Back From the Dead: The Story of John “Canoe Man” Darwin

For nearly six years, John Darwin, a former teacher from a small town in England, pretended he was dead. He canoed out into the open sea and said farewell to his old, sad, deeply in-debt life. His wife picked him up a while later, drove him to the nearest train station, and phoned the police to report him missing. Their motive? A large, shiny sum of insurance money.

The Beach in Seaton Carew / Anne Darwin, John Darwin / Red Canoe / Police detective.
Source: Getty Images

With the help of his wife, John cashed in hundreds of thousands of dollars of insurance and pension entitlements.

Their fantasy life finally came to a very bitter end after a photo of them surfaced online. But even though their bubble ultimately burst, they still managed to get away with it for several years.

How? How had an apparently normal couple managed to pull off such an outrageous scheme?

He Had Dreams of Being a Multi-Millionaire

Before John Darwin faked his own death, lied to his sons, and stole money from the government, he was just a simple hard-working lad with dreams of being rich. He was a former teacher who had transitioned into working as a prison officer. Neither job provided enough dough to fulfill his hopes of becoming a property-owning multi-millionaire.

John Darwin’s portrait.
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty Images

“Darwin couldn’t settle in one job,” his aunt, Margaret Burns, told reporters from True Crime; “He had to keep trying another job to see if it was more money. It was a way they [him and his wife Anne] measured success. All he was aiming to have was lots of money.”

Drowning in Debt

John and his wife Anne owned 13 houses in the sleepy town of Seaton Carew, located on the northeast coast of England. But that didn’t mean they were making a profit. The rent they got from tenants wasn’t enough to cover the mortgage payments. Their dream of owning a successful property empire was gradually falling apart.

John Darwin's former home in Seaton Carew.
Photo by Owen Humphreys – PA Images/Getty Images

The bank was demanding money, and no matter how clever he thought he was this time, he felt like he had no logical way to get out of it. But he couldn’t stand back and watch as his financial situation closed in on him. So, he decided to do something incredibly stupid. He crafted a plan so ridiculously obscene it’s a miracle it went on for as long as it did.

He Paddled Out to Sea

On a cold March afternoon in 2002, John Darwin grabbed his canoe and paddled out to sea. He clearly wasn’t thinking straight, because this was no ordinary trip in the waters. This was to be his last outing in public. His dramatic farewell from the world. This was to be his death.

The Beach in Seaton Carew where John Darwin went missing.
Photo by Richard Baker /In Pictures/Getty Images

Staged death, that is. His wife was supposed to pick him up from the dunes of a place nearby called North Gare and drop him off at the Durham train station. She was then supposed to go back home, put on her best dramatic performance, and report him missing to the police. Anne did as she was told.

Men Put Themselves at Risk to Find Him

Anne Darwin’s hoax 911 call sparked a serious air and sea search that totaled around 100,000 pounds ($139k). Helicopters, police, boats… nearly 50 men were out looking for him, risking their lives out at sea, while he was likely sipping whisky in some motel.

The Coastguard searches along the coastline.
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty Images

After 16 hours (in which Anne knew everyone was wasting their time), the search was called off. The crew consoled Anne. They repeatedly said they were sorry for her loss, sorry they weren’t able to find him, and sorry they couldn’t retrieve his body so she could host a decent funeral.

A New Identity

John’s first aim was to get a new identity. A month after his alleged drowning, he stopped by his local register office and ordered a copy of another person’s birth certificate. He went through the files until he came across the perfect match – John Jones, birth date 27/3/1950.

John Darwin sits on the couch.
Source: YouTube

John Jones was a five-week-old infant who tragically died in 1950. His profile was exactly what Darwin was looking for. He chose the name John, because that way, if he were to hear someone yell “John” from across the street, it wouldn’t be weird if he turned around. And the early death was ideal because he didn’t want to steal the identity of someone who was still alive.

John Jones’s Relatives Were Still Alive

John Darwin thought he wasn’t doing much harm by stealing a five-week-old dead baby’s identity. But John Jones’s surviving relatives were still alive. And when the whole scandal blew up, Jones’s siblings had a police officer knock on their door and break them the news.

John Jones’ siblings hold copies of their late brother birth and death certificates.
Alf Jones and Freda Woods. Source: YouTube

“The false birth certificate that [John] used is your brother’s who died in 1950,” the detective told the family.

“He’s just despicable,” Jones’s sister told reporters.

Whether or not the police should have told the family about the stolen identity is up for discussion (because what did it do other than add more grief to the family?). But putting that aside, there’s no argument here over the fact that John Darwin’s action was, indeed, despicable.

He Lived in a Secret Room Next to His Wife

With a new identity and a newly grown beard, John Darwin made his way back to Seaton Carew. Amazingly, he ever so casually moved into a room right next to his old apartment. His new secret bedroom was in the attic of the neighboring house.

