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Case of the Missing Kayaker

Updated on October 19, 2011

The Smoking Gun

It was on March 21, 2002 when 51 year old John Darwin paddled his kayak out into a calm sea. Witnesses thought it was strange since they knew he was supposed to work that day. Evidently, when he didn’t show up for work his superiors reported him missing. A massive search and rescue mission was launched but all that was found was the wreckage of his kayak and a paddle.

Friends and coworkers were puzzled as they knew Darwin to be an accomplished kayaker and the weather and seas had been calm for several days at Seaton Carew, England. What kind of trouble could have befallen him? After a thorough search of the area with no further results Darwin was eventually pronounced to be “presumed dead.”

It was five years later when Darwin strolled into West End Central police station in London. He informed them he thought he was supposed to be dead and claimed to remember nothing about the last five years.

What happened next was a series of astonishing coincidences which ended with John Darwin and his wife, Anne, being arrested. He had faked his own death and upon the issuing of a death certificate in 2003, Anne filed a claim with Unat Direct Insurance Management Limited, a subsidiary of the AIG insurance group. The whole affair had been nothing more than an insurance scam and the Darwin’s may have gotten away with their plan had it not been for several coinciding factors.

Mug Shots

However, to fully understand their motives let’s start at the beginning. The Darwin’s business was renting a number of “bedsits.” A bedsit is a furnished sitting room with a bed and sometimes cooking and washing facilities. They are commonplace in England and Ireland. It seems the Darwin’s had extremely over extended themselves financially after financing several more properties and were in danger of losing everything they owned. So, they hatched a scheme to swindle their insurance company on policies covering John’s life and their property mortgage as well which was substantially more than the life insurance.

Following John’s disappearance, he had secretly moved back to quarters adjoining his wife. He was able to visit Anne through a secret hole in the wall he had fashioned. This arrangement worked out fine for a while, that is until a neighbor recognized him in a chance meeting. The man asked John "Aren't you supposed to be dead?" After a brief discussion Darwin pleaded with his neighbor not to say anything. The neighbor, not wanting to get involved, readily agreed.

However, the Darwin’s soon began to fear their plot might be exposed and began making plans to vacate the country. In November of 2004 the couple visited Cyprus to investigate buying some property. During the next few years the Darwin’s frequently traveled abroad becoming involved in various business dealings using several different aliases. On one passport John used the name of "John Jones," but brainlessly put his true home address. This later became a clue in unraveling the case against them.

Eventually the pair decided on Panama as a place to settle. It was in July of 2006 a photograph of the pair at a Panamanian property agent’s office was taken. It was later to become “The smoking gun.”

The two continued traveling between England and Panama tying up loose ends. In March 2007, the couple returned to Panama and formed a company called “Jaguar Properties.” Their intentions were to build a hotel. Shortly afterwards Anne returned to England to sell their home while John remained in Panama.

Things were going along as planned until an acquaintance overheard a telephone call Anne made to her husband and became suspicious. The police began investigating.

The situation began to heat up further when Panama made a change to their visa laws. To remain in the country, their identities would now have to be verified by United Kingdom authorities. John knew his fake name would not bear serious investigation. That’s when Darwin decided to return to England using his real name and feign amnesia. His plan was to convince authorities he had lost his memory and return to panama with a new passport and identity.

So, here we have John Darwin standing in a London police station claiming not to remember the last five years to an amused cast of local officers. They were amused, because Anne was already under suspicion by the constabulary and had already presumed he was alive as well.

Anne had been living a lavish life style as a mourning widow. A mourning widow who took expensive vacations in foreign countries, transferring huge amounts of money. And on top of that was found to be planning to sell her properties and move to Panama. Therefore, the police listening to John’s wild tale already suspected he wasn’t dead.

Their proof came when the Daily Mirror published the photo of John and Anne taken at the Panama property agent’s office in 2006. The photograph came to light when an anonymous person typed the words “John,” “Anne” and “Panama” into a search engine and the photo popped up.

The two were subsequently arrested on charges of fraud and deception. During the investigation it was also discovered the Darwin’s had participated in numerous other con jobs. Anne was described by police as a compulsive liar as well. In July of 2008, John and Anne Darwin were both convicted and sentenced to over 6 years imprisonment each.

The story of John and Anne Darwin was made into a film called Canoe Man in 2010. The story also inspired a 2009 novel by Adrian Gere called Return from the Dead. But under the law, the Darwin’s never profited from neither.


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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      I remember this case vaguely. An interesting read. If only they'd been just a little more clever and unscrupulous, they'd have gotten away with it!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well,thanks for all the kind comments. But as far as these two are concerned I think they would make good nominees for the "Darwin Awards."

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      This made for fascinating reading. Guess they didn't get away with it! I think they had guts to try, though. Still, what a scam!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      I'm always amazed that people like the Darwins are arrogant enough to think they can get away with a plan like this. There ARE people who've faked their own death for money and got away with it, but they had the good sense to stay completely away from people who knew them in "life". It's believed the infamous airline hijacker, D.B. Cooper, did this by moving from the West Coast to the East Coast, changing his identity, living quietly and NOT spending the ransom money. A deathbed confession alerted his widow to his real identity.

      Thanks for a great tale of a con gone wrong! ;D

    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 6 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      Lying and cheating seem to work for a short time... But they never have peace. As the bible says, "the wicked run even when no one is chasing."

      Proved true for the aptly named "Darwins".