Two decades after Hartlepool prison officer John Darwin attempted to fake his own death in a canoeing ‘accident’, ITV are airing a dramatised version of the bizarre events.
The ‘Canoe Man’ had attempted to disappear in 2002 in order for his wife Anne to claim life insurance money before being caught out in 2007 and jailed for six years for the fraud.
After his disappearance in March 2002, a large-scale search involving the scouring of 62 square miles of coastline looked to have confirmed the worst, as only a single paddle and then the wreckage of his kayak was discovered.
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
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 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
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.
The couple live outside Manila, with Darwin continuing to receive the UK state pension. His wife is said make a living running clothes stalls in the capital.
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’.
The former prison officer paddled out to sea in a canoe near his family home at Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, before ditching the vessel to give the impression that he drowned. Pictured: The wreckage of the canoe that was discovered in the days following his disappearance
For much of Darwin’s missing five years, he had been living in secret in his own home (pictured), 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
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.
In 2016, Mrs Darwin penned a tell-all book (pictured) about her life with her husband
‘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.
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.
None of the Darwin family were involved in making the drama, though the script was based on court documents, police interviews and media (file photo of John)
Anthony (left) and Mark Darwin leave Teesside Crown Court after giving evidence against their mother at her 2008 trial
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.
Mrs Darwin attempted to justify her actions in a book that was released in 2016.
She said in an interview with The Guardian that year that deceiving her sons was ‘unforgiveable’.
She said her sons initially refused to see or talk to her, after one had testified against her at her trial.
‘I was totally shocked by how dark and full of anger they were. To see that was absolutely horrendous. It jolted me. I could easily have buckled then and there,’ she said.
She said she is now reconciled with both of her sons and has been on holidays with them and their families.
Asked if her sons were in touch with their father, she said ‘that’s a private matter for them’.
Mrs Darwin was said to live in a ‘small but comfortable flat’ in a village outside York.
Canoe fraudster John Darwin leaves Teesside Crown Court in 2014. A judge previously ordered he should repay £679,073
For much of Darwin’s missing five years, he had been living in secret in his own home, where he shared a bed with his wife.
Undated handout photo issued by Cleveland Police of CCTV from Kirkleatham Police station when John Darwin was taken into custody
Undated handout photo issued by Cleveland Police of CCTV from Hartlepool Police station when Anne Darwin was taken into custody
Mrs Darwin is pictured left in 2007, after she had been arrested following her return to Britain. Right: The mother-of-two is seen this week
John and Anne Darwin are seen in a family photograph with their sons Mark and Anthony. The couple deceived their sons when they colluded to gain life insurance and pensions payouts
She works for the RSPCA after getting IT and business qualifications while in prison.
Darwin and his second wife moved last year from Manila to a property around 30 minutes away.
Mrs Avila Darwin sub-lets a clothing stall in Manila’s market and also runs another retail business, while Darwin lives off his state pension.
She told The Mirror last year: ‘I have a new business. I’ve had it for three years now. Boom. Making money.
Mrs Avila Darwin told the newspaper this week about her husband allegedly going to Ukraine to join troops fighting against Russian forces.
When questioned about the danger, she said: ‘Yes, dangerous for the Russian when he shoot them.
‘He will have a bullet proof vest and good life insurance, good for me.’
Her comments come ahead of an ITV drama about John and Anne Darwin’s fraud. The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe airs in April.
An ITV drama about John and Anne Darwin’s fraud, titled The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, airs in April. Pictured: Eddie Marsan as Darwin and Monica Dolan as his wife