Up the creek: How a dream of escape became a real-life nightmare

Eight days ago, John Darwin's arrival at a London police station sparked celebrations. The reason? He had drowned five years earlier. With breakneck speed, his story - and that of his wife - has unravelled. James Macintyre reports
Click to follow

To any former chum browsing Friends Reunited, there was little enough remarkable about John Darwin's posting in January 2002. "Taught... for 18 years before leaving teaching to join Barclays Bank," he wrote. "At present, work for Prison Service and have portfolio of properties. Married to a convent girl... we have two grown-up sons and two dogs. Recently moved to Seaton Carew where I hope to retire soon."

He was, though, something of a dreamer. He boasted to his workmates of a property portfolio that would make him a millionaire, which he hoped would allow him to retire at 51. According to his own father, Mr Darwin, who earned 25,000 a year, had "ideas above his station". "I think he was in a bit too much of a hurry to make money," Ronald Darwin later said.

But there was no suspicion, only concern, when news broke that a man fitting Mr Darwin's description had gone missing after canoeing out to sea near his Seaton Carew home close to Hartlepool. At 10.30pm on 21 March 2002, hours after her husband had failed to turn up for a night shift at work, Anne Darwin called the police. A vast search costing nearly 100,000 was launched, and at 1.15am a double-ended paddle of the type used with Mr Darwin's kayak flapped into view in the sea.

Mr Darwin was assumed to be dead. His seemingly devastated wife was quoted in the media saying: "All I want is to bury his body. It would enable me to move on." Perhaps a little oddly, she added: "I have no reason to think he would have left and stage-managed this." And 13 months later, the case was closed when an inquest declared that Mr Darwin "probably encountered difficulties as a result of which he died".

So when news emerged a week ago of a man walking into a London police station declaring "I think I'm a missing person", it looked like an extraordinary but ultimately uplifting tale of someone rising from the dead. In a joyful phone call to their mother's new home in Panama, Mr Darwin's sons Mark, 31, and Anthony, 29, told her: "We're sitting here with dad." Mr Darwin's 90-year-old father added to the sense of celebration. "It's wonderful. Thank the Lord," he said. "I always knew John wouldn't do anything stupid. He has always been a sensible sort of fellow."

Yet within 48 hours, the story would be blown apart. By yesterday, his wife had admitted the initial phone contact with her husband was fake. "It was a bit stilted," she said. "I didn't think John was very convincing."

From almost the moment he arrived at West End Central police station at 5.30pm last Saturday, his claim to be an amnesiac "missing person" began to unravel. The most critical twist came on Wednesday, with the publication of a photograph of the couple in Panama last July, posted on the website of a property agency and discovered by a woman passing time on Google. By the end of that day, Mr Darwin had been arrested and his wife had confessed to having known that he wasn't dead after all.

Mr Darwin's motive in faking his own death appears to be enrichment and, more immediately, escape from spiralling debt. His wife, given the swift go-ahead by her husband's death certificate now queried after the coroner's office admitted doubts about a process that normally takes seven years drew her husband's life insurance policy for 25,000, and had their 130,000 mortgage paid off by another life policy. On top of that, she was to sell the family house, along with a neighbouring property, for 450,000. Just six weeks before her husband's reappearance in the UK, she moved to Panama, leaving behind friends and relatives without saying goodbye.

But Mr Darwin, who was initially claiming not to remember anything since 2000, had already come to the attention of the police. Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson said: "There was some information which was reported to us three months ago to suggest that perhaps there was something suspicious with regards to his disappearance, and as a result of that information we then began to conduct some inquiries on a financial basis." This "information" could have involved tip-offs, including from his wife's colleagues at Gilesgate Medical Centre in Durham, who heard her "whispering" urgently on the phone to a man who might have been her husband. Or it could have been from one of several reported sightings, including one in Panama only months ago, and one near Seaton Carew in 2005, dismissed as a "cousin" by Mrs Darwin. Yesterday she described how her husband even walked on the same beach from which he was thought to have paddled to his death.

More likely, police were following the money. Attempts were allegedly made to obtain a credit card using Mr Darwin's old address, and the former prison officer tried to buy a yacht in Gibraltar with a deposit of 1,000 transferred from his wife's account on 18 November 2005.

