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On 21 March 2002, Hartlepool prison officer John Darwin went out in his canoe. When he missed his shift at work and didn’t return home, the alarm was raised and there was a huge search operation. He was a missing person, presumed dead. Little did the police know, John had actually faked his own death, with the help of his wife Anne, so that they could claim the life insurance money.
The couple lied to their two sons and the world. In 2007, after trying and failing to start a new life under a fake name in Panama with Anne, John turned up at a police station in London, claiming he had amnesia. The story exploded, and John was soon known as “Canoe Man”, but the pair were caught out when a member of the public found a photo online of the couple in Panama, taken in 2006. They were both convicted of fraud and sentenced to more than six years in prison.
Now, ten years on from John’s initial “disappearance”, ITV is dramatising the story in a new four-part seriesThe Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, with Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan playing the couple at the centre of the scandal. Read our interview with Dolan about portraying Anne here.
The ITV series ends with Anne leaving prison and going to a halfway house in Leeds – but where are the Darwins now?
Anne separated from John just before she was released from prison. “I hadn’t realised how much John manipulated me until I was in prison. I had to see a psychologist to finally help me see things in a different light," she told The Guardian in 2016.
“Until then I’d always had his voice in my head. Finally, when it faded away, I could then make decisions for myself and I realised that I didn’t have to depend on him. I could cope on my own.”
In 2011, when Anne was released, John reportedly sent her a photograph of herself with a copyright symbol on it, to imply she was his property. They eventually divorced, with John citing “unreasonable behaviour”.
Soon afterwards, Anne decided to tell her story. In 2016, she released a memoir, Out of My Depth. The blurb for the book reads: “After years of remaining silent, Anne Darwin finally reveals the truth behind the crime that tore her family apart.”
Anne also got a job with the RSPCA using the qualifications she gained in prison. The proceeds from her book went to the RNLI and the RSPCA.
She is now retired and living alone in the north of England. She is reconciled with her two sons, Mark and Anthony, who had previously disowned her, and is a part of her grandchildren’s lives.
John, meanwhile, remarried in 2015. He moved to Manila in the Philippines, where he helps his second wife, Mercy, run a market stall. She is 23 years younger than him.
In a recent development that, like the original story is stranger than fiction, John has reportedly gone to Ukraine to fight against the Russians. Mercy told The Mirror: “He will have a bullet proof vest and good life insurance, good for me.”
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe begins on ITV at 9pm on Sunday 17 April.