The house in which John Darwin was secretly hiding.
Photo by Owen Humphreys – PA Images/Getty Images

There was a hidden door in the wall connecting his room to his wife’s bedroom, so whenever friends would drop by to visit Anne, he would hurriedly slip through it back into his hideout.

When strangers would drop by, Anne would introduce John as a handyman.

Anne Was a Quarter of a Million Pounds Richer

Anne would later claim that she hated the plan from the get-go. “[I thought] it was a ridiculous idea,” she told officers; “Far better to go down the road of bankruptcy than trying to fake a death. But [John] just wouldn’t hear of it.”

Anne Darwin walks escorted by police.
Photo by PA Images/Getty Images

Still, Anne went along with it. And she played a vital role. She pressed to have her husband officially declared dead so she could withdraw the insurance and pension funds. And within weeks of his “canoe accident,” she claimed 137,000 pounds from insurance and another 85,000 pounds from his teachers and prison service pensions. In addition, she received a bereavement grant from the government. Anne was now a quarter of a million pounds richer.

One Was Good at Math, and One Was Good at English

Anne and John worked great together. Anne knew how to use her words to get what she wanted, how to urge her sons to help her transfer funds around, how to sweet talk people in key roles to help her milk as much money as she could.

Anne Darwin’s mugshot / John Darwin’s mugshot.
Photo by Cleveland Police/Getty Images

And John? He was good at math. He planned out how to utilize the money to clear their debts and start anew. He helped Anne sell their houses at a profit, and instead of banking all their money in the U.K., they hid it in offshore accounts, away from the country’s authorities.

Meeting Kelly Steele

Two years after his alleged drowning, John Darwin was fed up with hiding in Seaton Carew. He cleared his debt, was no longer drowning in a sea of financial fails, yet he was still miserable. And bored. The small-town man had big dreams, ones that went way beyond the northeast of England.

The Fantasy roleplaying game Asheron’s Call, which John Darwin played.
Source: Reddit

His ambitions took him overseas to Kansas. Smack in the heart of America’s Midwest, Kansas is considered a place with plenty of cheap land. The idea came to him while playing an online video game. Through the game’s chat, he met a married mom of two from Kansas City named Kelly Steele.

“He Was Pretty Nice”

“He was pretty nice,” Kelly Steele told reporters. “He was just like anyone else in the game. He didn’t stand out. He was just another player. He seemed to be on there all the time. I played with him for a year. I considered him as a friend of sorts at that time.”

John Darwin stands outside court escorted by an officer.
Photo by Owen Humphreys – PA Images/Getty Images

When John realized how cheap cattle ranches in Kansas were, he told Kelly he wanted in on it. He promised to send out money to buy a ranch and asked Kelly if she would renovate it for him and run it while he remained in the U.K. “We became business partners,” she revealed.

She Started Having Doubts

Shortly after embarking on his business endeavor, Darwin, using his John Jones passport, decided to fly to Kansas to meet Kelly in person. She quickly began to have doubts about him. “He was really quiet for probably the first five to ten minutes. He seemed a bit on edge, a little nervous,” Kelly recalled.

John Darwin walks in the street.
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty Images

She told John he could put his bags in her daughter’s bedroom where he would be sleeping. When she went upstairs a few moments later to check up on him, she saw him standing with the door open, half-naked. He was topless and just about to pull down his pants when Kelly yelled, “What are you doing? People don’t just change with their doors open!”

She took him to a local hotel and told him to stay there instead.

They Didn’t Want Him Around Town

After the stripping incident, John wasn’t allowed in her home again. But Kelly wasn’t the only one John seemed to tick off. The rest of the people around down didn’t seem to like him as well. “He made people uneasy here,” she told reporters.

The press stands outside the courthouse.
Photo by Owen Humphreys – PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images

Initially, John was supposed to be a silent partner, discussing business with Kelly from afar, but now that he was in Kansas, he suddenly wanted to stay. Kelly couldn’t care less what John wanted, and two weeks after he arrived, she asked him to leave.

He Wanted to Buy a Boat

Back in England and with his property investment in Kansas on hold, John looked for other things to do with his stolen cash. Depressed by Seaton Carew’s dreary weather, his mind wandered to a place under the sun. He decided to buy a boat, so he could live aboard long-term with Anne.

Boats are moored at the pier.
Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Darwin met with boat salesmen Robert Hopkin, who later told reporters that John terrorized him with excessive demands and preposterous requests. The boat he was to sell him wasn’t in the best shape, and John kept urging him to tidy it up while gradually pushing for the price to go down. Eventually, the deal was scrapped.

