Anne Darwin would probably be looking at just a few more months in jail had she taken my advice. And maybe, just maybe, she would one day have found forgiveness from the sons now branding her a ‘lying bitch”.
She certainly wouldn’t be contemplating the six-and-a-half-year prison sentence meted out by a High Court judge for her role in one of the most astonishingly brazen deception stories in years.
Six years: the same amount of time she so cruelly conned those beloved sons and the rest of the world into believing husband John had drowned in his red canoe.
I tracked down the 56-year-old former doctor’s receptionist to an apartment in Panama, Central America, days after her husband came back from the dead last December.
I found Anne cowering behind the door of her fourth-floor apartment in an anonymous suburb of the capital, Panama City. When she finally let me in, after pretending not to be there for nearly an hour, she told me she was delighted her husband had turned up safe and well and was making plans to return to England – but she wasn’t in the least convincing and seemed in no particular hurry to return.
Eventually, after nearly a week of headline-grabbing revelations in the Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror, in which she gradually confessed her guilt, (well, most of it), she did fly back to England with me to face the music.
She was arrested and charged with 15 counts of deception and money laundering, along with her husband, who faced an additional two charges.
That should have been the end of it
But while her Walter Mitty of a husband, realising the game was finally up, confessed his guilt and admitted the charges, Anne’s lawyers delved into the statute books and pulled out a rabbit – the highly unusual defence of ‘marital coercion’.
Throughout Anne’s trial, I sat in a Middlesbrough courtroom and watched the latest chapter in this very ordinary couple’s quite extraordinary life of lies and deception unfold.
Anne’s decision to plead not guilty meant that sons Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, the boys she had already hurt so cruelly, were dragged through the ordeal of giving evidence in court – surely ending any possible hope of reconciliation.
As everyone in court heard, Anne Darwin continued to lie. She had lied to the boys, lied to the police and now, there she was lying to a judge and jury at Teesside Crown Court.
Nobody in court fell for it. It took the jury just four hours to find her guilty of all counts.
On the final leg of our flight home from Panama last December, I told her the time for lying about her role in John’s disappearance was over.
Telling truth would have served her well
As we sat side-by-side in row A of our Delta flight from Atlanta, Georgia, I warned her – begged her, even – that when we touched down on English soil at Manchester Airport, where detectives from Cleveland Police would be waiting to interview her, the lying had to stop.
There was nothing to be gained and everything to lose, I said, in not giving a full and totally honest account of what really happened after John paddled out into the North Sea on 21 March, 2002.
Over the course of the week I spent with Anne, I felt sorry for her and genuinely wanted to help her. She was alone, friendless and frightened. That’s why I implored her to tell the truth and why I ensured there was a lawyer waiting for her on her return to the UK. Perhaps I should have left her to find a lawyer who had never heard of marital coercion?
The sentence she got is even longer, by three months, than the one given to her husband – the brains and instigator of the crime but a man who, ultimately, had the good sense to admit his guilt.
As one of the Cleveland cops heavily involved in the investigation left court, he turned to me and shook his head, amazed at the severity of Anne’s sentence. ‘We probably wouldn’t even have gone after her if she’d only put her hands up at the outset,’he said. ‘John was the one we always wanted.”