Canoe Man's Story Keeps Sinking

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Scott Heppell / AP

John Darwin, 57,the back-from-the-dead canoeist, leaves the Magistrates Court in Hartlepool, England

A cardinal rule in police work is that the simplest explanation is often the correct one. But that maxim has been obliterated in the case of John Darwin, the missing British kayaker who surfaced this week, claiming amnesia, more than five years after vanishing in the North Sea. In this case, the wildest, most outlandish criminal conspiracy theories increasingly appear to be right on target.

The latest in the series of hairpin turns saw Darwin's wife, Anne, admit that she knew her husband, who was declared legally dead in 2003, has been alive and well. Anne Darwin, who abruptly decamped for Panama six weeks ago as police were quietly investigating suspicious activity surrounding the Darwins' finances, conceded that a photograph taken of the couple in Panama City was authentic. That July 2006 snapshot was unearthed by The Daily Mirror, a British newspaper, which pulled it from the web site of a company that assists foreigners relocating to Panama to find housing. "I guess that picture answers a lot of questions," she told the paper. "Yes, that's my husband."

The revelation that the Darwins had been together in Central America prompted an angry response Thursday from their sons, Mark, 31, and Anthony, 29, who believed their father had drowned. "If the papers' allegations of a confession from our mom are true then we very much feel that we have been the victims in a large scam," the brothers said in a statement. They added their "rollercoaster of emotion" since Saturday, when their father strolled into a police station in central London, has taken them "from the height of elation at finding him alive to the depths of despair at the recent stories of fraud and these latest pictures." The statement also said they "want no further contact" with their parents.

John Darwin was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of fraud. His wife acknowledged she had collected life insurance payments for his apparent death. The 57-year-old former prison officer and science teacher is in custody with Cleveland, U.K., police, who handled the initial investigation into his disappearance. Depending on what charges are leveled, Darwin could face up to ten years in prison, Russell Hayes, a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service, told TIME. While Britain and Panama have an extradition treaty, Anne Darwin indicated she would willingly return home to "face the music." "I don't want to live my life as a fugitive," she told reporters, noting, "The game is up." She added that she originally believed her husband had drowned, and only discovered he was alive "years later."

Her husband — still hewing to his complaints of amnesia — was declared medically fit for questioning Thursday afternoon. Dr. Ashok Jansari, an expert in the neuropsychology of memory at the University of East London, says there are tests capable of assessing whether Darwin was feigning amnesia, but that none — including a polygraph — is entirely reliable. Jansari told TIME he expected the evaluation would "try to capitalize on the discrepancy between true amnesia and what a layperson would think it is." He says that while it is "perfectly possible" Darwin could not remember spending time with his wife since 2002, "it would be a really weird Hollywood movie where he's amnesic, she's claiming his insurance, and he's not aware of it."

The lurid tale began on March 21, 2002, when Darwin paddled his red kayak into the North Sea in front of his seafront home in Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool. He never returned. An oar drifted ashore the next day, and after a fruitless search, the shattered remains of his vessel were found on a local beach six weeks later. Despite this evidence, suspicion lingered that there was something incongruous about an experienced kayaker drowning on a day when the sea was, in the words of one member of the rescue effort, "smooth as a millpond." Even before it emerged that the Darwins had reunited in Panama, his aunt, Margaret Burns, 80, told the Evening Standard newspaper, "To be honest I don't believe he ever got wet." She may be right.