He Wanted the Money Back

Instead of sailing off into the sunset or starting a new life in Kansas, John Darwin found himself, yet again, locked in his clandestine apartment in Seaton Carew. He still had 50K tied up in the deal he made with Kelly, so he decided to give her a call and see whether she had made any progress.

John takes a walk in Seaton Carew.
Source: Facebook

Kelly was about halfway through getting the ranch ready when John started getting real fidgety. He sent her aggressive emails demanding to know why it wasn’t ready yet. Dissatisfied with the slow progress, John demanded half of the investment back. Kelly didn’t have the money to give him. And her refusal sparked a terrifying string of threats.

John Darwin’s Dark and Sinister Side

John went from demanding half of the investment to demanding all the investment to bombarding her email with a chillingly detailed threat letter. He told her he knew a mobster family from New York who would enforce the debt. “They have photos of you and your daughter. They said she’s cute,” he wrote.

John Darwin’s picture from his fake passport.
Photo by Cleveland Police – Handout/Getty Images

John gave her a list of questions she should think about, including “Why did my horse get sick?” and “Do the brakes in my car need checking?” and “What’s that noise outside?” Kelly never knew whether he was speaking the truth or not, but she wasn’t about to take any chances. She slept with a gun by her side, had weapons stashed around her house, and several dogs guarding her residence.

Hola Panama

After three years of being officially dead, John was growing impatient. His attempts to build a new life had repeatedly failed. His American dream was no more. His hope of sailing around the world had drowned. John brainstormed with Anne for weeks until a new idea popped into their heads.

The view across the Soberania National Park of Panama City.
Photo by: David Tipling/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Panama. The southernmost part of Central America, Panama is known as a place that offers a refuge for foreigners who want to escape their old lives and start fresh somewhere else. In the summer of 2006, John and Anne travelled there with the hopes of finding lush land to build a home on.

They Fell in Love With the Jungle

Anne and John flew to Panama and met with a real estate agent named Diana Bishop. Anne introduced herself as a widow and introduced John as her good friend/partner. “They looked happy together,” Bishop recalled. She took them to see land in Escobal, a town two hours away from the country’s capital.

John and Anne pose for a picture with an estate agent in Panama.
Source: Facebook

Anne and John were showed a vast acre plot of scrubland. It was love at first sight. There was no running water, no electricity and not even a single road around. But that didn’t bother them. The British couple was mesmerized by the different animals and calming sounds of nature surrounding them.

They Smiled for the Cameras

For the first time in years, John and Anne felt like they could finally take some photos. In Panama, they felt anonymous. What harm could a little snapshot of them possibly do?

Boy, were they wrong. The pictures they took in the jungles of Panama would be the end of them.

John and Anne during a trip to the jungle.
Source: Facebook

A little while before the photos ruined their fantasy lives, the Darwins paid nearly 400,000 dollars for the land. They intended to turn it into an upmarket eco-lodge for tourists and possibly even a center for canoeing holidays (ironic, huh?).

Anne’s Sons Wished Her All the Best

Back home in England, the Darwins’ two sons, Mike and Anthony, helped their mom sell her house in Seaton Carew and transfer the funds to her new account in Panama. They believed their mom was setting out on an adventure and were quite happy for her. Little did they know, she was with their “dead” dad.

Mark and Anthony Darwin are leaving court.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Waiting for their furniture to arrive from England, the Darwins took a vacation in Costa Rica. It seems like the chill time under the sun gave John a sense of false confidence because a little before returning to Panama, he decided to do the unthinkable – go back to England and turn himself in. This is where things get really interesting…

He Said He Lost His Memory

John took a cab to the airport and flew back to England, telling Anne that he was missing his two sons and was sick of having to hide from them. Shortly after landing, he walked into the police station and told them the most ridiculous story ever.

General view of the Cleveland Police headquarters where John Darwin got arrested.
Photo by Anna Gowthorpe – PA Images/Getty Images

“I lost my memory and I think I might have been missing for a long time,” he told the officer, who glared at him with a puzzled look.

The news exploded: “A canoeist who went missing, presumed drowned more than five years ago, has walked into a police station in London.”

Tanned, Well Nourished, and Dressed

Typically, if an amnesia-struck patient stumbles into a police station claiming to have no recollection of what had happened in the previous five years, you would expect them to look a bit messy, no? But not John Darwin. Darwin’s skin was sun-kissed from laying on Costa Rica’s beaches, and his body was well nourished from all the tropical food.

A still from John Darwin inside the police station.
Source: YouTube

His apparent good health made it hard for police to buy into his story. Yet still, they listened at first and nodded in silence as John lied and lied and lied some more. As news of his reappearance became public, the British press sent reporter David Leigh straight to Panama to track Anne down to let her know of her husband’s miraculous return.

“Mrs. Darwin! You Won’t Believe It!”

