The Darwins: an evolving family drama that captivated the nation

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The nation has learned a great deal this week about a nobody named John Darwin, who is at Kirkleatham police station, in Cleveland, helping with inquiries into allegations of fraud.

Though we do not yet know the full story, one thing is certain. John Darwin is a dismal failure.

His dream of a new life of anonymous comfort in Panama is dead. He failed as a speculative business man, he is a bad father, he is not a clever criminal, he is not even an inventive liar.

If, as seems probable, he faked his own death by pretending to have drowned in March 2002, to escape money problems, he was only copying a well known stunt unsuccessfully tried out in 1974 by the errant Labour MP John Stonehouse, who inspired the novelist David Nobbs to write the hit comedy series The Fall and Rise and Reginald Perrin.

As for Darwin's story of memory loss that wheeze was made famous by Agatha Christie over 80 years ago, when she was upset about her husband's infidelity and disappeared for 11 days, to live under an assumed name in a hotel in Harrogate.

So how has this unoriginal, unreliable failure of a man managed to be the centre of a week long drama that the nation finds so utterly gripping?

The answer is perhaps in the ease with which he has been shown up as a liar, with each day adding a new twist as his fantastic story melted in the heat of public exposure.

He is said by police to be "giving some sort of account" of what he has been up to since he set out to sea in his red canoe five years ago. The police will have asked him how a man who claims to have suffered memory loss all those years managed to draw money from his bank account in 2005 and 2006, and apply in March 2006 for a credit card. They must also be tempted to ask how he could be stupid enough to think he would get away with it.

The police are also keen to speak to his elusive wife, Anne Darwin. Panama immigration authorities say that she left their country on Wednesday night but they did not know where she had gone. British police were tipped off that she was on a flight to Heathrow, and waited to arrest her as she arrived but no Mrs Darwin. There was a report yesterday that she was at Miami airport on Thursday, waiting for a connecting flight.

There is no doubt that Anne Darwin has been complicit in her husband's deceit but what the police will want to know is for how long. If she knew all the time that her husband was alive, she would face charges of perjury, for lying at his inquest, and fraud, for claiming from his life insurance policy and pension fund. Her story is that she did not know what had happened to him until, at some unspecified date, he suddenly surfaced to tell her, in strictest secrecy, that he was alive and wanted her to join him in Panama.

John Darwin is a fantasist, who dreamed of getting rich. She seems to be a silly woman pulled into his dream world. One of the many stories to surface about him is that he used to boast that he would be a millionaire by the age of 50. Yet, for 20 years he worked as a teacher an admirable vocation, but not a path to riches. Then, as if he had suddenly realised that the years were slipping by, he dropped out of teaching and went to work for Barclays Bank. A year later, in 1998, he switched to the prison service.

Reputedly, he installed 17 phone lines in the family's comfortable four bedroom home in Witton Gilbert, near Durham, so that he could play the stock market. He once had a sports car and a Land Rover. He talked of setting up a farm in Scotland to breed cattle. A comment posted on a Hartlepool website by former colleague at Holme House prison said: "Worked with John for years. A strange bloke indeed. Funnily enough, when he disappeared there wasn't one colleague at work who thought he'd drowned, all to a man said he'd done a runner."

Early in 2002, the Darwins sold their Witton Gilbert home for 70,000, and bought two adjoining three-storey houses overlooking the sea in Seaton Carew for 170,000, with the idea that they would live in 3, The Cliff, and rent out 4, The Cliff as a 15-room bedsit. He was a 25,000-a-year prison officer, and his wife was earning 17,000 as a doctor's receptionist, so they were taking on a commitment well over twice their combined annual income.

Mr Darwin was last seen so everyone thought at 8am on 21 March 2002, paddling out to sea in his red kayak. Late that day, his wife reported him missing. Six RNLI lifeboats, three inshore boats, a Royal Navy ship, an RAF helicopter and a police spotter plane went searching, scoured the coastline from Hartlepool down to Staithes, North Yorkshire, at an estimated cost of 60,000, but all that was recovered, was a yellow jacket and a paddle. Bits of the wrecked canoe washed up in the River Tees two months later.

On 21 September 2002, the Darlington-based Northern Echo carried a heart rending interview with Anne Darwin, the grieving widow, describing how she would stare in anguish from the window of the family home out across the sea where her husband had disappeared.

"The view from my window is a daily reminder," she said. "This was to be the house of our dreams and I have just got to look out and not dwell on the tragedy. All I want is to bury his body. Then I can move on."

