LONDON – John and Anne Darwin were in trouble. Of that there is no doubt. But their plan for putting things right went extraordinarily wrong.
Swamped by money problems and facing ruin, John Darwin cooked up a novel scheme early in 2002. He would fake his own death, collect $452,000 U.S. on his life insurance and pension plans, escape his debts, and the family would prosper anew. Eureka!
Soon enough, John Darwin "died" in a staged canoe accident in the North Sea, then called his wife to pick him up and drop him at a train station where he began Part Two of his troubled life. They eventually made it to Panama, where they tried to start over in a lush tropical clime.
But that only works in Hollywood. In searing testimony this week at her criminal trial at Teesside Crown Court in northern England, Anne Darwin, 56, says she wishes now that her husband had really died. It's no wonder she is bitter — her family is in tatters, and she may face a prison term when her criminal trial on 15 counts of deception and money laundering ends early next week.
Why did she go along with the half-baked, get-rich-quick scheme?
"I felt trapped," she said Friday after describing her husband — who has pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges — as a domineering, philandering and manipulative man who was determined to get what he wanted. She said she tried to talk him out of the plan, but could not. Her defense is based on the assertion that she was coerced into taking part in the ruse.
Anne Darwin, who worked as a doctor's receptionist, told the court that her husband made her pick him up at the seafront and drop him at a train station with instructions to go home and open a box where he had left instructions on how to claim the insurance and pension money.
"I think I cried all the way home as I was driving," she said. "I was frightened. I was being asked to do something I didn't want to do and I didn't know how to get out of it."
Asked by prosecutors why she picked him up that day and embarked on a life of crime, she said she was afraid her would leave her if she didn't do what she was told.
"If I didn't pick him up I didn't know what would happen," she said. "I was frightened he might walk out on me as I couldn't live on my own."
She also told the court Friday that she did not know it was a crime to falsely report a person's death and then make a life insurance claim.
Her testimony, delivered through a veil of tears, describes the tragedy and farce of their life on the run. She said the constant lying drove her to the brink of suicide and cost her the affection of the couple's two grown sons — Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29 — who were cruelly told for more than five years that their father was dead.
She testified that she tried to persuade her husband, a former teacher and prison officer, to allow her to tell their sons about the scam but that he wouldn't allow her to because he thought they would persuade her to turn herself in to authorities.
She admitted that she knew the ruse caused her sons intense pain and suffering.
Both sons have testified in the case against Anne Darwin. Police and court officials said they are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Anne Darwin told the court that the pressure of acting like a grieving widow while she made a series of bogus insurance claims made her go to the spot where the canoe accident had been faked with the idea of walking into the sea to kill herself.
"I felt so desperate but I couldn't do it because of the effect it would have on the rest of the family, particularly Mark and Anthony, and I didn't have the courage to carry it out," she claimed. She told the court in a quiet voice that she no longer loved her husband, who is to be sentenced after his wife's trial.
The extremely unusual plot started to unravel on Dec. 1, 2007, when John Darwin, 57, walked into a London police station claiming that he was suffering from amnesia and could not remember anything that had happened since 2000.
Police did not believe his story and arrested him on fraud and other charges several days later. Newspaper photographs showing John and Anne Darwin together in Panama soon surfaced, further undermining his cover story.
Anne Darwin was arrested later that month.
No one knows why John Darwin turned himself in when he did. Pressed on this question Friday, Anne Darwin said her husband came back to England to face charges because he wanted to pay back the money and be reunited with his sons.