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The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe: How John Darwin actually faked his own death

I can’t believe this really happened??

ITV’s newest true crime drama (with a twist), The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, premiered last night (18th April). The series tells the genuinely strange story of man-next-door John Darwin, a bid to fake his own death in order to splash his life insurance and his unwitting wife who ended up going along with it.

Choose Or Die’s Eddie Marsan stars as the fraudster, while W1A’s Monica Dolan plays his exasperated wife, Anne. The story seems almost too good to be true, to be honest. But here’s what really happened in the Darwin household all those years ago:

Darwin held down two jobs before going ‘missing’

john darwin true story

Photo via YouTube

John Darwin started out as a teacher in County Durham, where he was born and raised. He taught science and maths in a secondary school, before moving on to work in a bank. The 71-year-old then went to work as a prison officer at HMP Holme House, as well as renting out bedsits with his wife.

In 2000, the couple first ran into major financial trouble after buying two houses.

Their massive debt drove Darwin to making an unbelievable decision

Over time, John and Anne Darwin reportedly racked up around £700,000 in debt from their two houses. By early 2002, John Darwin began floating the idea about faking his own death to Anne.

On 21st March 2002, John was “last” seen kayaking into the sea in Seaton Carew, County Durham. After he failed to turn up to work that same afternoon, he was officially reported as “missing”.

Police officers searched the coast for Darwin’s body

Around 320km of land was searched, but officers couldn’t find any trace of John anywhere. On 22nd March, rescuers came across a wrecked kayak, as well as a stranded double-ended paddle. The water was calm and the weather was mild, leading witnesses to immediately question how someone could’ve gone missing in those conditions.

Darwin was, in fact, alive and well

john darwin panama

Photo via YouTube

In a baffling move, John decided to test his luck by moving next door to Anne’s home. Just one year since he first went “missing”, he began living with his wife again full-time.

In a baffling move, John decided to test his luck by moving next door to Anne’s home. Just one year since he first went “missing”, he began living with his wife again full-time.

Three years later, on 14th July 2006, John and Anne permanently relocated to Panama. They bought a two-bedroom apartment in El Dorado for £50,000 and an estate in Escobal worth £200,000.

Eventually, Anne’s colleague caught them out

On returning to the UK in order to sell the family home, Anne’s colleague heard a phone conversation between the couple. John had stayed in Panama under a false name to avoid people’s suspicions. The colleague reported the conversation to the police, and an investigation began in September 2007.

Just a couple of months beforehand, Panama changed its visa laws. Security vetting became watertight, and John knew his alias (“John Jones”) wouldn’t continue to hold up. Their identities needed to be verified by UK police in order for the pair to stay living abroad.

It was then that John Darwin cooked up his second crazy scheme. He told his wife his plans to return to England and fake amnesia, claiming he had no knowledge of the last five years.

The Met didn’t buy Darwin’s story

john darwin true story

Photo via YouTube

London’s police already had their suspicions about the couple and had been monitoring their movements closely. They were aware of Anne’s large transactions to a Panamanian bank account; that she’d sold the family home and bought multiple properties abroad.

The final nail in the coffin came when a property company in Panama posted a photo of John and Anne online in 2006, from their new home. The image was splashed all over the Daily Mirror, leaving the couple with nowhere to hide.

Anne confirmed the couple in the image was herself and John, which led to his arrest.

On 23rd July 2008, both Anne and John Darwin were convicted of fraud. John received a lesser sentence than his wife, despite the extra charge of creating and using a fake passport. He was sentenced to six years and three months in prison; while Anne was sentenced to six years and six months. They were ordered to pay back £501,641.39 in assets.

Where are the Darwins now?


Photo via ITV

During their time in prison, Anne told John she wanted a divorce. After his release, John moved to the Philippines and met his now-wife, Mercy Mae.

Anne wrote a book on her experience, and donated the proceeds to the RSPCA. She maintains she was “coerced” into the scheme, stating: “It got out of control.”

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