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The 'dead' canoeist John Darwin, his wife and the Panama connection

The Times 2007 12 04

Five years after the ‘drowning tragedy’, missing man wanders into a London police station

The wife of a man who disappeared in an apparent canoeing tragedy five years ago had moved to Panama and opened a new bank account only weeks before he walked into a police station to declare that he was still alive, it emerged last night.

Anne Darwin - in Panama City?Anne Darwin, 55, is understood to have emigrated to Panama City soon after the sale of two properties that she once jointly owned with her husband John Darwin, who had formally been declared dead by a coroner.

Yesterday Mr Darwin, 57, a former teacher and prison officer, was preparing to be interviewed by detectives who want to know how he has survived in anononymity before he strolled into West End Central police station in Savile Row, Central London, last weekend.

The mystery of his wherabouts has baffled friends of the couple, who had belived that he had drowned off the Cleveland coast half a mile from his home in March 2002.

But it is his wife’s sudden departure from their seven-bedroom home that has puzzled neighbours in the coastal community of Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool.

Bill Rodriguez, a former neighbour, said that when he last saw Mrs Darwin in August, she told him that she had just returned from a six-week holiday in Panama. “She said she loved it out there and was going to move out full-time,” he said.

A former neighbour said that Mrs Darwin’s departure six to eight weeks ago, had been extremely sudden.

“She left the house full of furniture. She left everything. It took them 15 skips to get the rubbish out,” she said.

The Times understands that she has “hundreds of thousands of pounds” in a Panamanian bank account, and has sent some of her furniture out to the Central American state.

The bizarre story began on March 21 five years ago when Mr Darwin took his red canoe out to sea.

The couple had moved to a seafront house two years earlier with their dogs. Their sons, Mark and Anthony, had moved away and the couple told neighbours that they hoped to retire there.

John Darwin - missing canoeist returnsThe North Sea was said to be unusually calm that spring day. Mr Darwin was reported missing when he did not return home. Hours later his damaged boat was washed up on the sandy beach.

 A member of the emergency services who launched a fruitless 14-hour seach for Mr Darwin after his disappearance said last night that sea conditions had been as “smooth as a millpond”. Tom Waller, 60, a member of Hartlepool Coastwatch, said that rescuers had been puzzled that the prison officer could have got into trouble in such conditions.

An extensive search operation was mounted along the coastline from Hartlepool to Staithes, North Yorkshire. No sign of the ex-teacher was ever found.

Six months after his disappearance, Mrs Darwin, a doctor’s receptionist, told a local newspaper that she could not move on without seeing her husband’s body. She said: “People die, have a funeral, they have a headstone, there is something to mark the fact they existed on this Earth. But without a body, I don’t know how we can mark John’s life.

“All I want is to bury his body. It would enable me to move on. It’s difficult to grieve without bringing things to a close, but as it is I’m in limbo and there’s nothing I can do.”

An inquest was eventually held in April 2003, 13 months after his disappearance, and the Hartlepool coroner recorded an open verdict.

The couple paid £170,000 in December 2000 for two adjoining properties on Seaton Carew seafront. Robert Meggs, the former owner, said the Darwins planned to live in one house while earning a £2,000 monthly rental income from the second, which was divided into 15 bedsits.

“They had been living near Durham but they used to come to Seaton regularly to walk their two Rottweilers on the beach,” he said.

“Mr Darwin also told me that he was a keen canoeist. When they saw these adjoining homes for sale they thought it was their dream house.”

Mr Meggs said that the couple owned a black Range Rover with a personalised number plate prefix of JD. Mrs Darwin had been “very striking” and appeared to be the dominant partner in the relationship, he said.

Her husband had told him that he had a heart condition. On the day they moved in, Mr Meggs said he had been puzzled when Mrs Darwin confided in him: “If this doesn’t work out, we’ll lose everything.”

Documents from the Land Registry show that Mrs Darwin transferred both of their properties to her son, Mark, in June 2006.

She continued to live in one of the houses, but one was sold in October 2007 for £295,000 while the other fetched £160,000 in March.

Yesterday afternoon two police officers called at one of the couple’s properties to take away mail. The male and female uniformed officers spoke to John Duffield, 36, for about ten minutes before driving off in a patrol car.

When he and his partner moved in, furniture was left including wardrobes and settees, but few personal items were left, he said, though “we did find teach yourself Spanish books in her study”, he said.

Mr Darwin studied at the St Francis Xavier College in Liverpool. He wrote on the Friends Reunited website in January 2002, just weeks before his disappearance, “After leaving St Francis went to De La Salle College Manchester where I did biology and chemistry. Taught in Derwentside for 18 years before leaving teaching to join Barclays Bank. At present work for Prison Service and have portfolio of properties.

“Married to a convent girl Anne Stephenson, we have two grown up sons and two dogs. Recently moved to Seaton Carew where I hope to retire soon.”

This weekend, Mr Darwin reappeared in the Central London police station, looking tanned, refreshed and healthy.

He is believed to be staying with relatives in the South of England.

This weekend some relatives of Mr Darwin expressed relief that he has reappeared. His brother David, speaking from his home in Barnet, North London, said: “All the family is so relieved that John is alive.”

