LONDON A woman who helped fake her husband's death in a canoeing accident was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison on Wednesday for her part in a daring scam that deceived even the couple's children.
Anne Darwin, 56, was found guilty of 15 counts of fraud and money laundering following a week-long trial that revealed the lengths the couple had gone to to secure more than 250,000 pounds in insurance and pension payouts.
Her husband John, 57, who disappeared after going canoeing in 2002 and was later declared dead, only to turn up five years later, pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing. He was sentenced to six years and three months for his role.
The ordinary-looking couple not only deceived friends but betrayed their two grown children in an effort to pull off the swindle. The sons turned against their mother at her trial, giving evidence on behalf of the prosecution.
The case of the "back-from-the-dead" canoeist has transfixed Britain since it emerged last December, its fascination matched only by its complexity and the brazenness of the perpetrators.
John Darwin disappeared in March 2002 after paddling out to sea one morning from his home on England's northeast coast. After a three-week police search, the battered remains of his red canoe were found and a coroner declared Darwin dead.
But five years later the former prison officer walked into a police station claiming to have had amnesia since 2000.
At the trial, more and more stunning details emerged of the daring fraud the Darwins had constructed.
Rather than disappearing at sea, Anne Darwin, a grey-haired doctor's receptionist, had actually collected her husband at the shoreline and taken him to a nearby railway station.
He lived rough for a month before returning to the family home in the town of Seaton Carew, where he was hidden in an apartment in the next door house, which the couple also owned. A secret passageway connected the two dwellings.
John Darwin grew a beard and lived under an assumed name.
Anne Darwin eventually collected more than 250,000 pounds from insurance and pension policies and joined her husband in Panama, where the couple planned to set up an eco-tourism resort and live out their days in the sunshine with relative wealth.
The plan unravelled when John Darwin re-emerged in London. It is still not known whether he returned to Britain because he fell out with his wife, because of remorse at the deception of their children, or for some other reason.
Police said that had the couple remained in Panama, they would very probably have got away with their crime.
Not even the couple's two children, Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, had any clue that their father was still alive. At their father's funeral they had comforted their tearful mother. At the trial they expressed their outrage and distress.
"There is no doubt that this was a callous and calculated fraud," Gale Gilchrist of the crown prosecution service told reporters after the trial. "They were willing to exploit any compassion extended to them."
While Anne Darwin told the court she had been under pressure from her husband to participate in the crime, investigating officers described her as a compulsive liar who had been instrumental in perpetrating the scam.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)