'Canoe conman' John Darwin faked his own accident before coming back from the dead 5 years later

Yasmine Leung April 5, 2022
'Canoe conman' John Darwin faked his own accident before coming back from the dead 5 years later
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


ITV is set to premiere a drama based on John Darwin, who faked his death in a canoe accident. The scheme allowed him and his wife to collect life insurance after John Darwin’s disappearance. However, his activity was uncovered just five years later so how did he get busted?

ITV’s upcoming drama is inspired by the activity of married couple John and Anne Darwin. Titled The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe, the series stars Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan respectively.

Known as the canoe conman, John Darwin – a former police offer – faked his death after a “canoe accident” that led insurance companies, friends and his two sons to believe he had drowned in 2002.

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What did John Darwin do?

On 21 March 2002, Darwin paddled out to sea in Seaton Carew near his home of Hartlepool. He was reported missing and presumed dead after the canoe wreck was later found. However, John actually abandoned his canoe before going into hiding.

His wife alerted the authorities after driving him to Durham railway station, prompting a rescue operation. Searches were unsuccessful, though they did uncover a double-ended paddle and the boat wreckage the next day.

The couple were owners of several bedsits and reportedly found themselves in debt after purchasing two properties in Seaton Carew in December 2000. These bedsits became Darwin’s place of hiding over the next few years. One of which was located right next to the family home.

The wrong place at the wrong time

Photo credit should read ANDREW YATES/AFP via Getty Images

His plan wasn’t foolproof after one of his neighbours, Lee Wadrop, recognised Darwin. He reportedly asked him: “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” Darwin begged him to remain silent and Wadrop didn’t report it since he “did not want to get involved”.

Following his death, the couple managed to obtain at least £250,000 from Unat Direct Insurance Management Limited from life insurance and pension.

Over the next five years, the pair jetted around the Americas and Europe to build their property portfolio. John Darwin used a fake passport claiming to be John Jones at the time. The couple resided and purchased an estate in Panama in 2007.

However, the ‘canoe man’ would later end up being brought back from the dead.

When was the ‘canoe conman’ caught?

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Darwin faked amnesia when he walked into a London police station in December 2007. He realised his fake passport wouldn’t pass a UK security check to obtain a Panamanian “investors visa”. The dad claimed he had no recollection of the last five years, but remembered his personal details.

Anne pretended that she had no knowledge of her husband’s livelihood, but authorities grew suspicious of the couple months earlier since she transferred large sums of money abroad.

An image of the couple in Panama became known to the police and helped to uncover the truth.

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Where is John Darwin now?

John was sentenced to six years and three months in prison in 2008. He plead guilty to seven charges of obtaining cash by deception. Anne was accused of six counts of fraud and nine counts of money laundering but denied the claims. She was later found guilty by a jury, resulting in a six-and-a-half-years sentence in 2008.

The couple later repaid £540,000 of the money they owed.

The pair are no longer married with John recently spotted in the Philippines with his 48-year-old second wife, Mercy Mae Avila. He made headlines in March after Mercy told The Mirror he said he would join the fight in Ukraine.

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Yasmine is a third-year Anthropology and Media student at Goldsmiths University with a new obsession with League of Legends, despite being really bad. She's always on social media keeping on top of the latest news and trends and is HITC’s expert in Korean pop culture. She also loves music, TV and fashion - her favourite things to write about.