Kent’s own ‘Canoe Man’ and the copycat hoax

A new ITV drama starting tonight will bring to life the infamous tale of ‘Canoe Man’ John Darwin, who faked his own death in 2002 to pocket GBP500,000. Here, we tell the story of the Kent man who cooked up his own elaborate scam – only to come unstuck without ever seeing a penny…..

Anthony McErlean appeared to many to be a chancer and an opportunist, but he had a much more sinister side driven by greed Anthony McErlean appeared to many to be a chancer and an opportunist, but he had a much more sinister side driven by greed

The year was 2009 and Anthony McErlean was down on his luck, riddled with debt and drinking too much. Then aged 63, he was still mourning the loss of his first wife to cancer, and keeping his money woes secret from his second – a Honduran woman 10 years his junior.

They were living in the Central American hotspot, where one afternoon, while drowning his sorrows, he mentioned to a friend he had been paying into a high-value life insurance policy for years.

“You can easily be dead here,” came the response, which would set off a chain of events that would later see McErlean swap his life on the Caribbean coast for a jail cell in Sheppey. The dad-of-two had pound signs in his eyes, and was determined to get hold of the GBP520,000 windfall that would be paid out upon his accidental death. But how would he kill himself off?

How would he convince the authorities – and the insurance company – he was no longer alive? McErlean started hatching an elaborate plan, which would see him get hold of the official documents needed to fake his own death.

And in January 2010, they dropped onto the desk of an employee at Ace Insurance in Glasgow, Scotland. There it was in black and white – Anthony Brendan McErlean was no more.

He had been knocked down by a cabbage truck while changing a wheel at the side of the road in northern Honduras.

Anthony McErlean faked his death in the Central American country of Honduras, which has a coastline bordering the Caribbean Sea. Picture: iStock.com/Manuel Chinchilla (56093839) Anthony McErlean faked his death in the Central American country of Honduras, which has a coastline bordering the Caribbean Sea.

Picture: iStock.com/Manuel Chinchilla (56093839)

A witness statement from a ‘friend’, Ronald F Lodge, told how they had been on a trip photographing wildlife when tragedy struck on December 6, 2009. “Anthony offered to change the wheel as he was worried about missing the dawn,” he said. “I heard a truck approaching but took no notice as this road has farm vehicles using it.

I felt a violent bang, the car moved towards me and off the jack. “The truck carried on without stopping. “I could see Anthony lying in the road about five yards further on.

He was completely still, and appeared badly damaged. “It looked as if the rear wheels of the truck had gone over him. I was in a panic.

“I tried to use my cell phone to call for assistance, but had no signal. I went back to Anthony but it was quite clear he had been killed by the truck.” Mr Lodge said he waited for five minutes before a truck full of farm workers passed the scene.

“They seemed quite non-plussed with the situation, and carried the body into their truck,” he said. “We then proceeded to Santa Rosa De Aguan, a small village on the banks of the river Aguan. Local people took care of the body.

“I was able to return to Trujillo and to tell Mrs McErlean what had happened.”

Anthony McErlean faked this death certificate, which was sent to insurers in the hope of securing a GBP520,000 payout Anthony McErlean faked this death certificate, which was sent to insurers in the hope of securing a GBP520,000 payout

Along with the witness statement was a death certificate, with the documents reputedly sent by someone in the UK on behalf of McErlean’s wife, Sonya. But suspicions were high at the insurance firm, with alarm bells ringing further when a request for the dead man’s passport was declined. So sceptical were brokers that they alerted the Insurance Fraud Bureau, which called in police to investigate.

McErlean’s elaborate ploy was starting to unravel before he’d even seen a penny. By now he was back in the UK, having moved to a quiet street in the picturesque Canterbury village of Petham in August 2009 – four months before his apparent untimely demise. It was there the fraud squad would come knocking in March 2011.

Their investigations had quickly established McErlean was likely alive and well – as his fingerprints had been found on his own death certificate. He was arrested and taken in for questioning at Canterbury police station. Despite his inclination to deceive, McErlean was quick to hold his hands up.

The bogus witness statement provided by a so-called Ronald F Lodge, giving an account of how Anthony McErlean was supposedly killed.
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pPic: Kent Police The bogus witness statement provided by a so-called Ronald F Lodge, giving an account of how Anthony McErlean was supposedly killed. Pic: Kent Police

The conman claimed he dreamed up the scam – without his wife’s knowledge – because he “feared being destitute in his old age”.

He was released on bail on the condition he surrender his passport, to stop him fleeing the country. But the following day McErlean just applied for a new one, telling officials he had lost the travel document. He was stopped in his tracks, however, as police managed to intercept the replacement passport before it arrived.

McErlean would have to face the consequences of his actions. During their investigations into the death insurance scam, detectives discovered the fraudster had also been claiming two pensions in the name of his dead father-in-law, pocketing GBP68,000 over four years. But at the time of his arrest, he had only GBP3,834 in his bank account.

He was charged with making a false insurance claim, two counts of theft, and false representation by claiming he had lost his passport. In court, McErlean alleged he had run up GBP150,000 in debts while looking after his first wife when she was terminally ill. He was reported to have told a probation officer he found the lure of the money “irresistible”.

