Canoe couple get 13 years for fraud that 'crushed' own sons

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JOHN and Anne Darwin tricked the police, insurance companies and even their own sons into believing he had died in a canoe accident. However, the unravelling of the couple's "determined, sustained and sophisticated" scam was complete last night after a judge sentenced them each to more than six years behind bars.

JOHN and Anne Darwin tricked the police, insurance companies and even their own sons into believing he had died in a canoe accident. However, the unravelling of the couple's "determined, sustained and sophisticated" scam was complete last night after a judge sentenced them each to more than six years behind bars.

She was convicted by a jury yesterday on six counts of fraud and nine of money laundering, while he had earlier admitted seven fraud charges and a passport offence.

Anne Darwin, 56, was jailed for six and a half years, while her husband got six years and three months.

The couple conned their family, including their sons Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, and the authorities into believing Darwin, 57, had drowned in the North Sea in 2002 – only for him to turn up at a London police station last year.

Their 250,000 fraud was finally exposed when a photograph of them grinning together, taken in Panama four years after he disappeared, came to light.

Mr Justice Wilkie said the Darwins' "real victims" had been their sons. He told the couple: "Although the sums involved are not as high as some reported cases, the duration of the offending, its multi-faceted nature and, in particular, the grief 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."

The Darwins, who owned several rental properties, hatched their elaborate plot as they hurtled towards bankruptcy. It involved him paddling out into the North Sea in March 2002 in his homemade canoe, within sight of the couple's home in Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, then going into hiding while his wife claimed he was missing at sea.

She raised the alarm after secretly driving him to Durham railway station, and turned on the tears when she broke the news of their father's disappearance to her sons.

With her husband living rough in Cumbria, the grey-haired former doctor's receptionist began the process of declaring him dead, and conning insurers and pension funds out of the 250,000. Shortly afterwards, he came home – after repeatedly phoning her in tears – and for years lived in secret in a room in the bedsit the couple owned next door to the family home.

Under the assumed identity John Jones, taken from a local child who had died in infancy, John Darwin continued to run the couple's affairs and travelled around the world, planning a new life for the pair.

Last October, Mrs Darwin settled her affairs in the UK, having sold off the family's property portfolio, and emigrated to Panama, where she joined her husband.

But he called time on his exile, flew back to the UK and handed himself into a London police station, claiming he had suffered amnesia and could remember nothing since 2000. He was reunited with his sons in December; they told Teesside Crown Court they could not believe he was alive.

Mrs Darwin, still in Panama, was tracked down by a journalist, and pretended to be shocked at the back-from-the-dead miracle. But her story collapsed when a photograph was found on the internet showing the smiling couple posing in 2006 in a Panama estate agent's office.

Yesterday, the couple stood with their hands clasped in front of them, separated by a security guard, as the sentences were handed down. They avoided eye contact with each other as they stood in the dock.

The judge told them it had been a "determined, sustained and sophisticated fraud". He went on: "I accept you, John, were the driving force behind this deceit. You, Anne Darwin, perhaps initially unconvinced, played an instrumental rather than organising role.

"Nevertheless, you contributed to its success and played your part efficiently. In my judgment, you operated as a team, each contributing to the joint venture."

He said they would probably have got away with it had John Darwin not returned to Britain last year.

Their sons, who showed no emotion as their mother was found guilty, did not comment as they left court. But earlier, Mark spoke of his anger at her deception, saying: "I couldn't believe she knew he was alive all this time and I had been lied to for God knows how long."

Peter Makepeace, representing John Darwin, told the court: "He struggles to come to terms with what he has done to those boys.

"He continues to harbour the hope that a day will come when he can be reconciled with his sons. That may be as fantastical and unrealistic as the views he has held at times throughout his life."

But he said that hope would sustain Darwin through his jail term and "through what is presumably to be a very lonely existence when released".

Mr Makepeace added that Mr Darwin was taking medication for depression in jail, where he has been subject to abuse from fellow inmates because of his past career as a prison officer.

Anne Darwin had claimed her "domineering" husband forced her to go through with the plan. But her defence of "marital coercion" was undermined when the prosecution produced loving e-mails the couple had sent each other.

Detective Inspector Andy Greenwood, who led the investigation, did not think they had "got to the bottom of everything". He said: "I'm sure there will be more stories that come to light, but she has clearly been brought to task for the offences she committed."

He said the couple's sons had been treated in a "disgraceful" way.

When he started his investigation, he thought the sons must have known about their parents' plan.

"But the more we investigated it, the more we realised they did not know," he said. "They had gone through a particularly horrendous sequence of events."

He said the sons were "devastated", adding: "If they get over it, it will take some time and some assistance. I just hope they can go away from the court building today and move on with their lives."

There will be a compensation hearing at a later date to decide how the Darwins can pay back the 250,000 they defrauded.


Just an ordinary couple – spinning a web of deceit

JOHN Darwin was yesterday described by the trial judge as the "driving force" behind his and his wife's outrageous deceit.

But it was Anne Darwin who received the full wrath of the chief investigator outside Teesside Crown Court.

