Canoe man and wife jailed for six years

John and Anne Darwin were each jailed for more than six years today for carrying out a £250,000 insurance con by faking his death in a canoeing accident.

John Darwin was jailed for six years and three months. His wife Anne was sentenced to six years and six months after she was found guilty of her role in the fraud.

The couple tricked the police, insurance companies and even their two sons Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, into believing he drowned in the North Sea in 2002 - only for Mr Darwin to turn up at a London police station last year.

They were undone by a photograph of the grinning couple taken in Panama four years after he disappeared.

Mr Justice Wilkie told the couple: "Although the sums involved are not as high as some reported cases, the duration of the offending, its multi-faceted nature and in particular the grief inflicted over the years to those who in truth were the real victims, your own sons, whose lives you crushed, make this a case which merits a particularly severe sentence."

Addressing the defendants, the judge said: "I accept you, John, were the driving force behind this deceit. You, Anne Darwin, perhaps initially unconvinced, played an instrumental rather than organising role. Nevertheless, you contributed to its success and played your part efficiently. In my judgment, you operated as a team, each contributing to the joint venture."

Anne Darwin, 56, had claimed her "domineering" husband forced her to go through with the plan to con insurance and pension companies by faking his death at sea.

But the jury at Teesside Crown Court rejected her defence and convicted her today of six counts of fraud and nine of money laundering after a seven-day trial.

She tricked everyone with "superb aplomb", maintaining the lie for over five years while she and her former prison officer husband set up a new life in Panama.

But her defence of "marital coercion" was undermined when the prosecution produced emails they sent each other.

This afternoon's court sentencing was the first time that Mark and Anthony Darwin had been in the same room as their father since his arrest in December last year.

Peter Makepeace, mitigating for Mr Darwin, told the court: "He struggles to come to terms with what he has done to those boys. He continues to harbour the hope that a day will come when he can be reconciled with his sons.

"That may be as fantastical and unrealistic as the views he has held at times throughout his life."

He said that hope will sustain Darwin through his jail term and "through what is presumably to be a very lonely existence when he is released".

Mr Darwin is taking medication for depression in jail, where he is subject to abuse from fellow inmates because of his past career as a prison officer, Mr Makepeace said.

Mrs Darwin's barrister David Waters QC said she returned voluntarily to the UK when her husband was arrested, which saved the British authorities "a considerable amount of expense and delay".

He said she wanted to return all the cash. There will be a compensation hearing at a date to be fixed to decide how the Darwins can pay back the £250,000 they defrauded.

The Darwins hatched the plot as they hurtled towards bankruptcy.

The elaborate plan involved Mr Darwin paddling out into the North Sea in March, 2002, in his home-made canoe, within sight of their home in Seaton Carew, Hartlepool, then going into hiding while his wife claimed he was missing at sea.

She raised the alarm after driving him in secret to Durham railway station.

A huge air sea rescue operation was mounted - without success.

Mrs Darwin turned on the tears when she broke the news of their father's disappearance to her sons.

Mark Darwin told the court: "It crushed my world."

It was only five-and-a-half years later that they learned the truth.

With her husband living rough in Cumbria, the grey-haired former doctor's receptionist began the process of declaring him dead, and conning insurers and pension funds out of the £250,000.

He came home after repeatedly phoning her in tears, and lived in secret in a room in the bedsit the couple owned next door to the family home.

Under the assumed identity John Jones, taken from a local child who died in infancy, Mr Darwin continued to run the couple's affairs and travelled around the world planning a new life for the pair.

In October last year Mrs Darwin settled her affairs in the UK, having sold off the family's property portfolio, and emigrated to Panama, where she joined her husband.

Cash was transferred via the Channel Islands, and the houses which the couple were in danger of losing as they crept close to bankruptcy in 2002 were turned into assets worth £500,000.

They bought a flat and land in the Panama countryside which they hoped to transform into a canoeing centre focusing on eco-tourism.

But then Darwin flew back to the UK and handed himself into a central London police station, claiming he suffered amnesia and could remember nothing since 2000.

He was reunited with his sons in December. They told the court they could not believe he was alive.

Mrs Darwin, still in Panama, was tracked down by a journalist, and pretended to be shocked at the back-from-the-dead miracle.

