Cleveland Police's Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson holds a newly issued photo of John Darwin with a beard at a 2006 press conference. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Dark Side of 'Canoe Man', the Tabloid Sensation Who Faked His Death

John Darwin's bungled "disappearance" is now the subject of an ITV drama. But it wasn't as laughable as it seemed to those he left in his wake.

On March 21st, 2002, Howie Russon, looking over Tees Bay in Seaton Carew, County Durham, caught a glimpse of his neighbour John Darwin paddling in the distance. He would be the last of John’s neighbours to see him with his red kayak before it was recovered, smashed to pieces six weeks later at Blue Lagoon Sands, near the entrance to the River Tees. 

Far from being John’s last journey, it was to be the beginning of one that took him around the world and back, before he marched into London’s West End Central police station on December 1st 2007 and awkwardly announced, “I think I’m a missing person.” A bold opening statement from someone claiming to have no memories at all of the preceding years, who had been declared legally dead since December 2003. 


Suspicions were further aroused when initial calls were made by the Met Police to Cleveland Police, the force John’s 2002 disappearance had first been reported to. Four months previously, Cleveland’s economic crime unit had received a tip-off that John might not be dead at all. There had been reports of odd behaviour from his wife Anne after John’s death. A timid woman, whose neighbours believed that while John was still around “wouldn't even go across to the shops or down the road by herself”.

First, a colleague at her former job as a GP receptionist claimed to have overheard Anne taking hushed calls from a man she believed to be John. Then after John’s life insurance paid out to the tune of £250,000 in August 2004, Anne quit her job and travelled to Panama in July 2006 before permanently relocating there a year later. While there, she boasted in emails to contacts back home of cleaning her Panama City penthouse in her bikini and of plans to buy a large plot of virgin jungle land. But it remained to be seen whether Cleveland Police would find anything more to these suspicions than jealous speculation. 

Despite this budding investigation, a coroner's inquest into his supposed death authorised by David Blunkett, Home Secretary at the time, and a £150,000 coastal rescue mission in the days following his disappearance, neither the Met or Cleveland Police were any closer to uncovering what had happened to the man now stood in front of them. Initial questioning suggested John was unlikely to help in that regard. When asked what 9/11 signified, he responded “20”; for 7/7 he said “14”. A medical examination recorded his symptoms as entirely failing to match those of a normal amnesia sufferer.


An answer arrived several days after the bizarre case of the “Canoe Man” hit the newsstands. A photo posted on the website of Move to Panama, a company that promised to “help you find a home, clear customs, and move to Panama... without a hitch!” showed a beaming John and Anne Darwin beside a Panama City property adviser. The photo was anonymously emailed to Cleveland Police and the Daily Mirror. It had been found by a woman who read the story of John’s reappearance and had simply googled: “John”, “Anne” and “Panama”. The timestamp in the corner of the photo read: 2006 07 04. There had been more than met the eye about Anne’s decision to start a new life over 8,000km away. The scoop ran across the Mirror’s front page under the headline “CANOE’S THIS IN PANAMA?”. 

The tabloid’s initial glee at exposing the scheme, coupled with the sheer scope of canoe-based-puns available (despite John’s mode of travel actually being a kayak), steadily turned to confected rage as further details of the couple and their ludicrous scheme were revealed. Headlines regularly screamed that Anne was a “lying bitch” or “the mother of all liars”. By the time of their sentencing to over six years in jail each, in 2009, the Express reported that “canoe conman John Darwin faces years of misery behind bars as one of the most-hated inmates in the British prison system”.

John Darwin AKA Canoe Man leaving a magistrates' court in 2007

John Darwin leaving a magistrates' court in 2007. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

How had it come to this? Saddled with debts of £64,000, by early 2002 the Darwins were in a bind. John had considered his options, rapidly bypassing them all to arrive at faking his death to cash in on his life insurance. In an interview with the BBC in 2016, Anne said she knew John simply “couldn’t live with the shame of bankruptcy”, but was unable to talk him out of his final decision. As dusk fell on March 22nd, John pushed his red kayak back towards the shipping lanes from the beach he had landed at and fled to the Cumbrian coast to lie low with a tent and provisions. Anne dutifully began to set his plans in motion.

