Prosecution begins case against wife of death-faking canoeist

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The Independent Online

The wife of former prison officer John Darwin "put on a great act", playing an "equal and vital" role with "superb aplomb" in the plot which saw the pair fraudulently claim £250,000 in insurance payouts by faking his death, a court heard yesterday.

Anne Darwin, 56, claimed the money by convincing insurance companies, the police, the coroner and "most poignantly" her own sons that their father had drowned following a canoeing accident in 2002.

At the start of the trial in which Mrs Darwin faces 15 counts of fraud and money laundering, Andrew Robertson QC, for the prosecution, told Teesside Crown Court that the Darwins hatched the plan after becoming laden with debt.

Their scheme was to fake his death and claim money on various insurance policies before fleeing Britain and moving to Panama to live an "... idyllic life together".

Wearing a white shirt, grey fleece and glasses, Mrs Darwin sat in the court and heard Mr Robertson outline the details of the couple's scheme. "They were at risk of being made bankrupt – the shame and embarrassment of which neither of them wished to face," he said. "Out of this dire financial situation, seeds of this fraud were born.

"The initial idea may well have been John Darwin's rather than Anne's, but, in the Crown's submission, 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."

The prosecution said the scheme was carried out without the knowledge of the Darwins' sons, Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, who were led to believe, for five-and-a-half years, that their father was dead. "Anne clearly thought nothing of lying to her sons and convincing them that their own father was lost at sea and dead in order to see the fraud through to its conclusion," Mr Robertson said.

The prosecution argued that the facts of the case were largely not in dispute and that Mrs Darwin would be relying on a defence of marital coercion, meaning she will argue that she was forced into taking part in the plot by her husband.

Mr Robertson said that the defence was unusual, and that for it to succeed Mrs Darwin would need to prove the offence was committed in the presence of her husband and that she was under such pressure from him that she was impelled to act against her own will. He added that the prosecution would prove that much of the work needed for the fraud to succeed was carried out by Mrs Darwin alone. "This was a sole performance by Anne Darwin," he said.

The court heard the scheme was concocted on 21 March 2002. That evening Mr Darwin left the couple's home in Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, with enough supplies to live rough. Once by the sea, he pushed his canoe out into the waves before phoning his wife and asking her to drive him to Durham train station.

The fact that Mr Darwin was not with his wife at that point and merely on the other end of a telephone was significant and undermines her defence, Mr Robertson told the court: "When he asked her to pick him up she could easily have refused or simply not turned up."

Later that night Mrs Darwin phoned the police to report her husband missing. She would go on to make numerous fraudulent insurance claims from various companies by "convincing them her husband was dead when he was very much alive and well".

Mr Robertson added: "...It would obviously require considerable guile, convincing pretence, persistence and guts on the part of Anne Darwin to see it through.

"Her role was a positive one. John Darwin ... simply had to keep his head down so that the falsity of his disappearance would not be rumbled. But if she kept her nerve the rewards were ... considerable."

Following the missing person report, an air and sea rescue mission was launched and a police family liaison officer was assigned to Mrs Darwin, who "kept up the facade that she was genuinely grieving".

In the August of that year, a body was found and Mrs Darwin was asked to identify it. When told it was not the body of her husband, Mr Robertson said that Mrs Darwin "burst into tears and said that she wanted the body to be John's so that he could be laid to rest and so she could move on".

Mrs Darwin is charged with five counts of obtaining money transfer by deception, six charges of transferring criminal property, one charge of using criminal property, one charge of obtaining property by deception and two charges of converting criminal property. Mrs Darwin denies all the charges. The trial continues. At an earlier hearing, John Darwin admitted deception and will be sentenced later.