Canoe man John Darwin now
John Darwin certainly didn’t die in a canoe accident – and now lives a drastically different life thousands of miles away from the scene of his astonishing crime. The 71-year-old fraudster faked his own death back in 2002 in a dishonest plot with ex-wife Anne Darwin, who played the grieving widow and helped him collect his GBP250,000 life insurance policy. The former couple, who came up with the scheme after finding themselves in crippling debt, managed to pull it off for five years until John ‘rose from the dead’ and their lies were finally exposed by a simple photograph.
They have since divorced and John is now living in Southeast Asia with a much younger new wife, who is somewhat ironically named Mercy, and he still receives a UK state pension. The 34C Pacific heat of the Philippines is a far cry from the chilly Seaton Carew beach in County Durham where John faked his own demise by paddling out to sea in his canoe. So how did John manage to fake his own death and what is his life like now?
Canoe man John Darwin faked his own death and turned up five years later (PA)John and Anne were exposed by this photograph at an estate agents in Panama (Internet Unknown)
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John, a former teacher and prison officer, decided that the best way to dig himself out of a financial hole was with his sham death. In March 2002, he was seen paddling out from Seaton Carew beach near Hartlepool and faked a canoeing accident, which sparked a massive search and rescue operation when Anne reported him missing. She acted as a grieving widow, lying to the police as well as their family and friends, including their two sons, who were convinced their dad was dead when his smashed up canoe was found.
Although John later admitted that he did actually come close to losing his life for real while attempting the hoax. In his unpublished memoir, seen by the Mirror, he wrote: “I started to paddle again, heading towards the pier which I had spotted a few minutes earlier. It then struck me that I couldn’t see the South Gare [breakwater at the mouth of the River Tees].
“I’d actually paddled out much, much further than I intended. To my total horror, I realised I could have been swept away and died. I had nearly done it without meaning to.”
While Anne collected GBP250,000 in life insurance payouts, her husband initially hid in a bedsit which the coupled owned next door to the family home. They made a door behind a wardrobe into Anne’s bedroom and John even grew a bushy beard as a disguise so he could boldly make trips into town.
Monica Dolan as Anne Darwin, Eddie Marsan as John Darwin in the new ITV drama as they travelled to Panama (PA)
For years the couple used their ill-gotten gains to fly around the world in a bid to start a new life, eventually purchasing a GBP200,000 tropical estate in a village in Panama in May 2007. Following a change in Panama’s visa laws, John realised he would need papers from the police so he came home and gave them his real name – claiming he had been suffering from amnesia.
But the pair were rumbled by a photograph obtained by the Mirror, which showed them in an estate agent’s office and ran with the headline ‘Canoe’s this in Panama?’. John was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for admitting deception by faking his own death, while Anne received six-and-a-half years behind bars for fraud. He was released in 2011 after serving half his sentence and wanted to rekindle his marriage, but when Anne refused he divorced her on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour.
Two years after being released, John broke the terms of his parole in to see a young Ukrainian woman he had met on a foreign brides website for women seeking a rich husband. He told her that hundreds of women wanted to meet him and that he received 240 messages from admirers in one day, but she never wanted to see him again after their first date.
John Darwin and his new wife Mercy May (Rowan Griffiths/Daily Mirror)ohn Darwin pictured on the streets of Manila in the Philippines (Rowan Griffiths)
In 2015, John married Filipina bride Mercidita, otherwise known as Mercy, who is 23 years his junior and has businesses including a clothes stall in a giant indoor market. His new life is a far cry from the one he dreamed of as the swindler helps to flog his market trader wife’s GBP4.35 a time undies and T-shirts.
In 2016, his landlady said John spent most of his time locked away in his room because he was allergic to the dirt and dust in the world’s most densely populated capital. Last year it was reported that the couple moved out of crowded capital Manila to a new home around 30 minutes away and it is believed they let the property next door. John still receives a UK state pension of around GBP134 a week and Mercy May said: “I have a new business.
I’ve had it for three years now. Boom. Making money.”
In bizarre scenes last month, John’s wife claimed he was “on his way” to fight against the Russians in Ukraine. Despite being in his seventies, John was supposedly going to take up arms and do battle with the Vladimir Putin’s forces, according to Mercy.
John was snapped doing some shopping last month (Humphrey Nemar)
When asked about the danger, she added: “Yes, dangerous for the Russian when he shoot them (sic). “He will have a bullet proof vest and good life insurance, good for me.”
Most recently, a scruffy-looking John was spotted on a shopping trip in the Philippines sunshine at a store ironically named WILCON. John refused to answer questions as he hopped into a GBP25,000 SUV and sped away, but wife Mercy later spoke about his plan to cash in once again with another tell-all book. Mercy explained: “The book’s about his life, but it’s not yet finished.
You have to wait.” While a friend said: “John and Mercy are really happy together. He feels like he’s been given a second chance at life and he’s grabbing it with both hands.”
Mercy is angry The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe has been made without her husband’s permission, but the show’s writer says he refused to cooperate with them. The series was inspired by a book by former Daily Mirror journalist David Leigh, who found Anne in Panama after John returned to the UK in 2007.
Monica Dolan as Anne Darwin and Eddie Marsan as John Darwin, in the ITV drama, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (PA)
John will be played by Hollywood actor Eddie Marsan, who says the conman lacked empathy and had “delusions of grandeur”. “In a narcissistic way, he thought he was smarter than everyone else,” says Eddie. “That’s why he had the cohones to try this.
He thought he could outsmart everyone else. “He saw other people as merely two-dimensional and thought he was the only three-dimensional person in the world. But he underestimated people’s ability to see through him.”
The actor describes the man he is portraying as a “fantasist” who has the same form of toxic masculinity that is sadly quite common in today’s society. Asked what he would say to John if they met, Eddie replies: “I’d say, ‘What were you thinking? That was crazy!’ But I don’t know if I’d like to meet him.
“He’s probably hacked off that it’s not Brad Pitt playing him. When he heard it was me, he probably thought, ‘great. Thanks a lot!’.”
In tonight’s first episode, viewers will get to meet John and Anne, who we instantly discover are a couple plagued by debt.
They recreated the famous photo which exposed the couple for the ITV drama (PA)
Facing bankruptcy, John decides to fake his own death using his canoe, much to the horror of his wife, who consoles their sons while he goes into hiding. Writer Chris Lang describes John as a someone who is “quite charismatic and funny”, but adds that he has “absolutely no conscience” or sense of how his actions would be perceived. “Like many narcissists, he was also desperate to appear more successful than he was, which ultimately was the cause of his downfall,” explains Chris.
“John had a Range Rover with personalised plates which shouted out to the world, ‘look at me, look at how well I’m doing,’ but in truth, he had catastrophically overreached himself. “This was a man who earned a relatively modest salary as a prison officer(she was a GP’s receptionist) but who had mortgages on nearly 20 properties, none of which he could service. His downfall was grimly inevitable.”
Neither John nor Anne opted to cooperated with the filmmakers when approached about the series, but Chris said there was so much material in the public domain they didn’t feel like they were missing anything. He adds: “Anne had written her own book and felt she didn’t have anything more to say. John didn’t cooperate either.
He lives in the Philippines and is remarried now. But it’s still a very first-hand account.” *The Thief, His Wife and the C anoe is on ITV at 9pm from Easter Sunday to Wednesday 20th April
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