Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Wednesday, 23 July 2008 12:59 UK

Man who came back from the dead

By Danny Savage
BBC News, Seaton Carew

After the convictions of John and Anne Darwin for deception over his disappearance six years ago, their community remains baffled by the crime.

Seaton Carew is a small seaside town near Hartlepool.

John and Anne Darwin
The Darwins had mounting money worries at the time of their deception

It is popular as a location for a bracing walk but to many local people, after the events of last December, it will be forever known as "Seaton Canoe".

And all because of the life and "death" of John Darwin, a former teacher and prison officer, who set off on a canoeing trip and vanished in March 2002.

Darwin was missing presumed dead and a year later a certificate was issued declaring he had drowned in the North Sea.

In her bungalow overlooking the sea a few miles further up the coast, Darwin's aunt, 80-year-old Margaret Burns, often thinks about past conversations with his frail, elderly father.

"He used to refuse to look out of his back window for ages because he was frightened he'd see John drowning.

"I'd spend my time trying to convince him that he wasn't out there struggling with a canoe.

"He wasn't getting run down by a tanker and he wasn't drowning. He died quickly and painlessly, but his father would never believe it. He was right wasn't he?"

Unravelling lies

He was right.

In December last year, John Darwin walked into a London police station claiming to have amnesia and saying that he might be a missing person.

He was reunited with his two astonished and relieved sons. But days later he was arrested on suspicion of fraud and his lies unravelled in the most public and spectacular fashion.

It is only in the last week that the details of what happened on the day he went missing have become public.

In taped police interviews, John Darwin admits he did take to the water in his canoe.

"I took the canoe out and paddled out to sea," he said.

He goes on to describe how he headed south towards a point known locally as North Gare. It is the northerly point of the mouth of the River Tees, about a mile from the Darwin's home.

"What did you do with the canoe?" a detective asks.

"I just pushed it out to sea," Darwin replies.

I was having coffee in their lounge with my wife and he was hanging around upstairs

Bill Rodriguez

Taped interviews with Anne Darwin - who claimed in court she had been forced by her husband to act against her will - show her telling detectives there had been much talk about the idea of him going missing.

Three months beforehand as their debts got unmanageable he remarked that he would be better off dead than alive because of the value of life insurance policies he had.

He was serious and kept pushing the idea as the weeks went by.

"I knew the day John had gone missing that he had gone missing and had planned it," Anne Darwin told her trial.

"I got a telephone call from him at work that afternoon to say that he was going to go out in the canoe and he wanted me to get home by seven that evening to pick him up and to help him make his getaway.

"He asked me to pick him up in the car park at North Gare.

"I had to sit and wait a while. Eventually he came towards the car and he said he had everything with him that he needed."

She then dropped him off at Durham railway station, went home and called the police.

She watched the search operation go on for days from her window knowing all along they would never find her husband.

When family members that had been comforting Anne left their home, she brought her husband back to Seaton Carew.

Infographic showing Darwins' house

Their home was a large terraced property which they had bought along with the house next door, at the time divided into bedsits.

The labyrinth of rooms spread over five floors was an easy place for him to live and hide.

Their living areas were divided by a small door, through which John Darwin would disappear if friends or family visited.

Darwin changed his appearance. He grew his hair and an astonishing beard - he looked like a member of the rock band ZZ Top - and applied for a passport in a false name using a picture of his new self.

He had used the birth certificate of a child who died in 1950 and was buried in a cemetery in Sunderland.

His name was John Jones and his surviving family say they feel "angry and upset that someone could stoop so low and be so despicable" in their actions.

'Grieving widow'

The Darwins' neighbours occasionally heard Anne Darwin laughing with a man in the back garden of her home but they never had an inkling about the truth.

To the outside world she kept up the pretence of the grieving widow.

In a statement to police close to the time of the inquest she helpfully added that her husband had "never quite perfected the Eskimo roll", as if to explain how he might have drowned.

Anthony (L) and Mark Darwin
Sons Anthony (L) and Mark Darwin expressed anger in court

Bill Rodriguez lived next door to the Darwins' home at the time.

"How could she cover it up? She's a good person but thinking about it, how could she cover it up, to us especially?" he said.

"It's amazing thinking about it. I was having coffee in their lounge with my wife and he was hanging around upstairs. It's amazing."

What also appears to be amazing is that the truth wasn't uncovered before the Darwins sold up and moved to Panama.

A death certificate issued after the inquest was Anne Darwin's ticket to cash in all the life insurance and pension policies.

And as the money rolled in - more than 250,000 - they planned their new life together behind closed doors and their sons' backs.

Sons comforted

Frauds such as this are sometimes described as victimless crimes.

But there were two victims in the crime - Mark and Anthony Darwin, who thought their father was dead for more than five years.

On the first anniversary of his supposed death, Anne Darwin threw flowers into the sea to help comfort the boys.

The first they knew of the conspiracy was when the infamous picture of the Darwins posing with an estate agent in Panama went on the internet.

Their oldest son Mark told the jury in their mother's trial: "I couldn't believe the fact that she knew he was alive all that time and I'd been lied to for god knows how long."

Many of the people in Seaton Carew in recent weeks bring up the same point: how could John and Anne Darwin have done that to their own children?

John Darwin has told detectives that he is sorry for all the trouble he caused and it was always his intention to pay the money back.

But the consequences of his actions will mean a lengthy spell in prison to reflect on what began in the cold North Sea and ended in the tropics.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific