agent’s office – which helped reveal his scheme – would never have come to light, Mr Hutchinson said.
He wrote that Darwin didn’t ‘give a flying fig’ about coming home to see his children, saying that he is now living in Manila in the Philippines and has ‘not even seen his grandchildren’.
Cleveland Police’s Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson holds a photo of John Darwin with a beard
If Darwin had not flown home to organise his ‘resurrection’, it is likely that the ‘infamous’ photograph of him and his wife Anne at a Panama estate agent’s office – which helped reveal his scheme – would never have come to light, Mr Hutchinson said
After they had served half of the six-year jail sentences they were handed for their crimes, the couple divorced – with Darwin remarrying and moving to the Philippines and his ex-wife getting a job with the RSPCA. Above: Darwin with his second wife Mercy Mae, 48
Speaking of Darwin’s act of being disorientated and confused as to why Christmas decorations were everywhere, trying to pretend he thought it was June, Mr Hutchinson said: ‘Not for one minute did I believe it: Five years, a death certificate, multiple payouts, all distilled down to amnesia.’
Mr Hutchinson said he is ‘convinced’ Darwin thought he was intellectually superior and would ‘easily hoodwink’ the police, adding that he found him ‘arrogant, irritating even’, and said the only thing he ever cared about was himself.
Twenty years on from his attempt at faking his own death, John Darwin’s colleagues have revealed that he was almost caught red-handed while gardening outside his home.
John Darwin remained at large for five years
Former colleague Dave Smith said that he spotted Darwin outside his home in Seaton Carew, County Durham, just 14 months into his five-year scam. Smith told the Mirror: ‘He had a long shaggy beard and looked like a caveman, but I knew it was him.’
It was one of three sightings of Darwin by colleagues after his supposed ‘death’.
Darwin remained at large for five years while Anne raked in more than £500,000 in payouts, but Mr Smith, who worked with Darwin at Holme House prison in Stockton-on-Tees, claims that staff did not really think that ‘irritating and loathsome’ Darwin had actually died at sea.
Two decades after he tried to fake his own death in the canoeing ‘accident’, ITV have now released a dramatised version of the bizarre events – The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, which premiered on Saturday night.
Mr Smith said when he saw Darwin he was reminded of the photo of Saddam Hussein ‘when he came out of the hole’ he had been hiding in, sporting a ‘mass of hair’ and a large beard.
Another former Holme House prison officer, Tony Kidd, said there a number of staff at the jail did not believe that Darwin was really dead, and some had also seen him around his home town following his ‘disappearance’.
Mercy Mae Avila Darwin, 48, had said her 71-year-old husband John (both seen in the Philippines), who faked his death for money, is ‘on his way’ to join troops fighting against Russian forces
Mr Kidd told a new documentary about the Darwins, to be shown this Thursday, that ‘quite a few’ did not believe the drowning story, and ‘one of the girls thought they had seen him at Hartlepool marina.’
Co-workers also claimed Darwin had taken out all his belongings from his locker shortly before disappearing.
For much of Darwin’s missing five years, he had been living in secret in his own home in the seaside resort of Seaton Carew, where he shared a bed with his wife.
And when family and friends visited – and his sons returned from the inquest into his alleged death – Darwin hid in a bedsit next door that was accessed through a passageway hidden behind the door of a fake cupboard.
Darwin later admitted that he would carry out DIY on the front of his family home and even walked around his area disguised as an old man – even as his two now grown-up sons Anthony and Mark continued to grieve for him thinking he was dead.
The couple even lied to their own children as they attempted to claim pension, benefits and insurance to clear nearly £700,000 before they were caught.
After spending five years laying low, John and Anne were rumbled after John pretended to have amnesia when turning himself in at a London police station – only for a photo of him and Anne in Panama to emerge.
In 2008, after the scandal made national headlines, John was found guilty on deception charges and jailed for six years and three months.
Anne was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail for fraud and money-laundering charges.
During their time in prison, the couple divorced with John citing ‘unreasonable behaviour’ as a reason for the split.
John moved to Manila and remarried after the divorce to Filipino woman Mercy Mae Avila Darwin, 48.
The couple made headlines earlier this year when Ms Darwin said her husband, who is now 71, was ‘on his way’ to fight in Ukraine and has ‘good life insurance’ in case it all goes wrong.
After her release from prison, Anne Darwin moved to a village near York.
She works for the RSPCA after getting IT and business qualifications while in prison.
She was also able to reconcile with her two sons – after one had branded her a ‘hideous, lying b***h’ – and has been on holidays with them.
John was jailed for six years and three months after admitting eight deception charges, wife Anne was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail for fraud and money-laundering.
When Darwin disappeared after taking his canoe out to sea, there was bafflement that he could have got into difficulty because the sea was said to be ‘like a millpond’.
Just under a year after he disappeared, Darwin turned up at his family home looking ‘an absolute mess’, his wife said.
She claimed that she had really believed he was dead before he turned up.
‘Although I was pleased he was still alive, I think deep down a part of me was always angry,’ she said.
‘To think of what he put us all through. He had basically come back expecting me to forgive him.’
She claimed that she wanted to report what he had done but he then threatened to say she had been involved from the start, so she was ‘trapped’.
Mrs Darwin then agreed to become complicit in the scam and even agreed not to tell their two sons that their father was alive.
After her release from prison, Anne Darwin (pictured left this week) moved to a village near York and was able to get a job with the RSCPA thanks to qualifications she gained in prison. Right: Darwin with his second wife on their wedding day
At the inquest into his disappearance in April 2003, Mrs Darwin was able to have her husband declared dead, even though the seven years that is usually needed after someone has gone missing had not yet passed.
Once their life insurance money was paid out and their mortgage paid off, Darwin spent time either with his wife in their family home or next door in the property they also owned that was split into several bedsits.
The couple then decided to move abroad, with Darwin, who had stolen the identity of a dead baby named John Jones, opting for Panama as their destination.
The family home was sold and the couple spent several months together in Panama after they had bought a £50,000 two-bed apartment in a suburb of Panama City.
They also hoped to open a canoeing centre for eco-tourists.
But Darwin then wanted to return to the UK because, Mrs Darwin said, he missed his sons. He said he would claim to have suffered amnesia.
Darwin walked into a police station in December 2007 and said he thought he was a ‘missing person’ but said he could not remember anything that had happened in the past five years.
When their two sons were called to the police station to be reunited with their father, the couple had to pretend to be astonished as they too saw each other again.
Mrs Darwin said that her husband told her: ‘Hello Anne, is that really you, are you all right?’
After the couple’s fraud was exposed and they were released from prison in 2011 after serving half of their sentences, their marriage came to an end.