The Man Who Returned From the Sea

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John Darwin

On a Thursday morning in March, 2002, John Darwin paddled his red kayak into the unforgiving North Sea near the industrial port of Hartlepool in northeastern England. He never returned home. In short order, an oar from Darwin's kayak washed up on a local beach. A search team of lifeboats, a Royal Navy ship and a Royal Air Force helicopter mobilized for a frantic, 16-hour search. His yellow life vest was found, but no trace of Darwin was discovered. When the splintered remains of his tiny vessel drifted ashore six weeks later, he was presumed drowned.

More than five years later, Darwin has miraculously re-emerged — under strikingly peculiar circumstances. The 57-year-old former prison guard strolled into a police station on London's fashionable Savile Row Saturday and told officers, "I think I am a missing person." Darwin provided his name, birth date and address, but said he had no idea where he had been since vanishing. He was declared legally dead in 2003.

"The guy can't remember anything about what's happened or why he's come forward. He had no memory at all," said Inspector Helen Eustace of the Cleveland police department, which handled the investigation into Darwin's disappearance. A police statement added that Darwin appears to be "fit and well."

As speculation raged over why he suddenly materialized, Darwin's family expressed elation that he was alive at all. "It's very good news," Darwin's 90-year old father, Ronald, told TIME. The elderly Darwin has said his son was hit by a car as a child, and suggested he may have incurred amnesia from the ensuing head injury. Darwin's own adult sons told the BBC that when they met their father this week, he told them that he couldn't recall anything since June 2000.

His reappearance raises many questions. Not least among them: how does a man suffering from amnesia for such a long stretch suddenly become conscious that he is a missing person? And why would his vital details, which had ostensibly eluded him for so long, suddenly come rushing back? Dr. Ashok Jansari, an expert in the neuropsychology of memory at the University of East London, says, "It's perfectly possible that during a boating accident he suffered a head injury and developed some amnesia as a result of that." He added Darwin could be suffering from a mixture of organic amnesia, which is sparked by physical stresses like head injuries or epileptic seizures, and psychogenic amnesia, which arises after an emotional disturbance. "The bit that doesn't make sense is how he was able to walk into the police station now," Jansari says. "It doesn't fit into anything I've ever heard of."

Jansari indicated it was "pretty rare" for individuals to feign amnesia, and that such a decision was usually born of financial incentive, which Darwin does not appear to have. Some members of the rescue effort, however, harbored suspicions about Darwin's disappearance when he turned up missing, said David Young, a ward council member in Seaton, near where Darwin lived. Young said while boats were combing the shores looking for the missing man, local fishermen said the location where Darwin's kayak washed ashore defied tidal patterns. The turbulent sea had also been unusually placid that day. "It didn't add up," Young says. He recalls a search team member telling him, "We shouldn't be looking here. We should be looking in Malaga," the sun-drenched Spanish resort to which British holidaymakers decamp in droves.

Abrupt departures, meanwhile, appear to be a family trait. According to reports, Darwin's wife Anne, 55, moved to Panama City recently, after selling the second of two seafront properties the couple owned in Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool. That sale fetched more than $600,000. The Guardian, a British newspaper, quoted one of Mrs. Darwin's neighbors as saying she had left the house full of furniture. "It was as if she had gone out shopping. It's just unbelievable."

In an interview six months after her husband's disappearance, Anne Darwin indicated she presumed her husband was dead and sought the closure that came with that knowledge. "I have no reason to think he would have left and stage-managed this," she reportedly said. The questions that lingered then have been supplemented by new ones, as the husband she saw swallowed up by the sea has emerged once more, whole and unharmed but still awash in the unknown.