Canoe conman John Darwin freed from jail

John Darwin, the canoeist who became famous after faking his own death, has been released from jail and is living a few miles from his former home.

Days after he was released from Moorland open prison, his former neighbours were amazed to see the notorious fraudster strolling along the same beach where he had staged his death.

"He's been up and down the beach already, walking a dog. It was early morning. He must be staying nearby," said the owner of the Ocean View guest house in Seaton Carew.

Darwin vanished in March 2002 after paddling out to sea in his home-made canoe. His wife, Anne, a former doctor's receptionist, played the grieving widow – but it later transpired that the pair had concocted the elaborate hoax to claim £250,000 in insurance and pension funds.

It was not until Darwin returned to Britain five years later claiming amnesia and a photograph of the happy couple living in Panama emerged that the fraud began to unravel and they were jailed.

The 60-year-old walked free from the prison in South Yorkshire this week after serving less than half his sentence and was believed to be staying in Easington, County Durham, 13 miles from Seaton Carew, where he disappeared in 2002. "He is living with a family friend," a source said. "Where he is staying has been pre-arranged."

Darwin's aunt, Margaret Burns, said yesterday: "I hope he's not staying with a friend. He had only one as far as I knew and that poor soul had to tell people he'd died after being washed out to sea. He should keep himself to himself and not ruin any other people's lives."

Speaking from her retirement bungalow in Blackhall Colliery, she added: "Everybody's been asking me what I expect to say to John when I see him walk up my drive – but I have not heard from him nor seen him for 40 years so I don't expect that day to come any time soon. I'd probably tell him he's missed some good jokes at his expense while he's been away."

The former prison officer was sentenced to six years and three months in prison in July 2008, after admitting seven charges of obtaining money by deception and a passport offence. His wife, who is due to be released in two months, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years after being convicted of 15 counts of fraud.

The couple, who had a property portfolio of 12 homes but were struggling to make mortgage repayments, hatched the plan to fake his death and deceive not only the police, a coroner and financial institutions, but even their sons Mark and Anthony.

At one point Darwin lived secretly in a bedsit next to the family home, using the assumed identity of John Jones he had taken from a local child who died in infancy. In October 2007, Mrs Darwin settled her affairs in the UK, having sold off the family's properties, and joined her husband in Panama. Before long, Darwin flew back to the UK and handed himself in at a central London police station, claiming he was suffering from amnesia. His wife pretended to be shocked at his return from the dead.

Her story collapsed when a photograph was found on the internet showing the smiling couple in the office of a Panama estate agent. Her defence of "marital coercion" was later undermined when the prosecution produced loving emails the couple had exchanged.

Cleveland Police said they were keen to ensure that Darwin does not cash in on his infamy, as he is said to be eager to publish his memoirs. A spokeswoman for the force said if that were to be the case, his assets could be reassessed and seized.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue