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'Missing canoeist' couple jailed for six years

John and Anne Darwin were each sentenced to more than six years in jail yesterday for the £250,000 insurance scam they carried out by faking his death in a canoeing accident.

Anne Darwin, 56, was jailed for six-and-a-half-years after being found guilty on all 15 counts of fraud and money laundering at Teesside Crown Court.

Her husband John, 57, had earlier pleaded guilty to his part in the elaborate scam. He was jailed for six years and three months.

As they stood in the dock awaiting sentence, the Darwins avoided eye contact with each other. Their sons Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, sat in the public gallery and showed no emotion as the sentences were passed by Mr Justice Wilkie.

The judge said that the "real victims" were the couple's sons "whose lives you crushed" – Mark and Anthony were made to believe that their father was dead for five-and-a-half years and then had to give evidence against their mother in court.

"I accept you, John, were the driving force behind this deceit," the judge said. "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."

Speaking after the case, Detective Inspector Andy Greenwood, the officer in charge of the police investigation, described Mrs Darwin's treatment of her sons as despicable and said she was a compulsive liar.

He added: "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... I just don't know how any mother could do that...

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

Det Insp Greenwood also revealed that officers originally suspected that Mark and Anthony had known about their parents' plot. "But the more we investigated it, the more we realised they did not know." They had gone through a "particularly horrendous sequence of events", he said.

The Darwins' scheme began in March 2002 when, crippled by debt and with the threat of bankruptcy looming, they hatched a plan to fake his death in a canoeing accident at seanear their home in Seaton Carew, Hartlepool.

In the ensuing five-and-a-half years he would lie low, pretending to be dead, while she claimed £250,000 on various insurance policies. The money was to finance a new life in Panama.

In December last year John Darwin walked into a police station in London and said: "I think I'm a missing person". But his claims of amnesia were undone when a picture of him and his wife in Panama surfaced. When confronted with the photograph by police, Mr Darwin admitted his part in the deception.

Mrs Darwin admitted her involvement, but pleaded not guilty at court saying her husband made her do it. Her defence of marital coercion was undermined, however, by email correspondence with her husband, produced in court as evidence, which showed she was a willing participant in the fraud.

Also undermining that defence was a spreadsheet that John Darwin created, detailing exactly how the couple would carry out the scam. It included details on how they would open bank accounts and apply for visas.

The Darwins still hold £250,000 in accounts but there will be a compensation hearing at a date to be fixed to decide how they should pay it back.