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.

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