There was some surprise that a canoeist should apparently drown in calm sea, and that no corpse should turn up, but at an inquest in April 2003, Darwin was declared dead. Mrs Darwin then collected on a life insurance policy, which is thought to have been worth more than 100,000, plus a 60,000 payout from the Prison Service pension scheme. The pension fund and the insurance company will doubtless be asking the Darwins for their money back.

In March this year after the activity in Mr Darwin's bank account had begun, suggesting that he needed money Mrs Darwin sold the bedsit for 160,000. In the summer, she went on holiday to Panama. When she returned, a work colleague noticed how she was having a series of secretive telephone calls, and called the police to say that she suspected Mrs Darwin was in contact with her husband. It seems to have been that call which stimulated police interest in the case.

No sooner did the police resume theirContinued from page 11

inquiries, that things began happening within the Darwin family. In August, their son Anthony, 29, left his job with the insurance company, Towergate Risk Solutions. His older brother, Mark, 31, also left his job at about the same time.

In November, Anne Darwin made the startling decision to sell up and move to another continent. She found a buyer for3, The Cliff, John Duffield, and asked him to deposit the 395,000 sale price in a bank in Panama. One of the neighbours claimed that Mrs Darwin departed in such a rush that the clutter she left behind filled 15 skips.

But Mr Duffield told a slightly less dramatic story. He said that Mrs Darwin had not appeared to be in a great hurry to sell in fact he was the one anxious to complete the sale and all that was left was some furniture, such as wardrobes and settees, which filled a single skip.

"I find the whole thing amusing,'' Mr Duffield told journalists who gathered on his front door step, as the police were leaving. "It was just a normal house sale. We did find teach yourself Spanish books in her study. We assumed she was moving to Spain."

But she failed to leave a forwarding address with the buyer or the estate agent. When the Darwin story first appeared in the news, Mr Duffield contacted Cleveland police to tell them that he was still getting letters addressed to Anne Darwin, including some from a Panama branch of HSBC. That mail was taken away by the police early this week. Meanwhile, Mrs Darwin was living in a two-bedroom rented apartment in the Eldorado suburb of Panama City, keeping to herself. In all the interest that the case has aroused this week, no one has yet come across anyone in Panama City who had had any social contact with Mrs Darwin.

Last weekend, there was an emotional reunion between John Darwin, apparently back from the dead, and his two sons. He went to live with Anthony, in Basingstoke. A statement released by the sons said: "The news of John's appearance came as a huge shock to the whole family. We are extremely happy that he's alive and we are looking forward to spending time with him. Anne has been informed of the good news and is delighted to hear it."

But, early on Wednesday morning, Mr Darwin was arrested, after the police had learnt about the movements in his bank account. That same morning, The Daily Mirror had a sensational report on the front page of its 2am edition. A photograph had turned up on the internet, showing John and Anne Darwin posing together in July, in a publicity photograph with Mario Villar, boss of "Move to Panama", a specialist real estate firm for ex-pats setting up home in Central America.

What had once been a tale of mystery now became a spectacle of a family tearing itself apart in public. The two sons issued a statement through Cleveland police who say that the younger men are innocent victims of the affair, despite the unexplained coincidence of their both giving up their jobs.

"We very much feel we have been the victims of a large scam," they said. "How could our mam continue to let us believe our dad had died when he was very much alive? We have not spoken to either of our parents since our dad's arrest, and at this time we want no further contact with them."

Faced with that rejection from her sons, a tearful Anne Darwin admitted that she had treated them badly, and that she had moved to Panama to rejoin her husband, knowing that he was there.

"I do blame John," she told The Daily Mirror who evidently knew her whereabouts after the Panama authorities had lost track of her. "I should never have listened to him. He can be very persuasive. I just wish I had told the boys when I found out.

"I'm sure they'd have talked some sense into me. But I didn't. I didn't tell anyone. And one lie led to another."

We have yet to find out why John Darwin suddenly decided to drop the long pretence that he was dead. In Panama, he seemed to have everything: his loyal wife was with him again, and they had a very large nest egg that could keep them comfortable for a very long time in a very low-cost part of the world. Even if the British police located him, they would have no reason to fear arrest. There is no record that any Briton has ever been extradited from Panama.

The most probable explanation for his sudden reappearance is that he and his wife fell out, either over infidelity, or money. If they did, he would have discovered that all the cards were in her hands. He was officially dead, so proceeds from the sale of the houses, his pension fund and the life insurance were legally hers. There was only one way he could stake a claim on any of that money, which was to come back to life.

At 5.30 pm last Saturday, John Darwin turned up at a police station in central London, looking tanned and well, and announced: "I think I'm a missing person."