RNLI speaks out about The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe

A new TV drama based on the life of Teesside canoe fraudster John Darwin which aired this week has compelled the RNLI to speak out about its role in the saga.

“Our primary aim is to save lives at sea and prevent people from drowning. If we are told someone is missing off our coast, we will do all we can to help find them. It’s what we do,” says Mike Picknett, senior helm during the search.

Darwin disappeared near Hartlepool, on March 21, 2002. Reports suggested he’d paddled his canoe out to sea off the coast of Seaton Carew where he and his wife, Anne, owned two large houses.

A major search was launched involving five RNLI lifeboats, two coastguard rescue teams from Hartlepool and Redcar, a police plane with heat-seeking equipment, an RAF helicopter and numerous teams of police officers.

The RNLI says Redcar RNLI pagers went off at 1.19am.

‘It was the signal for the start of what turned into a massive search. The task was to look for Darwin who had left Seaton Carew beach at 8am the previous morning in a canoe,’ says the organisation’s statement.

‘Redcar RNLI along with lifeboats from Hartlepool, Teesmouth and Staithes were assigned areas to search by the coastguard and set about their tasks in the dark.

‘Sea conditions were calm. Both Redcar lifeboats were tasked with searching the area between North Gare and Staithes and 2.5 miles out to sea. The initial search lasted until 2.30pm that day with the lifeboats searching at sea while other members of the volunteer crew carried out an extensive search along the beach between Redcar and South Gare. Nothing was found that could be linked to the missing person.

‘One week later, 29 March 2002, both Redcar Lifeboats were launched. This time it was in response to a report that a damaged kayak had been spotted near to Teesdock. The area was searched but once more nothing was found. The following day Redcar RNLI launched again. A spring tide and low water meant that a more detailed search around the piers and jetties of the river Tees could be carried out. A damaged kayak was recovered from underneath a pier at South Bank and handed over to the police. The search terminated at 1.30pm that day 30 March 2002.’

“This was a very unusual shout for the RNLI,” says Picknett. “We found no trace of John Darwin and once the search was called off, we assumed that he had drowned.”

In April 2003 an open verdict was recorded at an inquest into Darwin’s death and his wife was paid pensions, insurance and benefits claims. However, he was alive and well and living secretly next door to her in a house linked by a passageway, according to Teesside Live.

A year later, Darwin applied for a passport using the false name John Jones (a deceased child) which he used to travel in and out of Britain.

In 2006, the couple flew to Panama where they were photographed by a Panamanian property agent, before buying a property there in 2007.

Darwin later walked into a London police station claiming he was himself, John Darwin, and that he had no memory of the last five years. He gave his name, date of birth and personal details but claimed he did not know where he had been. His sons came to a reunion with their father (both believed he was dead). Meanwhile his wife, in Panama City, told reporters she was thrilled her husband was alive.

The story fell apart after the estate agent’s photograph was revealed from the previous year, and Anne Darwin admitted she knew her husband was alive and that the couple deceived their two sons.

“We were astounded when he turned up all those years later,” says Picknett. “When I look back at what happened I am fascinated by the whole story, but at the time our focus was on finding a missing person.”

John Darwin later pleaded guilty at Leeds Crown Court to seven charges of deception and one charge of making false statements to procure a passport. He denied nine counts of converting criminal property which were ordered to lie on file.

Anne Darwin went on trial at Teesside Crown Court accused of 15 offences of dishonestly obtaining money and transferring criminal property.

Redcar RNLI image courtesy of Dave Cocks.

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