Remarkable true story of Canoe Man John Darwin whose wife helped him fake his own death in £700k insurance scam

AS a former prison officer John Darwin knew all too well the miserable fate that faced him if his audacious £700k insurance scam went wrong.

Yet, time and time again the Hartlepool man – who faked his own death in a canoe accident in March 2002 with the help of his wife – risked getting caught.

The remarkable tale of deception is full of drama and tension, so it’s no surprise that ITV are adapting Darwin’s story for peak time viewing.

Darwin, 70, had run up massive debts in failed buy to let schemes and decided £670,000 in insurance and pension money was the solution to his worries.

The snag was that he had to die before it was paid out.

In on the plot

On March 21 John paddled out into the sea at Seaton Carew in County Durham in a red kayak and wasn’t seen returning to shore.

When his wife Anne reported him missing, a police plane with heat-seeking equipment, five RNLI lifeboats, two coastguard teams and an RAF helicopter searched for John.

They couldn’t find John out at sea, because he was safe in a tent further along the coast.

All I want is to bury his body. It would enable me to move on

The next day his canoe was discovered wrecked and Anne was tasked with breaking the news to their sons, Anthony, 42, and Mark, 45, that he was dead.

Only, she knew it wasn’t true, because Anne had been in on the plot all along.

Anne would later admit that lying to her sons was “something that I will live to regret for the rest of my time.”

She also lied convincingly to the general public, telling the local newspaper: “All I want is to bury his body. It would enable me to move on.

“It’s difficult to grieve without bringing things to a close but as it is, I’m in limbo.”

Tired of camping in the cold, John decided to hide out in one of the bedsits adjoining their family home in Seaton Carew.

But he didn’t stay put. 

Using the identity of a dead child called John Jones, he walked around town and did odd jobs in the homes rented by his tenants.

One former prison officer colleague reported being "100 percent sure" that they’d seen John sporting a long beard walking along the seafront.

Anne feared being caught and the couple fell out.

She revealed: “I lost all interest in our sex life, leaving John – who never seemed to stop thinking about sex – angry and frustrated.”

By April 2003 a coroner had declared John dead and by August Anne started to receive huge sums.

I lost all interest in our sex life, leaving John – who never seemed to stop thinking about sex – angry and frustrated

There was pension and life insurance worth £91,000 and and the mortgage protection policy for £137,000.

Then, after living next door for four years, visiting his wife via a secret door, John finally carried out his plan to live in the central American country of Panama.

The crucial mistake

But during a search for accommodation the couple made a foolish mistake which would later prove their guilt.

Mario Vilar, from a relocation agency, asked his wife to take a photo of himself with the couple and before they could object it had been done.

While John stayed in Panama, Anne returned to Britain to finalise the details of their move.

He bombarded her with emails, telling her he’d written them while sitting naked on his balcony.

Anne said: “My husband appeared to be becoming more insane by the day.”

Dreamer John wanted to buy a huge plot of land to build his own home on and set up an eco-resort.

But his plans were scuppered when changes to immigration laws in Panama meant he needed to get a letter from the police in Britain stating he was a ‘person of good character’ in order to gain permanent residence.

Rather than leave Panama for safer lands, John opted to take a ridiculous gamble – to return to Britain.

His plan was to come back as John Darwin, claiming he’d been suffering from amnesia for the past five years.

Anne said: “I told him he was crazy. But, as usual, he didn't listen. He was sure he knew best.”

I think I’m a missing person

On December 1 2007 he walked into a Central London police station saying “I think I’m a missing person”. 

The police were naturally suspicious and that photograph taken in Panama was the couple’s downfall.

It proved that Anne knew her husband wasn't dead.

Paying the price

In March 2008 John pleaded guilty to seven charges of obtaining cash by deception and Anne was found guilty of similar offences after going to trial.

Four months later he was jailed for six years and three months and Anne’s sentence was three months longer. 

On release from jail in 2011 John tried to downplay the extent of his crimes, saying: “I took money from an insurance company, but I didn’t kill anyone.”

The couple later repaid £540,000 of the money they owed, but the couple’s sons were deeply hurt by their parents' lies.

When it was revealed that John had written from prison to a 43-year-old women saying he had a ‘high sex drive’ Anne finally had enough of his deceit.

After 38 years of marriage, John and Anne got divorced and she went to live a quiet life in York, caring for animals.

But he broke the terms of his parole in 2013 when he flew to meet potential ‘foreign bride’ Anna Avramenko in Ukraine.

In February 2015 John married Mercy May Avila, 47, in the Philippines where he now lives.

John wrote a book about his life, appeared on TV and didn't seem to mind his notoriety.

So he is likely to try to tune in to view the ITV drama when it airs to see Eddie Marsan play him.

Whether the much more bashful Anne will do the same is yet to be seen.

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