Man in canoe ‘nearly gardened’ as he pretended to be dead
John Darwin, the man made famous for his plot to fake his own death in a canoe, nearly blew his own blanket when an ex-colleague saw him pottering around in his garden – 14 months after his supposed death. It is believed that the fraudster was so arrogant that he was not recognized in his disguise of a beard and hat.
While his two sons mourned his “death”, Darwin often strolled in the front yard of his house. The prison warden disappeared at sea in his canoe in 2002 and it was presumed he had drowned.
In fact, he had returned to the family home of Seaton Carew, Co Durham, to live in a secret room behind a cupboard. Now former colleague Dave Smith says he spotted him gardening in 2003, MirrorOnline reports.
He said, “He had a long shaggy beard and looked like a caveman, but I knew it was him.” It was one of three separate sightings of Darwin in the months after his disappearance by those he had worked with. Still, he remained at prominence for five years as his wife Anne, who was involved in the scam, took in over £500,000 in payments such as life insurance.
Dave, who worked with Darwin at Holme House prison in Stockton-on-Tees, claimed staff did not believe their ‘irritating and repulsive’ colleague had really died at sea, especially as he did not never mentioned his supposed love of canoeing. Dave was walking past the house with his wife Denise when he saw Darwin in the front driveway.
He recalls: “I said to my wife: ‘My God, it’s John Darwin! Denise told me not to be silly. I was 100% sure it was him. I turned around as soon as I could and stopped outside his house to take another look. I could not believe my eyes.
The sighting features in a book, The Thief, his Wife and his Canoe, by former Mirrorman David Leigh, which inspired the ITV drama series of the same name. The series debuted Sunday night (April 17) with Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan.
Dave immediately reported his sighting to the police. Officers called Darwin’s wife who told police it might be one of their tenants.
Fearing that his cover was about to be destroyed, the couple agreed that he had to disappear again until the threat of being discovered had passed. Darwin told his wife that he saw America as a possible new home for them and decided to accept the offer of his online friend “Maria”, who had invited him to stay with her in New York. if he were ever to visit.
Dave recalls: “I knew it was him. He was weeding in the driveway, it was broad daylight. We looked each other straight in the eye and he turned and ran away because he must have recognized me.
“He reminded me of that photo of Saddam Hussein when he came out of the hole where he had been hiding. There was a mass of hair and a large beard.
“When he stormed off I went straight to Hartlepool Police Station to report him. I said I had just seen a missing person and the next day a guy came out of the CID – we went to school together.
“He said ‘Are you sure that was him?’ I said ‘I worked with him two years ago and haven’t seen him since, but I haven’t I’ve seen you for 10 years and I recognized you straight away”. If I had had any doubts, I wouldn’t have gone to the police.
Tony Kidd, another former Holme House prison officer, said there were a number of prison staff who believed Darwin was not dead. They also saw him in and around his hometown after he disappeared.
“A lot of people didn’t believe he drowned,” Tony told the documentary about the Darwins, which premieres on ITV on Thursday. “One of the girls thought she saw him at Hartlepool Marina.”
Another prison officer thought he saw Darwin in a Range Rover alongside his dogs. Colleagues said Darwin removed all of his personal items from his locker just before he disappeared.
Insurance investigator John Saunders told the programme: ‘We suggested monitoring. It worked in other cases. The plaintiff in each case, who was always the wife, eventually met the “deceased” person.
The insurer then received a death certificate signed by the coroner and therefore felt “obligated to pay”, Mr Saunders added. Retired prison officer Dave, 64, said he had been asked to keep quiet about the sighting in case the police decided to carry out covert operations on Darwin’s house. But he had to inform the Governor of Holmes House due to police involvement.
“I would say 99% of the prison staff who knew Darwin didn’t think he was dead,” he added. “He worked there for years and never mentioned canoeing as a hobby.
“He wasn’t a nice person. He was money oriented, so people didn’t want to socialize with him, and he wasn’t hygienic either.
“People were avoiding him because he was so annoying. It came as no surprise to me when he finally came back alive. By the time I reported him, he already had all the money in the house. insurance and death in service payments, so maybe they just wanted to sweep it under the rug.
The Darwins were both imprisoned for more than six years for fraud.
- The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe by David Leigh starring Tony Hutchinson, the detective who led the police investigation, is out now, published by Hodder