But her story collapsed when a photograph was found on the internet showing the smiling couple posing in a Panama estate agents in 2006.

Anthony Darwin, 29, said he felt "betrayed" when he realised the snap was genuine.

His older brother told the court he was angry at his mother's deception, saying: "I couldn't believe the fact she knew he was alive all this time and I had been lied to for God knows how long."

The couple were charged with fraud and money laundering, and Mr Darwin faced a separate charge relating to his fake passport in the name John Jones.

Andrew Robertson QC, prosecuting, said the plan might not have been Mrs Darwin's but "it was a scheme in which Anne Darwin not only played an equal and vital role but it was a role which she played with superb aplomb".

At first Mrs Darwin told police she only discovered her husband was alive a year after he went missing.

But she later changed her story when she was shown a library card which Darwin took out in the name of Jones only weeks after he supposedly drowned.

The revelation forced her to admit she knew about the plot months in advance.

She denied the charges, saying she went along with the deception because she was scared her husband would leave her.

But the "marital coercion" defence required Darwin to be present with her each time an offence was committed and for her to be forced to break the law.

Her claims of an unhappy 35-year marriage to a bullying partner were also undermined when the jury was shown loving and sometimes flirtatious emails the two sent each other.

Before his wife's trial Darwin had admitted seven counts of fraud and one of dishonestly obtaining a passport. He denied nine counts of money laundering, which will remain on file.

John Darwin's aunt, Margaret Burns, described Mr and Mrs Darwin as a "funny family".

Asked whether she thought Anne Darwin had been manipulated by her husband, she replied: "Of course not, it's too complicated.

"He was locked away. She had to go through a cupboard to get at him.

"She could have left him there or refused to feed him."

Of Anne Darwin, she said: "She was a practising Catholic, she has not practised very hard, has she?"

She said the family had been hurt by the couple's actions.

"I don't want to upset the family any more than they are getting upset by (John's) actions."

The Crown Prosecution Service said it would ensure that all profits from the "callous and calculated" fraud were confiscated.

Gerry Wareham, chief prosecutor for the CPS in Cleveland, said: "The plot was carefully calculated to deceive the authorities, family and friends, including their own sons, who were led to believe for several years that their father was dead.

"It is clear from the verdict that the jury believe she is as much to blame as her husband."

Gale Gilchrist, a Crown Advocate for the CPS, added: "This was a callous and calculated fraud. The Darwins were willing to deceive family and friends and to waste considerable resources of the emergency services, all to maintain a lie that John Darwin had died and then exploit any compassion extended to them.

"We will now be working together with the police to ensure that all the profits of the crime currently held by the Darwins are confiscated."

The Darwin story has not ended today in court, Detective Inspector Andy Greenwood said.

"I don't think we have really got to the bottom of everything here today," he said.

"I'm sure there will be more stories that come to light but she has clearly been brought to task for the offences she committed."

The now famous photograph of the grinning couple prompted police to arrest Mr Darwin, the detective said.

He feared Mr Darwin might flee back to Panama if he saw the damning picture.

He said: "I suppose it would have been difficult to get Mr Darwin back."

He said the couple's sons were treated in a "disgraceful" way.

When he started his investigation he feared the sons must have known about their parents' plan.

"But the more we investigated it, the more we realised they did not know, they had gone through a particularly horrendous sequence of events.

"For her to say 'I had to go along with it because John told me', I just don't know how any mother could do that."

Mr Greenwood said it was not a "victimless crime".

"You just had to stand in court and listen to the evidence of her sons or her friend, Irene Blakemore, to see that."

He added: "She was out and out despicable and I don't have the time of day for her."

Mr Greenwood agreed that her desperate defence was the last throw of the dice.

"The sensible option would have been to put her hands up to the offences committed and not put her sons through the turmoil of giving evidence.

"She put a lot of people through a lot of heartache and a lot of expense as well.

"A lot of professional people were employed for a very long time to deal with his particular inquiry."

He added: "I am really pleased with the verdict.

"To my mind, Anne Darwin has been a compulsive liar throughout this inquiry."

He stressed that the police will work hard to make sure the couple do not benefit financially from their huge deception.

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