ITV’s new drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe explores the life and lies of fraudsters John and Anne Darwin.
Starring Monica Dolan (Eye in the Sky, Pride) and Eddie Marsan (The World’s End, Ridley Road) as Anne and John Darwin, the four-part mini-series tells the story of how the couple worked together to fake John Darwin’s death and claim his life insurance money, attempting not only to fool the authorities but their own sons as well.
This the true story behind The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe.
Who are John and Anne Darwin?
John Darwin is a British former teacher and prison officer and Anne Darwin was his wife, although the two are now divorced. The pair married in December 1973.
The John Darwin disappearance case refers to an investigation into the couple, which saw John, with the help of his wife, fake his own death so that the two could collect his life insurance.
Outside of their own jobs, the two had 12 bedsits across County Durham, however following the purchase of two houses in Seaton Carew in December 2000, John and Anne found themselves in debt - this was the catalyst that caused John to first begin talking about faking his own death in a bid to claim his life insurance in early 2002.
Talking about the scheme years later, Anne told the Guardian in 2016: “John could also be persuasive. He told me, “I’ll only need to vanish for a couple of weeks and we’ll have the money”. It got out of control.
“The deeper you get into these situations, the harder it is to get out. If I had any inkling it would have lasted more than a few weeks, there’s no way I could have gone along with it and put myself through years of torture.
“But once it was done, and he got me to lie that I disappeared, I couldn’t get out of it.”
When he was 51, John was seen entering into the sea in the Seaton Carew area with a kayak at 8am on Thursday 21 March 2002. At 9:30pm that evening, the alarm was raised when John failed to arrive at work for a night shift.
A large sea search was launched, the use of five RNLI lifeboats, two coastguard rescue teams, a police fixed wing aircraft with heat seeking equipment and teams of police officers employed in the search for John.
While John wasn’t found in the search, a double ended paddle was recovered.
Dave Cammish, deputy landing authority for Redcar Lifeboat, told the BBC at the time: “At 0115 GMT a double ended paddle, used by people in this kind of kayak, was retrieved from the sea near North Gare, not too far from Seaton Carew.
“If a canoeist loses his oar and cannot retrieve it, he is at the mercy of the sea and currents and has to sit it out until he is rescued.”
On 22 March 2002, John’s kayak was found completely wrecked, with Inspector Martin Cook, of Hartlepool Police, saying that the kayak “was in two or three parts”.
John was missing and presumed dead, with the search eventually called off.
From the very beginning, there were suspicions around John’s disappearance - mainly that it was puzzling that an experienced kayaker had drowned on a day when the water was unusually calm.
David Young, a ward council member in Seaton Carew, told TIME that it “didn’t add up”.
How long was John Darwin missing?
John was missing for a total of five years - however, during this time that he was presumed dead, he was living in a bedsit next to his family home.
John was able to visit Anne in the family home using a secret door which connected the terraced houses. In February 2003, moved back in with Anne.
A death certificate was issued which stated that John had died on 21 March 2002.
Using this death certificate, Anne was able to claim John’s £25,000 life insurance policy, his £25,000 teacher’s pension, his £58,000 prison service pension, £4,000 in payouts from the Department of Work in Pensions and £137,000 from a Norwich Union mortgage insurance policy - all in all, £249,000.
Throughout the time of his disappearance, John and Anne’s sons, Mark and Anthony, believed that their father was dead.
How were they caught?
In 2004, Anne and John decided that they were going to start a new life together abroad, and had considered settling in Cyprus.
John was able to obtain a passport under the fake name John Jones and in November of that year they visited the country to look at buying a property there.
It was in 2006 that the pair looked at relocating to Panama. They flew to the country on a number of occasions and in March 2007 they bought a two bedroom property in El Dorado.
The bedsit house next to the Darwin family home was then sold, with proceeds of the sale being transferred to Panama.
Anne returned to the UK to sell the family home while John remained in Panama and in May of 2007, the two bought a £200,000 estate near the Panama Canal.
A change in Panama’s visa laws meant that John and Anne would have to have their identities verified by UK authorities in order for them to obtain the newly required Panamanian “investors’ visas”.
Knowing that his John Jones alias would not hold up under inspection, John decided to fly back to the UK and, on 1 December 2007, walked into the West End Central police station in London, claiming to have amnesia.
He told officers: “I think I am a missing person.”
Regarding John’s amnesia plan, Anne told This Morning in 2016: “He was convinced he would get away with this story of amnesia, I never expected him to get away with it.