News reporter David Leigh landed in Panama and headed straight to Anne’s apartment. Barely able to contain his excitement, he knocked on her door, saying, “Mrs. Darwin, you won’t believe it! There’s great news about your husband.”

Hartlepool Police Station, where police bring Anne Darwin.
Photo by Anna Gowthorpe – PA Images/Getty Images

It took her a while to answer until finally, in a soft-spoken voice, she asked, “What do you want?” She then opened the door and told him, “You’d better come in.”

Hesitant at first, Anne quickly changed her demeanor to bright and cheerful. She appeared delighted that her husband had been found alive after five and a half years.

“The Game Is up Anne”

David Leigh made plans to take Anne to dinner the following day to continue their little chat. But a little before meeting up, The Mirror (Britain’s news) sent him a pretty sensational photo – John and Anne, smiling together as they inspected the property on their first visit to Panama.

Newspaper clipping of John and Anne posing for a picture during a trip in Panama.
Source: YouTube

He sat Anne down and told her, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to be very easy for you.” When he handed her the photo, her face grew pale. She held her head in her hands and sat in silence for about ten minutes before David asked, “What are you thinking?” She responded, “Well, that picture says a lot, doesn’t it?”

Lying Made Her Ill

Anne was immediately taken back to Seaton Carew, where she knew detectives would be waiting to interrogate her. On the plane across the Atlantic, she told David that she had been involved all along. Coming clean lifted a huge weight off her chest.

Anne gets arrested at her arrival at the Manchester Airport.
Photo by PA Images/Getty Images

“The stress and tension of lying to everyone was making her ill,” David explained. “She was lying to everyone. To her friends, family, and she had told so many lies that she had gone past the point of no return. She was relieved she was going home, but she was frightened.”

The second the plane landed in Manchester, before anyone had the chance to get off, five armed policemen barged in and escorted her out.

He “Always Intended to Pay Them Back”

John Darwin was arrested on suspicion of fraud. In his defense, he claimed that the reason he turned himself in was to pay the insurance money back. “Why did I come back if it wasn’t to pay the money?” he asked the officers. “Yes I claimed amnesia at the beginning. [But] that doesn’t detract from what I came to the U.K. to do – to pay the money back.”

John Darwin lies under a coat as he sits inside the police vehicle.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

But if he was planning on paying the money back, why did he intend on buying a boat? A ranch in Kansas? To move all the way overseas to Panama?

The police were asking the same questions. They obviously didn’t believe him.

Police Were Tipped Off

According to the police, John Darwin likely turned himself in because he knew they were after him. A few weeks before turning himself in, the police had received a tip that he was still alive. So, it was no coincidence that he beat them to it and hand himself in before they had the chance to.

The Detective Superintendent holds the fake passport picture of John Darwin.
Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“There was always the suspicion that Mr. Darwin hadn’t met his death in the sea. There was information that kept coming forward that he was alive and well,” one officer reported.

For weeks, police put John and Anne through strenuous interrogation to get all the details they could about their foolish plan.

“It was stupid, but once I’d set out along the road, it was difficult to turn back,” Anne mentioned.

Their Boys Are Scarred for Life

“The most difficult deception, apart from the official deceptions, must have been the boys,” police told Anne. “Yes,” she agreed.

For nearly six years, the Darwins’ boys, Mark and Anthony, had no idea their dad was alive and well. They mourned their father, spent months grieving his death, and lived with the thought of having just one parent.

Anthony and Mark leaving court after their mother’s jail sentence.
Photo by Owen Humphreys – PA Images/Getty Images

Moreover, they also helped their mom transfer stolen insurance funds into a foreign bank account. Basically, their parents got them involved in money laundering.

When they discovered their parents had lied to them, they cut off all ties and vowed to never speak to them again.

Anne Was Imprisoned for Longer Than John

In the summer of 2008, John Darwin and Anne Darwin were both convicted of fraud. John faced an additional charge relating to his fake identity and fake passport. He was sentenced to six years and three months behind bars.

Anne speaks during a televised interview.
Source: YouTube

Anne, who was described by police as a compulsive liar, an unreliable source, and a danger to society, was sentenced to six years and six months. She got three months more than her greedy husband, who lured her into doing it in the first place.

By 2015, the couple had repaid the country a total of £541,762.39 (around 753,320$).

Are John and Anne Darwin Still Together?

Nope. The couple’s time in prison put an end to their distorted relationship. Today, Anne lives a quiet life in England and has somewhat reconciled with Mark and Anthony (although their relationship will likely never be the same).

John Darwin embraces Mercy May as they pose for a picture.
Source: Facebook

John Darwin is free and living happily in the Philippines with his wife, Mercy May, whom he met online. Due to immigration issues, the couple aren’t allowed to settle in the U.K.

We doubt John minds. He got what he wanted in the end, no? A place under the sun, far from the small, sleepy town of Seaton Carew.