Anne was unable to break the news that their father had not returned from sea to her sons Mark and Anthony, aged 28 and 25, and at the time. That job was left to a family liaison officer from Durham Police. She had told the police that John hadn’t come home that evening or shown up for work that morning, remarking “this isn’t like John at all”. It turned out that this was perhaps the biggest lie of them all.

John was a man whose life to this point had been driven by a need for control and a relentless desire to make money, described by his aunt in 2008 as “one of those who was trying to get rich too quick”. Despite having his first car and the deposit for his and Anne’s first home paid for by his family, John readily bought into the myth of himself as a self-made man. 


Disillusioned with his teaching job, he enlisted his two young sons in a stream of off-beat money-making schemes ranging from breeding African snails for local restaurants to sell as escargot to painting gnomes to sell at car-boot markets, according to Anne’s 2016 memoir. Never one to miss an opportunity, he also signed Anthony, then aged 15, up with a door-to-door catalogue company, before having an affair, one of many, with the company’s local agent. 

John described Anne’s “piddly little job” to Elizabeth Greenwood for her 2016 book on fake deaths, Playing Dead. It was attempting to develop a property portfolio to support his wife that would ultimately be John’s undoing. Relying heavily on what he called “creative accounting”, he amassed a total of 14 properties while struggling to turn a profit.

His desire to constantly expand his property empire meant regular moves, leaving Anne isolated from her one close friend from school, and treated more like a student than a loving partner. “Through his teacher training he had learned how to control disruptive students and that’s pretty much how he made me feel at times,” Anne recalled in her memoir. 

John Darwin AKA Canoe Man's wife Anne detained by police on her arrival from Panama

Anne Darwin detained on her arrival from Panama in 2007. Photo: Andrew Yates/AFP via Getty Images

“John had always been a controlling influence in my life and even when he wasn’t there I had that voice in my head,” Anne said when interviewed about days following his disappearance, where she was left to pretend to grieve what was, for her sons, a real death. However, it wouldn’t be long before Anne would hear that voice again, now with an unending set of demands of her to keep their plan on track, reminding her “I did this for us”. 


Three weeks after the smashed kayak was found, John returned with a beard, an affected limp, and a new identity: Karl Fenwick, a lodger in one of the Darwins’ properties who also helped out as a handyman. He was to be primarily holed up in the basement bedsit next door to his previous home #4 The Cliff, but returned regularly to #3, whenever the coast was clear. 

In the coming years the repercussions of their crime would weigh unequally on the new neighbours. Anne was left to go through the motions as a grieving widow, scattering petals into the sea on the anniversary of John’s disappearance, while chasing up life insurance claims and an array of pension pots to make sure the scheme actually paid off. John was freed from previous burdens and responsibilities with the opportunity to start life afresh. This mostly involved him sitting in his bedsit playing EverQuest – the early 00s online role-playing game – under the moniker “Cedum the Saviour”, spending hours flirting with a fellow player embodying the character “Guurg”, according to Tammy Cohen’s 2008 book, Up the Creek Without a Paddle.

Though leaving his bedsit forced him to confront the life he left behind, he told Greenwood his main thought when walking by old friends and family was “damn good disguise!In truth, Lee Wadrop, a tenant renting of the Darwin’s remaining properties, had already recognised his new handyman “Karl”, but chose to avoid the hassle of notifying the police. Perhaps colleagues who described John as introverted and boring and a father who claimed he “had ideas above his station” and would later write him out of his will simply chose not to look too far past some facial hair and stiff leg, when he would on occasion walk about town beside Anne or visit the local library. As “Karl”, he had managed to hide in plain sight, but stuck in Seaton Carew, neither dead or alive, a desire to truly escape drove John to his next crime, which still haunts another family. 


“Are you aware of John Darwin the Canoe Man?” began a call out of the blue to Sunderland resident Alfie Jones from a Cleveland Police detective in early 2009. The follow-up question was even more surprising: “Do you have a brother called John Jones?” Jones did, but his brother had died before he was born. “Well I’m sorry but he used your brother’s birth certificate to get the passport he was travelling on. Could you please gather all your brothers and sisters together?” the constable requested before sharing any further details. “It was a complete nightmare… the man is a grave-robbing bastard,” Jones tells VICE. 

