Anne Darwin took to the witness box for the first time yesterday and painted a damning picture of her husband, describing him as a domineering bully who always got what he wanted.
On the fourth day of Mrs Darwin's trial over allegations that she obtained £250,000 in fraudulent insurance claims, she told Teesside Crown Court that her husband, John, had stormed out of a hospital minutes before the birth of his first son and that he joked with their neighbours that he only allowed his wife out of the house to vote.
She also revealed that she came close to leaving her husband after discovering that he was having an affair. But, she said, she forgave him because: "I didn't know how I would cope on my own."
Giving evidence in front of her children, Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, Mrs Darwin broke down in tears in the witness box. She said her husband had made her take part in the plot in which he pretended to have died at sea in a canoeing accident near their home in Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, in 2002.
While he hid in a bedsit attached to their home, Mrs Darwin, a former doctor's receptionist, made £250,000 in allegedly fraudulent insurance claims in a bid to wipe their considerable debt and avoid bankruptcy.
But she is using a defence of marital coercion: she does not dispute making the claims, but says she was forced into doing it by her husband. Yesterday, she admitted that the whole scheme was "a pack of lies", but that "John had told me to do it".
Mrs Darwin told the court that her husband was domineering and that she felt "intellectually inferior" to him and "insignificant". The pair had met on a school bus as teenagers when John had pestered her to go out with him until she gave in, she said.
She added: "If there was something he wanted me to do he would ask me initially to do it and, if I didn't do it, he would just go on and on at me until I did. Whatever John wanted to do, he did in the end ... I was always made to feel like I didn't really count. He had a domineering effect on me and I had no choice but to do what he wanted of me."
Mrs Darwin started crying when she recalled the birth of her first son, Mark, in 1975, when she was told she needed an emergency Caesarean. She said her husband had been with her throughout the labour, but left before the emergency procedure.
"Even though the nursing staff had said to him it will only be five or 10 minutes before your baby is born, he said there was no point in staying, so he went home and left me," she said. "I was upset. I didn't want him to go, but he said there was no point in staying." She explained that she later remonstrated with him and he told her that he only wanted to be present at the birth.
She told the court that as the marriage progressed they stopped going out together, especially after the birth of their children. "He [John] used to joke with the neighbours that he only took me out to vote," she told the jury.
John became secretive and immersed himself in the fantasy world of an online role-playing game, she said, adding: "It was like a virtual world which was played over the internet. The people who played it became characters in this world and they had money to buy and sell things and they used to cast spells on each other."
Mrs Darwin said that her husband used to send other players in the game messages and would speak to them through a headset. She added: "He became rather cagey when using the headphones and speaking into the computer if I came into the room. I asked who he was speaking to and he said he was just playing this game. If I went to look at the screen and if I went to see what was going on he would quickly hide the conversation box." Mrs Darwin told the jury that John, 57, would tell her: "I'm just playing a game. You don't need to be here."
Through the game, John met a woman called Kelly Steel from Kansas, whom Mrs Darwin only became aware of after his disappearance. He then flew out to meet the woman and embark on an affair, telling his wife "he needed to get away". Mrs Darwin said: "He had been virtually a house prisoner for some time and he needed a break and was planning to go. He said he needed a complete break and he wanted to go off on his own. He said he was going to America. I didn't know where he was going to go."
Asked if she had tried to stop him, Mrs Darwin added: "There was not much point because I knew there was no point arguing because, whatever John wanted, John got ... Superficially he would discuss things with me, but my thoughts never seemed to carry any weight."
The court heard earlier that Mr Darwin was an entrepreneur who came up with various schemes to make money and thought he would be a millionaire by the time he retired. But then the jury was told that he had lost £30,000 during his time with Ms Steel in America. Mrs Darwin said: "He thought he knew her well enough to commit to that investment."
Mrs Darwin denies 15 counts of fraud and money laundering. Mr Darwin has admitted deception and will be sentenced later.
The trial continues.