Mr Darwin’s 90-year-old father, Ronald, of Blackhall Colliery, Co Durham, told a newspaper: “I always said to the police that there might be more to this than it appeared at first. When his canoe was found but he wasn’t, it didn’t seem right.”

Mr Darwin said that when his son was 4 or 5 he was knocked down by a car and suffered a head injury, which could have caused amnesia later in his life.

The pensioner, who is in a wheelchair, saw his son covered in blood after the childhood car accident and reckoned it may have caused memory problems.

“Now he’s got his memory back,” Mr Darwin said. “When I speak to him, I will ask him where he has been these last few years and I’ll ask, ‘Why didn’t you make arrangements to see me before now?’.”

One relative was less supportive. Mr Darwin’s aunt, Margaret Burns, said that her nephew had only once made contact with his 90-year-old father, Ronald, in the past 36 years, and that was on the day of his mother’s funeral 16 years ago. She said that at the funeral he had boasted of owning 17 properties and predicted that he would be a millionaire by the age of 50.

Officers from Cleveland Police will meet Mr Darwin before Friday. Detective Chief Inspector Paul Beddow said: “We are pleased Mr Darwin has been located and any interviews with him are a matter of procedure.

“This has been a long-running inquiry by Cleveland Police and officers from the inquiry team hope to speak to Mr Darwin to establish his whereabouts.”

Panama, officially the Republic of Panama, is the southernmost country of Central America. Situated on an isthmus, some categorize it as a transcontinental nation connecting the north and south part of America. It borders Costa Rica to the north-west, Colombia to the south-east, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. It is an international business center and is also a transit country. In Central America, it is the second most industrialized country, behind El Salvador, Panama is also the 3rd largest economy on Central America, after Guatemala and Costa Rica and has the largest expediture on resource consumption, making the country the largest consumer in Central America.

Panama has an unemployment rate of 7.3%. According to the CIA World Factbook the poverty reaches 37% (1999 est.) of the population.However, the First World infrastructure and high standards of living shows Panama's strong and thriving economic growth.

Panama's economy is mainly service-based, heavily weighted toward banking, commerce, tourism, trading and private industries because of its key geographic location. The handover of the canal and military installations by the United States has given rise to new construction projects. The Martín Torrijos administration has undertaken controversial structural reforms, such as a fiscal reform and a very difficult Social Security Reform. Furthermore, a referendum regarding the building of a third set of locks for the Panama Canal was approved overwhelmingly (though with low voter turnout) on 22 October 2006. The official estimate of the building of the third set of locks is US$5.25 billion.

Panama has been classified as not being a developed country, but is firmly established as an upper middle-income country and has the strongest level of infrastructure in Central America. The Panamanian currency is the balboa, fixed at parity with the United States dollar. In practice, however, the country is dollarized; Panama mints its own coinage but uses US dollars for all its paper currency. Panama was the first of the three countries in Latin America to have dollarized their economies, later followed by Ecuador and El Salvador.

The high levels of Panamanian trade are in large part from the Colón Free Trade Zone, the largest free trade zone in the Western Hemisphere. Last year the zone accounted for 92% of Panama's exports and 65% of its imports, according to an analysis of figures from the Colon zone management and estimates of Panama's trade by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Panama fared decently in tourism receipts and foreign direct investment as a percent of GDP (the fourth-highest in Latin America in both categories) and internet penetration (eighth-highest rate in Latin America).

Vanishing acts

John Stonehouse The former Labour Cabinet minister was presumed to have drowned after his clothes were found in a pile on a beach in Miami on November 20, 1974. He was, in fact, en route to Australia, where he hoped to swap his family and mounting debts for a new life with his mistress and secretary, Sheila Buckley. Having adopted the new identity of John Markham, he was discovered on Christmas Eve by Australian police, who thought initially that he might be the missing British aristocrat Lord Lucan. Stonehouse was eventually deported to Britain and imprisoned for his crime.

Karl Hackett Reported missing, presumed dead, by Lee Simm after the Paddington train crash in October 1999. Mr Simm maintained his story for a month and Mr Hackett’s relatives attended a memorial service before it was discovered that the two men were the same person. It emerged later that Mr Hackett had been sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment for indecent assault in 1987, and had lived as Lee Simm since his release. He saw the Paddington crash, in which 31 people died and dozens were seriously injured, as an opportunity to kill off his former identity. In 2000 he received a suspended sentence for wasting police time.

Graham Cardwell A Lincolnshire dockmaster, Mr Cardwell was thought to have died in September 1998 after his belongings were found on mud flats on the docks where he worked. His grieving family members were somewhat surprised when he was discovered about eight months later very much alive and well, and living as a bachelor 200 miles away in the West Midlands. He claimed that he had decided to stage his disappearance after coming to believe that he was suffering from cancer.

Thomas Osmond Attempted to avoid standing trial for sex offences by faking his own suicide. The civil servant was thought to have killed himself by jumping off the Severn Bridge in March 1995, the day before his trial was due to start, and left a suicide note to support that version of events. One suspicious detective did not believe the father of three was dead, however, and kept on searching. He eventually discovered Osmond in Bristol three years later, where he had been living under the false identity of Stephen Williams. Osmond was sentenced to seven years in prison.

See also
Memory and memory loss

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