He admitted all of the charges and in October 2011 was jailed for six years for what the judge, Adele Williams, described as a “deliberate and calculated fraud”. “You were driven by a desire to gratify your own overweening greed,” she added. McErlean’s sentence would later be cut by a year when lawyers argued he was suffering with heart disease and had only attempted the fraud to support his family.

John Darwin faked his death in 2002 before turning up alive in 2007 and claiming to have no recollection of the previous five years.
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pThis is the damning photograph that proved Anne Darwin knew her husband, John, was alive in 2006. Pic: www.movingtopanama.com John Darwin faked his death in 2002 before turning up alive in 2007 and claiming to have no recollection of the previous five years. This is the damning photograph that proved Anne Darwin knew her husband, John, was alive in 2006. Pic: www.movingtopanama.com

His elaborate scam echoed the infamous case of ‘Canoe Man’ John Darwin, who turned up alive in December 2007, five years after faking his death in a canoe accident off the coast of Seaton Carew in Hartlepool.

But while Darwin managed to pocket GBP500,000 in insurance and pension payouts before his lies unravelled, McErlean did not receive a penny. He would serve his time at HMP Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey, where in 2012 he shed more light on why he attempted the hoax. Recalling how the plan was cooked up, he told ITV’s Pensioners Behind Bars he had gone “off the rails” after his first wife died.

“I was drinking too much – trying to blot out everything,” he said. “I happened to say to a very good friend that I had been paying for 13-odd years into a high-value life policy. “He said ‘I can tell you how to get all the certificates for that.

You can easily be dead here’. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘yeah, GBP520,000, that will do me’. “Everything’s buyable there.

They were genuine original documents, and it all stacked up.” But McErlean said he started worrying after submitting the claim, fearing for his own health. “I thought ‘if I get sick here, I can’t go back to the UK and get healthcare’,” he said.

“I’m really up a creek without a paddle here and I started to back pedal. I thought ‘no, but how do you un-kill yourself?'”

A scene from new ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, showing the moment the photograph that would prove the downfall of the Darwins was taken. Pic: ITV A scene from new ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, showing the moment the photograph that would prove the downfall of the Darwins was taken. Pic: ITV

McErlean said he continued with his plan and returned to Kent, where he was holed up in the house in Petham. “I’d grown a black beard and had long black hair,” he recalled. “People I knew didn’t recognise me.”

But McErlean would never receive a penny for the fake death scam – later claiming he had been “unlucky”. “What can you say? I’m in here.

I regret being in here but I don’t think I shouldn’t be in here,” he said. “I knew what I was doing and I knew the risks. I’m guilty as the day is long.

“Life’s a bit like Monopoly, isn’t it? But I just got the Go To Jail and not the GBP200. “I was unlucky – I thought it was a bloody good scheme.

“But one musn’t go committing fraud against major insurance companies.” On the face of it, McErlean appeared to be a chancer; an opportunist who had tried to make some money out of a big corporate firm in what some would see as a victimless crime. But his cheerful persona belied a more sinister side that had seen him rack up previous convictions dating back to the early 1960s, including for firearms offences, dishonesty and a robbery that earned him a three-and-a-half-year stint in prison in 1975.

McErlean’s life had been one of crime, and the fake death insurance scam was not to be his last. Little more than a year after his release from Elmley, he made a cold call to a 94-year-old man, pretending to be from a will-writing service. He turned up at the door of George Manwill shortly afterwards, and over the next eight months wheedled his way into every aspect of the elderly man’s life.

‘He seemed genuine.

I came to consider him a friend…’

He forged the signature of a neighbour to obtain power of attorney over the unsuspecting pensioner, and moved him into a care home after helping him sell his house in 2016. Mr Manwill said: “At first I didn’t trust him, but I received a phone call from a lady stating he was qualified. He seemed genuine.

I came to consider him a friend. “In July 2016 my house was sold. He told me it had been put in a Lloyd’s bank account but I have never seen any evidence.”

McErlean had linked his victim’s bank accounts to his own, pocketing tens of thousands of pounds. He tried to buy a GBP39,000 necklace from a Canterbury jewellers with his victim’s money and purchased a GBP16,000 Audi, claiming he needed it to ferry the pensioner to medical appointments. A Santander bond, worth GBP135,000, went straight into McErlean’s bank account.

A signed and witnessed will naming McErlean and his wife as sole beneficiaries of Mr Manwill’s GBP800,000 estate was also made, but never found. McErlean was only rumbled after suspicious staff at Mr Manwill’s care home called in police, who started monitoring the fraudster’s bank accounts. After his deception was uncovered, McErlean was arrested and in 2019 – then aged 73 – appeared in court charged with dishonestly obtaining lasting power of attorney for gain.

Mr Manwill told the court: “My will was split five ways with my family and neighbours. “I have not given him any permission to take money from my accounts. “I feel such a fool that he has taken my money when I trusted him.”

McErlean pleaded not guilty but was convicted by a jury, and in February of that year was jailed for five years. Judge Philip Shorrock told him: “Had you not been arrested you would have milked that account for several hundred thousand pounds.” McErlean, previously of Dunkirk, near Faversham, would have been due for release on parole last year.

His wife, Sonya, was arrested after the fake death scam but later returned to Honduras after being released without charge.