'Canoe Man' Arrested by Police

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Front page of The Daily Mirror

John Darwin, the missing kayaker who stunned England by walking into a London police station more than five years after he vanished, has been arrested on suspicion of fraud, police said Wednesday.

The 57-year-old was taken into custody overnight by the Hampshire Constabulary in southern England. His arrest is the latest twist in the mysterious reappearance of a man who was presumed drowned in the North Sea in March, 2002. A frenzied search for Darwin — which included a helicopter and nearly a dozen ships and canvassed 200 sq. mi. (518 sq. km) of sea — yielded no traces of the former prison official. When his shattered red kayak washed ashore without its captain, it seemed, surely, to spell Darwin's untimely demise.

But the missing man, who was declared dead in 2003, abruptly materialized on Saturday, when he presented himself to police and said, "I think I am a missing person." Darwin was able to state his name, address and birth date, but claimed he had no recollection of the past five years. He later amended the time frame for his amnesia, telling family members he could not remember anything since a vacation to Norway in the summer of 2000.

Darwin's re-emergence over the weekend was a heart-warming — if baffling — turn, but the police suspect Darwin may turn out to be more criminal mastermind than medical mystery.

At a press conference Wednesday, Tony Hutchinson, a spokesman for the Cleveland, U.K. police force, said the investigation into Darwin's disappearance had been rekindled three months ago, when police were alerted to "suspicious" activity surrounding Darwin's finances. Darwin's wife, Anne, told The Daily Mirror, a British newspaper, that she had collected life insurance payments from her husband's death, and acknowledged that sum might have to be repaid. "It's one of the things I'm struggling to come to terms with," she told reporters. This fall she sold two seafront properties the couple owned in Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool in northeastern England, for more than $900,000. She moved to Panama City, Panama six weeks ago. Of the insurance payouts, Anne Darwin said, "They were claimed in good faith when I believed I had lost my husband and now he has come back from the dead."

Or, perhaps, back from a long, surreptitious holiday. A photograph on the front page of Wednesday's Mirror casts doubt over how long the Darwins were actually separated. The snapshot, pulled from the web site of a company that specializes in relocating foreigners to the tiny Central American nation, allegedly depicts the couple together at an apartment in Panama City in July 2006. Hutchinson said police were working to authenticate the photograph. After acknowledging that it was a potential linchpin in the investigation, he cautioned not to presume its legitimacy before thorough vetting. "We all know it is not too difficult, in this digital age, to doctor photographs," Hutchinson said.

Many experts in medicine and criminology are skeptical of Darwin's story. How could a man who professed having no memory for such a prolonged stretch suddenly gain such awareness of his circumstances? "It doesn't fit into anything I've ever heard of," Dr. Ashok Jansari, an expert in the neuropsychology of memory at the University of East London, told TIME.

"Without doubt, this is an unusual case," said Hutchinson, who issued an appeal for help in piecing together Darwin's whereabouts during his absence. "There will be people out there who know exactly where he has been, where he has been living and what he has been doing," he said. Depending on what offense Darwin is charged with, a fraud conviction could earn him up to ten years, says Russell Hayes, a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service. Hutchinson said police have not spoken to Anne Darwin since the inquest into her husband's death.

The bizarre saga has captivated Britain, seeping even into the top echelons of public life. During Prime Minister Gordon Brown's weekly Parliamentary grilling on Wednesday, Conservative leader David Cameron hammered the British leader for forgetting past promises: "He wants us to think he is like the man in the canoe — he hasn't been around for the past five years."