“I was just relieved the lies would be over.”
While police already had their suspicions regarding John and Anne’s story, with an investigation launched three months prior to John’s reappearance, their undoing was ultimately caused by a photograph that was taken of the couple in Panama in 2006.
During a visit to Panama on 14 July 2006, John and Anne were photographed by a Panamanian property agent and were featured on a website aimed at people looking to move to the country.
When confronted with the photo by the Daily Mirror, which originally published the image, Anne said: “Yes, that’s him. My sons will never forgive me.
“They knew nothing. They thought John was dead. Now they are going to hate me.”
John was arrested by police on suspicion of fraud, and Anne was later arrested at Manchester Airport.
What did John and Anne’s sons say?
Following the return of their father, Anthony and Mark Darwin were initially overjoyed to find that he wasn’t dead - however, their feelings quickly changed when the full extent of the lies of John and Anne were uncovered.
In a joint statement, released through Cleveland Police, Anthony and Mark said that they had been through a “rollercoaster of emotions”.
They said: “Having seen the recent media speculation surrounding our parents ever since our dad was arrested, we are very much in an angry and confused state of mind.
“In the short space of time following our dad’s appearance in London on Saturday, we have gone through a rollercoaster of emotions.
“From the height of elation at finding him to be alive to the depths of despair at the recent stories of fraud and these latest pictures. And the shock of being thrust into the media spotlight.
“If the papers’ allegations of a confession from our mam are true then we very much feel that we have been the victims of a large scam.
“How could our mam continue to let us believe our dad had died when he was very much alive?”
In one interview, Anthony said: “Dad told one nasty lie and disappeared… but she lied for six years. She kept on lying even when the evidence was so overwhelmingly against her.
“She dragged us through hell by forcing a court case. Her maternal instincts didn’t kick in for a second to protect us.”
What were they sentenced to?
John and Anne were both charged with a number of offences, including fraud and obtaining money through deception.
On 23 July 2008, John was jailed for six years and three months after admitting to deception by faking his own death, and Anne was given six years and six months for fraud.
Mr Justice Wilkie, at Teesside Crown Court, said that their sons had been left “crushed” by their lies.
He said: “Although the sums involved are not as high as some reported cases, the duration of the offending, its multifaceted nature and, in particular, the gired inflicted over the years to those who, in truth, were the real victims, your own sons, whose lives you crushed, make this a case which merits a particularly severe sentence.”
Both John and Anne appealed against their sentences, however on 27 March 2009, their appeals were denied by the Court of Appeal.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that, in February 2012, the entire £501,641.39 in life insurance and pension payouts collected by Anne had been recovered - partly from the sale of the two properties in Panama.
Kingsley Hyland, head of the North East CPS Complex Casework Unit, said: "After a painstaking operation over the past two-and-a-half years, the CPS has now successfully recovered all the assets which Anne Darwin held as a result of the fraud, amounting to £501,641.39."
Hyland added: “It is important that fraudsters see that not only will we prosecute them wherever possible, but we will also make every effort to retrieve their ill-gotten gains to return them to those they have defrauded.”
In 2015, a CPS spokesperson said: “The Darwins now have no known assets remaining for confiscation.”
Nick Price, head of proceeds of crime at the CPS, said: "When John Darwin devised his plan to defraud insurance companies, he didn’t think he’d get caught at all.
"But he also didn’t bank on the dedication and determination of my team to recover the money he stole - even seven years later."
Where are they now?
Both John and Anne were released from prison in early 2011, however prior to their release the two had separated and divorced.
In her 2016 interview, Anne told the Guardian: “I hadn’t realised how much John had manipulated me until I was in prison.
“I had to see a psychologist to finally help me see things in a different light.
“Until then, I’d always had his voice in my head. Finally, when it faded away, I could then make decisions for myself and I realised that I didn’t have to depend on him.
“I could cope on my own.”
Anne recounted her story in her memoir, released in 2016, titled Out of My Depth.
Anne got a job with the RSPCA using the qualifications she gained in prison, however she has since retired. She was able to reconcile with her sons, who had previously disowned their parents, and is involved in her grandchildren’s lives.
John has reportedly started a new life in the Philippines and has married a woman called Mercy Mae, 23 years his junior.
Speaking to the Daily Mail in April 2022, Mercy Mae reportedly said: “My husband is happy and healthy and I’m looking after him.
“We don’t want his past life all dredged up again on TV and in newspapers. I know what he did, he knows, and he paid penalty for that, he doesn’t need to be reminded.”