Detective Inspector Andy Greenwood, who led the inquiry, could not believe how she managed to maintain the deception in front of her grieving sons. "For her to say, 'I had to go along with it because John told me' – I just don't know how any mother could do that," he said.

It was not a victimless crime, he said. "You just had to stand in court and listen to the evidence of her sons or her friend, Irene Blakemore, to see that.

"She (Mrs Darwin] was out and out despicable and I don't have the time of day for her."

Mr Greenwood said that her desperate defence had been the last throw of the dice.

"To my mind, Anne Darwin has been a compulsive liar throughout this inquiry," he said.

Mr Justice Wilkie concluded that the pair had acted as a team. But the sentence handed down to Anne was three months longer than that imposed on her husband.

No explanation was given for the difference, but he will have taken some months off John Darwin's sentence for pleading guilty to the fraud charges.

The judge also decided that John's dramatic return to the UK from Panama had been driven by the belated realisation that he had betrayed his sons and that he wanted to reconcile with them.

Anne Stephenson, who grew up in Blackhall Colliery, a former pit village near Hartlepool, was a prim and proper convent girl when she met her future husband on the school bus aged 11 or 12. At the time, John attended St Francis Grammar School in Hartlepool, run by Xaverian Brothers.

It was not until her late teens that they began courting. Anne had a Sunday job at a sweet shop next door to the Darwin family home. When he first asked her out, she said no. "He asked me several times and again I declined," she told her trial. "Eventually, I agreed to go out with him. That was pretty much John's nature, he was a persistent man."

After leaving school with qualifications in shorthand and typing, Anne got her first secretarial job with a local printing firm. She was also a beauty queen, winning the Miss Blackhall Colliery title in the 1960s.

A former classmate recalls: "I have nothing nasty to say about her at all. She was quiet. She was a fairly good student, very attractive with lovely, jet-black hair. She was nicely spoken, very pleasant and well-mannered. We were all convent girls, so all very prim and proper."

John's most distinguishing feature was his short stature, which earned him the nickname Dinky. His canoeing antics first came to the notice of the media when he was 17. His mother, Jenny, a local councillor, complained about him getting covered in sewage while kayaking in the sea, and the story was covered in the local press.

Anne was 21 when John proposed and they married at St Joseph's Catholic Church in Blackhall Colliery on 22 December, 1973. Their marriage certificate described John as a teacher working at English Martyrs School in Consett and his bride as a secretary at Hartlepool-based printing firm William Barlow & Son. The newly-weds settled in her home village and they had two sons, Mark, now 32, and Anthony, 29.

The Darwins later lived in the Co Durham village Witton Gilbert before buying adjoining properties on the seafront at Seaton Carew, living in one and running the other as bedsits. By this time, Anne was a 17,000-a-year doctor's receptionist in Durham City. John, meanwhile, worked as a teacher and a prison officer, the latter job earning him 22,000. He told friends he was making good money from property dealing, allowing him to run a 48,000 Range Rover with a personalised number plate.

Fellow warders at Home House Prison, Teesside, described him as obsessed with money, introverted and "boring".

One former colleague said: "He always spoke about his property developing and the rental properties he used to have, but never said much more. He was more concerned about his activities outside work than he was with his actual job."

Among John's plans to make his fortune were snail breeding, making garden gnomes, running market stalls, writing computer games and dabbling on the stock market.

After John's faked death, Anne spoke of her "distress", marking the first anniversary of his disappearance by throwing flowers into the sea. She kept a single flower by her bed.


Trail that led from Panama jungle to the dock in court

A TRAIL of mistakes ultimately led John and Anne Darwin from the lush jungles of Panama to Teesside Crown Court.

Their first error was a photograph taken of the couple in the Panama City office of their property adviser, Mario Vilar, who posted the image on his website a year and a half before John Darwin came "back from the dead".

Detectives were also able to sift through a series of e-mails sent by the couple to Mr Vilar. One, which was sent on 27 June, 2006, was signed off "regards John and Anne".

Receipts also proved that the couple bought a 38,000 penthouse in Panama City and a new Toyota 4x4, worth an estimated 20,000.

Two more photographs, taken last summer, showed John Darwin in the Escobal jungle.

He was photographed as the couple searched for a site to set up a tourist eco-park or open a canoe holiday centre.

The 500-acre property was bought for 200,000 by a company called Jaguar Properties. Anne Darwin signed herself as president.


The question remains: Why did he come back?

ONE question that remains unanswered is just why John Darwin returned to Britain after disappearing for nearly six years.

The theories include:

• The couple had a row over money and their relationship, and Darwin turned himself in to spite his wife.

• There was an affair. Anne Darwin had forgiven her husband once before when he had an affair, but she also found out that he had met an American woman over the internet.

• To come back and see his sons. Mrs Darwin maintained that her husband had returned to the UK to see their sons and pay back the money they owed.

• Planned changes to visa regulations would have stopped him from continuing to live in Panama on a tourist visa.

Hapless anti-heroes of a very British scam