Image: Canoe death scam couple
Anne Darwin, left, helped her husband, John, stage his death in an apparent canoe accident as part of an insurance scam.
updated 7/23/2008 1:18:04 PM ET 2008-07-23T17:18:04

A judge sentenced a husband and wife to more than six years in jail Wednesday for faking the man's drowning death in a $500,000 insurance scam.

Anne Darwin, 56, was jailed for six and a half years after a jury found her guilty earlier Wednesday of six counts of fraud and nine counts of money laundering.

Her husband, John Darwin, 57, received six years and three months — a slightly lesser sentence because he had pleaded guilty.

The couple staged John Darwin's death in an apparent canoe accident in 2002 to collect pension and insurance payments, prosecutors said.

They said the couple kept the fact that he was alive secret from their two adult sons while they planned to start a new life together in Panama.

The sons Mark, 32 and Anthony, 29, testified at the trial that they had no idea their father was still alive. Mark Darwin said news of his father's disappearance had "crushed my world."

Judge Alan Wilkie said that while the sum the couple embezzled was not enormous, he was imposing a severe sentence because of the duration and complexity of the offense, "and in particular the grief inflicted over the years to those who in truth were the real victims, your own sons, whose lives you crushed."

Amnesia claim unravels plot
The plot began to unravel in December when the missing man walked into a London police station claiming to have amnesia.

Soon after, a newspaper published a photograph of the smiling couple together in Panama, four years after his alleged death. Prosecutors said for some of the time he was missing, John Darwin lived in a secret room in an apartment next door to the family home in Seaton Carew, 260 miles north of London.

Anne Darwin acknowledged that she had helped her husband John stage his death to collect pension and insurance payments. But she insisted she had been coerced.

Her defense of marital coercion was undermined when the court was shown affectionate, flirtatious e-mails she exchanged with her "dead" husband.

The jury deliberated for four hours before finding former doctor's receptionist Anne Darwin guilty on all 15 counts against her.

Detective Inspector Andy Greenwood, who led the police investigation, said outside court that Anne Darwin was a "compulsive liar."

"To put somebody's sons though that turmoil, together with the friends and the family, is absolutely appalling and I'm just pleased that the truth, as it's been unfolding, has come out," he said. "She was out and out despicable and I just don't have the time of day for her."

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