Darwins: How one simple lie led to the destruction of a family

From the bay window of her seafront home in Seaton Carew, Anne Darwin watched the RAF helicopter which, along with five lifeboats, led the 36-hour search for her missing husband. The former GP's receptionist had prompted the £150,000 emergency operation in a phone call to Cleveland police on 21 March 2002, informing them that John Darwin had taken his kayak out into the North Sea and failed to return.

It was the opening lie in a calumny that would cost the Darwins their assets, their liberty and their relationship with their adult sons, Mark and Anthony. Hours earlier, Anne Darwin had received another phone call from her husband asking her to pick him up from the car park at North Gare, a windswept beach less than a mile from their home.

The beauty spot on the mouth of the river Tees had been a favoured stopping point for John Darwin, a prison officer and former teacher, during his frequent trips in his red kayak, Orca. But with a calculated finality, this time he pushed the lightweight vessel back into the sea and climbed into the couple's £48,000 Range Rover for the brief drive to Durham railway station.

As Mr Darwin travelled to Cumbria to hide out in Whitehaven, it fell to Mrs Darwin to begin covering his tracks and realising their plan of avoiding bankruptcy and the loss of their cherished status as a respectably wealthy couple. She did so with what Andrew Robertson QC, the prosecution barrister in her trial, characterised as "superb aplomb".

Shortly after returning home on 21 March to Nos 3 and 4 The Cliff, two sprawling Victorian villas in Seaton Carew that the couple bought in December 2000 for £170,000, Mrs Darwin got a phone call from staff at Holme House Prison in nearby Stockton-on-Tees asking why her husband had not turned up for his shift. In tones of rising panic, the former convent schoolgirl told the caller she had not seen him since he had left at 8am and paddled out to sea.

Friends and family who gathered to offer support recalled how Mrs Darwin would frequently gaze out to sea at the rescue operation and, when it was called off, the empty expanse of sea. But it was the grief-stricken response to her sons that cemented the aura of a devastated widow.

Mark Darwin, now 32, travelled from his home in Hampshire to comfort his mother in the days after the disappearance. Describing the first moments of their meeting at her trial, he said: "She flung her arms around me, she said, 'He's gone, I think. I have lost him.' She wouldn't stop crying for ages. It crushed my world."

To underline her sense of isolation, the grey-haired former teenage beauty later said in an interview: "I think John has met with an unfortunate accident in the sea and has died. That's the only way I have been able to cope with it. I have no reason to think he would have stage-managed this."

Beneath this veneer of worldly anguish, Mrs Darwin, 56, started the bureaucratic process of amassing the proceeds of the fraud. Life insurance policies, pensions and investments were cashed in until the couple had about £250,000. In April 2003, an inquest attended by the "widow" recorded an open verdict, supposedly consigning John Ronald Darwin (whose initials were on the personalised number plate of their Range Rover) to history.

The truth, of course, was very different. Mr Darwin had returned incognito to the marital home after tearfully pleading with his wife to be allowed back from Cumbria. Disguised by long hair and a thick beard, he would disappear from the living area of their house whenever visitors called, using a small door to disappear into the maze of rooms that the couple rented as bedsits.

After successfully obtaining a passport in the name of John Jones, using the identity of a child who died in 1950, Mr Darwin settled down for the next three years with his wife, planning their next move without much evidence of the coercion and emotional bullying that Anne Darwin insisted during her trial had forced her participation in the fraud.

Such was Mr Darwin's confidence in the success of his deception, he even wrote a letter of complaint to the local council about a neighbour's planning application.

To the 57-year-old prison warder who had been earning £22,000 prior to his disappearance, it must have seemed he had pulled off a stunning financial coup. A spreadsheet kept by Mr Darwin and subsequently found by police detailed the extent of the monetary woes faced by the couple in 2002 that belied his frequent boasts to neighbours that he was on his way to becoming a millionaire. Along with a debt of £64,000 on 13 credit cards, the couple were struggling to pay the £245,000 mortgage on 12 terraced buy-to-let properties they had acquired in 2000. With monthly outgoings of £6,700 and an income of about £5,000, the couple were on the verge of bankruptcy.

Even though they could have sold their properties to recoup the debt, the loss of face was too much to contemplate. A police source said: "Mr and Mrs Darwin liked to portray themselves as well-to-do."

Instead, they plotted a new existence in the tax-free tropical climes of Panama, which, conveniently, did not have a formal extradition agreement with the UK. At some point early in 2006, Mr Darwin moved to Panama City and was joined shortly afterwards for a holiday by his wife who, to the bemusement of her friends and family, had changed from a stay-at-home housewife to a globetrotting citizen of the world.

Together they bought a £38,000 top-floor apartment in a transaction that was fatefully – and famously – sealed by their property adviser taking a photograph of the smiling British couple to post on his website. In October 2007 Mrs Darwin sealed her apparent reinvention as a tax exile in a "nice, hot Catholic country" by selling the houses in Seaton Carew and moving to Panama City.

It is possible that the Darwins and their mammoth subterfuge could have passed unnoticed. They spent £200,000 on a 500-acre farm in the Panamanian jungle with the apparent intent of turning it into a tourist eco-holiday village, complete with canoeing trips.

But it was not to be a matter of living happily ever after in equatorial anonymity. On 1 December last year, Mr Darwin, pretending to be an amnesiac, walked into a London police station and announced: "I think I'm a missing person." The scene was set for the heart-warming return of a long-lost father.

A complex flowchart drawn up by the former teacher, disclosed last night, showed that the reason for the dramatic return was one last con to allow Mr Darwin to retrieve his real identity and secure the visa he needed to live permanently in Panama.

Within a week, the entire edifice of deception and heartbreak that the couple had built came crashing down. A Google search of the words "John, Anne, Panama" revealed the picture taken by the couple's property adviser, which was promptly passed to police and a tabloid newspaper. By 11 December, the couple were in prison awaiting the trial that yesterday ended in jail sentences of more than six years – and humiliation.

It was the ending of a grandiose artifice that was foreseen by very few, apart from Mr Darwin's 80-year-old aunt. At the time of his reappearance, Margaret Burns revealed her longstanding suspicions about her nephew. She said: "I'm a cynic now. To be honest, I don't that believe he ever got wet."

The Darwins' plan to build a life in Panama

An email from John to Anne in May 2007 tells her that changes to visa regulations mean he will be unable to continue living in Panama on his tourist visa. The email contained a spreadsheet explaining in great detail a number of different scenarios that would allow him to return.

To get an investor's visa (which would allow him to stay indefinitely) he needed to deposit $200,000 (£100,000) in an account in Panama. To do this his identity would have to be verified by police in Britain.

Knowing his John Jones alias would not stand up to scrutiny, they decided the only way to get the visa was to bring John Darwin back from the dead, hence his visit to a London police station in December 2007. He thought he could convince police here that he had amnesia, thus allowing him to apply for a passport and driving licence in the name of John Darwin.

Once he had these documents he would be able to apply for a visa in Panama and pass the police check as John Darwin. Once there he could legally live with his wife safe in the knowledge that even if the police did find out about his scam, they would be unable to extradite him.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Secondary Teacher

£110 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: English Teacher needed for ...

NQT and Experienced Primary Teachers Urgently required

£90 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: NQT and Experienced Primary Teac...

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Year 1 Primary Supply Teachers needed for...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: EY/KS1 Qualified Teaching Assistant J...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album