Before that, it is now transpires, the Darwins were secretly living as man and wife at home in Seaton Carew, with Mr Darwin "hiding" in the adjoining apartment during visits by friends and relatives including their two sons. Mrs Darwin, who was still claiming this weekend she thought her husband was dead in 2002, admitted he had talked of faking his death in order to escape mounting debts. "John said there was only one way out of this situation, and that was to fake his own death," she said. "I pleaded with him not to do it. I said it was the wrong thing to do. I honestly didn't know what he'd planned or for when."

Mr Darwin was also operating some time later under a false name, John Jones. The "dead" Mr Darwin wanted to set sail around the world. According to some reports, he and his wife intended to develop an eco-resort in the Caribbean.

If their parents' movements are gradually being pieced together, less clear is the role of their sons Mark and Anthony. On Friday 30 November the day before his father came "back from the dead" Mark left his job at international property consultants E C Harris. Coincidence? If the brothers had been tipped off about their father's planned re-emergence, they showed no sign of it. Between then and Tuesday, Mark, along with Anthony who had also resigned from his job with Towergate Risk Solutions in Reading in August acted as family spokesmen, saying they were "delighted" at their father's reappearance but confirming he could not remember anything of the past seven years.

By now Mr Darwin's wife had been traced to Panama City, where she seemed to be a regular expat in the tax haven. She was as shocked as the boys, we were told, and thrilled her husband was alive.

However, as media outlets frantically sent reporters to Panama, the tide was beginning to turn. That evening, a tantalising seed of doubt was planted. Mr Darwin's aunt, Margaret Burns, 80, said: "I'm a cynic... to be honest I don't believe he ever got wet."

Then, on Wednesday came the bombshell that, after a momentous day and night, would lead to headlines the following morning declaring "the game's up". A reader of the Daily Mirror put the words "John", "Anne" and "Panama " into the Google internet search engine. To her astonishment, up popped a picture of the couple grinning side by side on a property website in Panama, dated July 2006 a full eight months after Mr Darwin laid down the yacht deposit.

"I blinked and there they were," the woman said. When she rang Cleveland Police, an officer responded: "You must be joking!" Mr Darwin was arrested on suspicion of fraud at the Hampshire home of his son Anthony. He was later taken into Kirkleatham police station for questioning.

Across the world in Panama City, meanwhile, Mrs Darwin had been tracked down by journalists to the office of a lawyer, where she was initially overheard panicking. "My life has become a nightmare," she was reported as saying. "The whole situation is a mess. Please, I need some help. I'm on my own in a foreign country and my husband is thousands of miles away." Eventually, confronted with the 2006 picture, she expressed disbelief and conceded: "Well, I guess that picture answers a lot of questions. Yes, that's my husband." By now despairing, her mind seemed to turn to her sons. "My sons are never going to forgive me now. They are going to hate me. It looks as if I am going to be left without a husband, a home or a family now."

This portrayal of the sons as victims was boosted the following day when Mark and Anthony broke their silence to express anger and dismay at the behaviour of their parents. In a joint statement, they said: "Having seen the recent media speculation surrounding our parents ever since our dad was arrested, we are very much in an angry and confused state of mind. In the short space of time following our dad's appearance in London on Saturday, we have gone through a rollercoaster of emotion, from the height of elation at finding him to be alive to the depths of despair at the recent stories of fraud and these latest pictures. And the shock of being thrust into the media spotlight."

Turning to their mother, they said that if the "confession" that emerged on Wednesday night was true, "then we very much feel that we have been the victims in a large scam". They added: "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 present time we want no further contact with them."

Soon afterwards, it was rumoured that Mark had left town. Clearing his room in north London, he grabbed a laptop and some clothes, leaving a note for his girlfriend. According to his flatmate, the note included garbled references to calling from phone boxes and Panama.

By this time, his mother was heading for Miami, where she would reveal the secret life of her and her husband, which began at the family home from 2003, when her husband turned up unshaven, skinny and dishevelled at the family house.

But she remained elusive about the period before her husband's disappearance. By staying tight-lipped last week, she could have been protecting her husband from full exposure of his crimes, making her a reluctant liar on his behalf. Earlier last week, it was assumed by some he had re-emerged after she claimed the life insurance, and a row over the new money caused him to "drag her down" by "outing" himself in London last weekend.

But it now appears that, at least from 2003, he drew his wife, if not his sons, into a personally masterminded plot to pay their debts, before starting again in Panama where the "dreamer" could live like a millionaire.

This weekend, that dream seemed a million miles away as Mr Darwin's "amnesia" over his lost years was under the intense scrutiny of police questioning, his sons were in hiding and his wife was preparing to return to Britain for a full confession.