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U.K. fascinated by tale of not-so-dead canoeist

Britain is captivated by the tale of a man who vanished after paddling into the North Sea in a canoe, was declared dead, then turned up five years later claiming to have lost his memory.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Was he a victim of amnesia or a con artist who tried to fake his death to collect life insurance?

Whatever the answer, Britain is captivated by the tale of how John Darwin vanished after paddling into the North Sea in a canoe, was declared dead when its wreckage washed ashore, then turned up five years later at a police station claiming to have lost his memory.

Investigators suspect fraud: They arrested the 57-year-old former prison officer Wednesday on suspicion he faked his death so his wife could cash in on his insurance policy and move to Panama.

The story has become front-page news. The Daily Mirror claimed Darwin and his wife Anne were seen together after his disappearance and printed a photograph it said shows the couple standing in a Panama City apartment they rented last year. “Canoe’s This in Panama?” the paper chortled in its headline.

Darwin resurfaced Saturday when he walked into a London police station looking tanned and in good health and claiming to have lost his memory. His sons said in a statement he couldn’t remember anything since June 2000 — two years before he vanished.

‘An unusual case’
Police arrested him Wednesday at the home of his 29-year-old son Anthony in southern England, and took him to the northeast, where Darwin and his wife had lived before he disappeared.

Police Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson, who is leading the investigation in the northern city of Cleveland, said Darwin’s sudden reappearance has “raised a lot of questions and created worldwide interest.”

“Without doubt, this is an unusual case,” Hutchinson said in a nationally televised news conference in which he issued a public appeal for information on Darwin’s whereabouts over the past five years.

“There will be people out there who will know exactly where he has been, what he has been doing and where he has been living,” Hutchinson said.

He said police received financial information three months ago linked to Darwin’s disappearance, but maintained he was surprised to learn the missing man was alive.

Wife's friends behind arrest?
A police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, told The Associated Press that acquaintances of Darwin’s wife had been in contact with detectives for the last few months after claiming to have overheard her speaking on the phone to her husband.

That, along with a sudden transfer of funds by Anne Darwin to Panama and to her son, as well as suspicious activity involving credit cards, led authorities to reopen the case.

Police believe that Darwin turned himself in after being tipped off that the net was closing in on him, possibly by his wife, who became suspicious that her bank accounts were being monitored, or by someone within the investigation.

The Sun quoted Anne Darwin, 55, as saying she claimed the insurance benefits “in good faith when I believed I had lost my husband.”

“Of course there is a possibility they may now have to be repaid,” it quoted her as saying. “It is one of the many things I am struggling to come to terms with.”

Used a different last name?
Authorities are considering extraditing Anne Darwin from Panama to be questioned in Britain. Police said officers were likely to begin questioning Darwin Thursday.

Darwin disappeared in March 2002 after taking his canoe into the North Sea, according to his wife. It was later found wrecked on a beach, and a coroner officially declared him dead.

The Daily Mirror said its photo of the Darwins was taken in July 2006 in an apartment in Panama City they rented through the company Move to Panama. It shows the couple standing with the firm’s boss Mario Vilar.

Vilar said they had not used the surname Darwin.

“They said they were starting a new life in Panama and we helped them get their feet on the ground,” the Daily Mirror quoted Vilar as saying. “It’s breathtaking to think they were happy to have their picture on the site when they knew they might get caught.”

Anne Darwin told the Mirror she received money from her husband’s life insurance policies after he disappeared, but she denied her husband faked his disappearance due to financial problems.

Wife was 'amazed' when he returned
She insisted she had not seen her husband since he went missing and that his reappearance last weekend was “the moment I’ve always prayed for.”

“I’m as amazed as anyone else,” she said.

Anne Darwin said her relatives were shocked when she moved to Panama City six weeks ago after selling the couple’s home in Seaton Carew, 250 miles north of London.

She said she had spoken on the phone to her husband this week and planned to return to Britain to see him once she had resolved some visa problems and her furniture had been delivered from Britain.

If she were to face charges in the case, Britain has an extradition treaty with Panama, the Home Office said.

In England, Darwin’s aunt, Margaret Burns, 80, told reporters: “Most of the family believe the trauma of nearly drowning in the canoe was enough to make him lose his memory, but I’m not so sure. I’m a cynic now. To be honest I don’t believe he ever got his feet wet.”