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Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Thursday, 24 July 2008 11:51 UK

How to disappear without a trace

Disappearing into a sculpture

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

John Darwin and his wife Anne have been jailed after faking his death for 250,000 in insurance pay-outs. How and why do people go about vanishing?

John Darwin thought he could get away with apparently drowning in a canoeing accident, and start a new life in a tropical paradise. A new life funded by a fraudulently obtained insurance payout.

He eventually admitted his deception after an incriminating photograph - which showed him very much alive and house-hunting in Panama - surfaced on the internet.

Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson of Cleveland Police told Darwin's photo
John Darwin grew a beard and got a fake passport with this photo

The man who came to be dubbed Mr Canoe isn't the first to fake a suicide in the hope of leaving his troubles behind him; former Labour Cabinet minister John Stonehouse's staged drowning in Miami made the headlines in 1974.

Others seek to wipe any trace of their whereabouts for their own safety, such as protected witnesses or battered women.

And the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic changed his name, occupation and appearance to avoid extradition for suspected war crimes. He was captured in Belgrade on Monday after more than a decade in hiding.

Outside the system

Faking one's death is known as pseudocide. And a score of websites offer tips and hints on how best to vanish successfully - providing advice on how to cut family ties, sell possessions and start up a new business under an new identity.

The Darwins' house showing the secret room

But for Darwin to disappear for five-and-a-half years takes some doing, says Frank M Ahearn, an expert in the art of vanishing. A United States-based privacy consultant and "skip-tracer", he has tracked people down for more than 20 years.

The hidden room into which he would disappear when friends and family visited, the beard disguise and the false documentation are all hallmarks of an elaborate pseudocide.

But Mr Ahern says that Darwin tripped up by allowing his photo to be taken and posted online by a Panama real estate agent, and by acquiring a girlfriend.

"This may have put strain on the relationship between him and his wife. Therefore, his straying was a balloon waiting to bust."

Anne Darwin, who has been jailed for fraud and money laundering, told the court that she forgave her husband for having an affair.

But Nick Rosen, who runs the website Off-Grid to help people legitimately live outside the system, is amazed that Darwin wasn't caught earlier. His mistakes included returning home, and joining a local library - albeit under a different name.

"The one thing he did that was the right move, when he first disappeared he went to live rough in Cumbria for the first few weeks. Well away from CCTV cameras, using cash, not using cards."

Homeless helper

While what Darwin did was illegal, there are people who want to disappear for legitimate reasons, such as women fleeing abusive partners, business people in fear of kidnapping, and celebrities who want to avoid the media.

Frank M Ahearn
Plan before you go
Do research from different internet cafes or libraries
Tell no-one your plans
Use pay-as-you-go phones
Apply for no memberships
Cash is king
If you believe you are compromised, you are

"Disappearing is quite different to announcing your death," says Mr Rosen.

As most people need a phone, the first step is to get a pay-as-you-go mobile - but acquiring one can be a giveaway.

"Go to a town you've never been to before, find a homeless person and get them to buy a pay-as-you-go phone so you're not caught on CCTV.

"The other thing is not to have anything to do with places where records are kept - so [pay by] cash, or barter. And if you have a laptop, use it outside places with wi-fi access that don't have passwords.

Mr Ahern adds that the internet has made disappearing easier.

This case goes to show that it is reasonably easy to create a new identity and to start a new life

"The internet can make a person virtual. You can open an IBC (international business corporation) and operate out of that."

This means no addresses for shareholders and directors need to be publicly listed, as required for a British-registered company.

"You can use 'black' credit cards that list no transactions, have a cell phone billed to anywhere in the world, own a virtual fax number that goes to an e-mail address and own property under a corporation."

Witness protection

There is one group of people who are given every assistance in disappearing - protected witnesses who give evidence, sometimes against fellow criminals, and in return are provided with new identities, jobs and homes far from familiar haunts.

John Stonehouse
John Stonehouse was jailed for fraud after his pretend suicide

The Guardian's Duncan Campbell has covered protected witness schemes, and judges them by-and-large to be successful.

"As long as you keep your nose clean - and importantly make no attempt to contact friends and family - you can stay hidden forever," he says.

He points to the downside of the internet. "We now live in photographic world," he says, referring to the snap of the Darwins posted online and found through the simplest of searches.

Mr Ahearn agrees that the internet is a doubled-edge sword.

"Technology and social networking sites are becoming friends of law enforcement. In the US, police are locating criminals via MySpace and other social networking sites when other people post photos of acquaintances who happen to be fugitives."

He imagines a future when the searchers track down the disappeared with increasingly sophisticated tools.

"I think that in the future law enforcement will be able to do facial recognition on the internet. One day a cop would be able to scan in the face of someone like Darwin, and eventually locate him - wherever he is trying to hide."


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