Their story unraveled with the melodrama and economy of a soap opera. And on Sunday morning, with every exotic plot twist and incredible detail seemingly exhausted, it reached its end. John Darwin, the missing kayaker who resurfaced, claiming amnesia, more than five years after apparently drowning, and his wife, Anne, are now both in custody.
Police believe Darwin, 57, staged his death to collect a life insurance policy that would erase mounting debts accrued through his failing apartment rental business. On Saturday, he was charged with life insurance fraud and making false statements to procure a passport. He will appear Monday before a magistrate's court in Hartlepool, near the couple's home in Seaton Carew, in northeastern England. Darwin could face up to 10 years for the fraud charge, a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution service told TIME.
Anne Darwin, 55, was arrested on suspicion of fraud Sunday after arriving in Manchester, England, according to Cleveland, U.K. police, who are spearheading the investigation.
The salacious case has garnered worldwide attention since John Darwin walked into a central London police station on Dec. 1 and told officers, "I think I am a missing person." Darwin could recite his name, address and date of birth, but claimed he had no memory of where he had been. His wife professed astonishment at his return, telling reporters she was in "total shock." He had been declared legally dead in 2003.
As quickly as Fleet Street could dub Darwin Canoe Man (Kayak Man doesn't have quite the same ring) Darwin's tale began to leak. Medical experts noted that Darwin's symptoms didn't square with those normally manifested by amnesia victims. But the thread that untangled the story was a photograph that Britain's Daily Mirror unearthed of the couple on the web site of a company specializing in relocating foreigners to Panama, where Anne Darwin settled this fall. She quickly conceded that the snapshot, taken when the couple traveled to the Central American nation to seek housing in 2006, was authentic.
In a freewheeling interview published in Sunday's Daily Mirror, Anne Darwin said her husband, gaunt and filthy, materialized on her doorstep in February, 2003, 11 months after he disappeared. Until that point, she told the newspaper, she had thought he was dead even though he had mentioned faking his death to escape from their swelling debt. "He said he had done it for us so we didn't lose everything, which I know seems rather ironic now," she said.
For the next three years, John Darwin lived in their home, passing the time by reading and surfing the Web. When she hosted visitors, he would retreat to a small adjacent apartment that could be accessed through a passageway concealed behind a wardrobe in their bedroom. When he ventured outdoors, Darwin disguised himself by affecting a limp.
Citing a need for closure, Anne Darwin lobbied for an inquest, and her husband was declared legally dead in April 2003. The judgment enabled the couple to reap a life insurance policy of about $50,000 and wiped out an additional $260,000 in mortgage payments on their home.
They might have carried off the scam, but Darwin, an avid outdoorsman, was, "going stir crazy" trapped in the house, she said. In 2004, the Mirror reported, the couple decided to move abroad. Darwin obtained a passport under the name of John Jones, and traveled to Cyprus and Gibraltar before the couple settled on an apartment in Panama.
Their relationship wilted under the strains of the arrangement. At one point, Anne Darwin said, her husband travelled to Kansas to pursue a woman he met on the Internet. She resented him for forcing her to conceal the secret from her sons, Mark, 31, and Anthony, 29, and tried to talk him out of returning to England. But "he had had enough of being dead," she said, adding that "John desperately wanted contact with the boys again and thought he could pick up the pieces of his life." Mark and Anthony Darwin issued a statement this week saying they felt victimized by a "huge scam" and wanted no further contact with their parents. "It's beyond satire," Margaret Burns, John Darwin's aunt, told reporters. "You couldn't make it up."
Darwin disappeared on March 21, 2002, after paddling his red kayak into the North Sea. His wife reported him missing that night, and despite a frantic rescue effort which combed 200 sq. mi. (518 sq. km) of sea and included nearly a dozen boats and a Royal Air Force helicopter the search party found no trace of the former prison officer. The splintered remains of his vessel washed ashore six weeks later.
From the beginning, the disappearance aroused suspicion. Members of the rescue effort could not fathom an experienced kayaker drowning on a day when the sea was unusually placid, and the location where Darwin's vessel washed ashore defied tidal patterns. "It didn't add up," David Young, a ward council member in Seaton Carew, told TIME, adding that fishermen joked the search team would have better luck canvassing the sun-drenched resorts dotting Spain's Costa del Sol. The investigation was rekindled three months ago, when police were tipped off to suspicious financial activity. This week, Tony Hutchinson, a spokesman for Cleveland police, issued a plea for assistance in piecing together John Darwin's whereabouts over the past five years. In the end, it was his wife who revealed the bizarre truth. Her burden of secrecy has been lifted, but in its place looms a towering wave of legal trouble.