Taking inspiration from the 1971 book The Day of the Jackal, John had trawled the local library’s death records in the hopes of landing on an identity to steal for his own. He struck gold with John Jones, born in nearby Sunderland in the same year as him, who died at five weeks old. A local librarian he had befriended vouched for his passport application, alongside a copy of Jones’s birth certificate obtained from Sunderland’s records allowing his new life as John Jones to begin. 

His new identity allowed the couple some sunny Mediterranean retreats, but trapped in an ultimately toxic relationship, John began searching for his second escape. Kelly Steele, the married American woman behind Guurg, told him about the cheap price of land in her home state of Kansas, and became his new fixation. Aware of the flirtatious nature of John’s conversations with Steele up to that point, Anne snapped, “Go on then, find someone else, I don’t care. She’s welcome to you. Let her deal with having a dead man hanging around the house all the time,” when they argued about his new plan, wrote Cohen in her book. John took the outburst as an invitation, soon after booking a fortnight-long trip to the Midwest.


Within minutes of arriving at their home, John began to undress in full view of Steele and her family, before being rapidly ejected. Hoping to ensure their partnership was kept strictly business, Steele agreed with John to make a joint $50,000 purchase of land with an attached dilapidated farmhouse before his return home. His sexual advances rebuffed and unhappy with lack of immediate return on this investment, John returned to the UK and resorted to sending Steele aggressive and threatening emails from his bedsit across the Atlantic. 

“I definitely don't want people to think [the Canoe Man story] is a laughing joke because it just was not,” Steele tells VICE via messenger. “It took a long time for my life to settle and return to normal after it all. To not be in my thoughts every day. He is an awful excuse for a human.” Steele says she reported John to her local police department, who recommended she contact the FBI, at which point he stopped contacting her. John was contacted for comment regarding this article but did not respond by time of publication.

Back in Seaton Carew, John appeared to realise his recent efforts had gone the same way as his gnome-selling, while his aggression and arrogance seemed to only pay dividends when directed at Anne, who was bound to him by the cost of revealing her lies. Likely with thoughts of practicality rather than devotion in mind, Anne was to be by his side for his final destination as a dead man; Panama.  

This was to be by far the most successful part of their scheme. In March 2007, John fully relocated, having bought an apartment in Panama City through a newly founded investment company, while Anne jetted back and forth trying to sell the remainder of their UK properties. John micromanaged this work, requiring her to follow the steps of a colour-coded spreadsheet, complete with diagrams, all the while peppering her with pornographic emails with subjects like “nude and in the mood for love” that reminded her that there was “lots to do at your end… always busy at your end”.

The sale of their last property, Anne’s own home, finally went through in October allowing her to join John and the £250,000 plot of land he had since bought in Colón, Panama. The honeymoon period of this new joint life together lasted a fortnight until John revealed that he had known for four months that visa regulations were changing in their adopted home and that his John Jones identity would not pass the required checks. 

In the end, success for the Darwins only lasted six months, as John bullishly decided to return to the UK. The plan was to reinvent John Darwin as an innocent missing amnesiac who hadn’t seen his wife in six years, before returning to Panama. A key part of this was obtaining a “letter of good character” from the police to support his visa application, but after arriving at West End Central he wasn’t to leave custody until four years later. 

On his release, John returned to his hometown (whose Staincliffe Hotel now boasted a “Canoe Bar” and “Darwin Restaurant”) and started unsuccessfully trying to sell a memoir authored in prison, which among other things, provides explicit detail on the nature of his numerous marital affairs. 

At the end of the day, the story of the “Canoe Man” is both bigger than the crime and the man behind it. It’s not often the case that someone who commits fraud to the tune of a quarter of a million becomes tabloid fodder for years. His journey risked so much for so little reward, but perhaps what it truly gave him was the freedom to act as he always wanted, with many still trying to gather up all the pieces left from the ripples and waves his actions made. 

Now settled in the Philippines, with a wife 33 years younger than him, John appears to have lost none of his penchant for myth-making. Tracked down recently ahead of The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, an upcoming ITV drama series about his crime, the media learned he planned to travel to fight in Ukraine. Perhaps with tongue in cheek, his wife told reporters: "He will have a bulletproof vest and good life insurance, good for me."