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For anybody who's been glued to ITV's new drama, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, which details the elaborate death faking scam (complete with canoe) of prison officer John Darwin, aided by his wife, Anne, you may be wondering what the true story actually is – along with where John and Anne Darwin are today.
In a nutshell: the couple first became known to the public after being convicted of fraud in 2008, after hatching a scheme that saw John fake his own death in an apparent canoeing accident. The reality though, was that the Darwins had found themselves to be massively in debt and were looking for a way to claim back money on John's life insurance.
Eventually, after moving to Panama, John hit a wall with VISA rules and decided the best thing he could possibly do was to hand himself in to the police and claim he'd been struck down by amnesia.
Speaking about the new four-part series inspired by the Darwins, the show's writer, Chris Lang said at a recent Q&A that neither John, Anne or either of their two sons, Anthony and Mark, were involved in the programme.
"[However] David Leigh, who was the journalist who broke the story, does still speak with Anne and has a good relationship with her," Lang said. "So, you know, I think [he] hopefully has been able to reassure her that it is as sympathetic a telling of her story as is possible, given what she did. But no, they didn't want to get involved. You know, they have told their story a lot in public [but] none of them wanted to."
So, what is the true story behind The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe?
What happened to John Darwin?
Back in 2002, father-of-two John Darwin was living a seemingly normal life; he resided in Hartlepool and worked as a prison officer. But in actuality, he and his wife, receptionist Anne, had managed to accrue debts close to £700,000, leaving them on the edge of bankruptcy. Seeing no other solution to their financial woes, the couple formulated a plan that would make it seem that John had died in a tragic canoeing accident, with the idea being that Anne would then claim his life insurance and wipe their debts.
Things all came to a head on 21 March 2002, when John was reported missing after not turning up at work. A day later, the paddle he had apparently used whilst out canoeing in the North Sea turned up, along with a wrecked canoe – not long after this, he was presumed dead and Anne was issued the death certificate required to cash in his insurance policy.
It's said that the couple's sons, Anthony and Mark, were entirely naive to their parents scheme and were told - and believed - that their father had died.
How did John and Anne Darwin get caught?
For the following four years, John stayed living in the UK in secret, taking up residence in a bedsit next door to the family home; he used a hidden door connecting the two properties (both of which he and Anne owned) to visit his wife.
Eventually, the pair decided to run away to Panama (with John using a fake identity to get a new passport) to begin life over. At first, it looked as though the Darwins had gotten off scot free, when the couple purchased a property in the Central American country. However, upon arrival they soon discovered that in order to live and work in Panama as expats, they'd need character references from the British police – something they of course couldn't obtain.
It was decided, four years after faking his death, that John would hand himself in to a random police station in London and claim he'd been suffering from amnesia following an accident. When, in 2007, he did just that, he was unaware that police had been investigating Anne for some time and after reading about John's reappearance in a local paper, a canny reader Googled the words 'John, Anne, Panama' and found a photo of the pair together taken in 2006 with a relocation agent – evidence that threw a gigantic spanner in the works for Anne, who claimed she was just as surprised as anyone when her husband seemingly rose from the dead.
In July 2008, the couple were arrested and put on trial, later being convicted of fraud and being ordered to serve six years each in prison (they were both released early in 2011). Their sons were required to give evidence after Anne said she was coerced into going along with the scam, and later publicly made it known that they had no interest in maintaining a relationship with either of their parents.
Speaking to the press, Mark described Anne as "a hideous lying b***h who had gone to outrageous lengths to con us" while Anthony said [via the Daily Mail] of his parents, "They're as bad as each other. Dad told one nasty lie and disappeared and said he was dead, but she lied for six years, she was the face of the lies, she kept on lying even when the evidence was so overwhelmingly against her. She dragged us through hell by forcing a court case."
Where is John Darwin now?
Partway through their prison stint, John and Anne separated and divorced (at Anne's request). John later embarked on a new life in the Philippines and has since remarried to a woman named Mercy Mae (who is 23 years his junior). According to the Daily Mail, when speaking recently about the new ITV drama, Mercy Mae said, "I know what he did, he knows, and he paid penalty, he doesn't need to be reminded."
Where is Anne Darwin now?
After a period of estrangement, it's believed that Anne managed to reunite with her sons, Anthony and Mark. During her time in prison, Anne collaborated with journalist David Leigh again on a book titled Out Of My Depth and has since spoken publicly about her involvement in the scam on various occasions, claiming she was controlled by her husband John throughout. It's thought that she now lives in Middlesborough.
Read more about Anne's story here:
The four-part drama The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe will begin airing on 17 April on ITV
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