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Posted Friday, December 7, 2007
A Dead Man Has Some Explaining to Do


LONDON, Dec. 5 — John Darwin was declared dead some four and a half years ago, so it was a surprise when he walked into a police station here on Saturday, claiming to have no idea what he had been doing all this time.

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John Darwin, in an undated photograph, was declared dead in 2003. He is not.

It seemed heartwarming, if peculiar. Mr. Darwin’s children said they were delighted. His wife, Anne, who, oddly enough, moved to Panama City six weeks ago, said, “It was the moment I’ve always prayed for,” and speculated that perhaps her husband had lost his memory from hitting his head in the supposed canoeing accident in 2002 in which he supposedly drowned.

But Britain’s ever alert, ever cynical tabloids quickly dredged up some fishy details, including the possibility that Mr. Darwin, a prison officer, might well have amassed considerable debt before disappearing. And Wednesday, after several newspapers published a photograph from the Internet that seemed to show him alive and well — and with his wife — in Panama last year, the police swooped in and arrested Mr. Darwin on suspicion of fraud. Not that they appear to know where he has been all these years, either.

“Obviously, Mr. Darwin’s reappearance has raised a lot of questions,” Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson told reporters at Cleveland Police headquarters in Middlesbrough, near where Mr. Darwin had disappeared. “There will be people out there who will know exactly where he has been, where he has been living and what he has been doing,” he said. “We want to hear from them.” [British newspapers on Thursday reported that Mrs. Darwin had confirmed the authenticity of the photograph taken last year.] Detective Superintendent Hutchinson said the police received financial information about three months ago “to suggest something suspicious about Mr. Darwin’s disappearance” and had begun making inquiries. Still, he said, “nobody was more surprised than I was when he walked into that police station.”

So far, Mr. Darwin has stuck by his story — that he has no memory of anything that happened after a family vacation in 2000, two years before he vanished. He is currently being transferred to the authorities in Cleveland, where he will face further questioning.

Detective Superintendent Hutchinson said the strange tale began on March 21, 2002, when Mr. Darwin, a kayaking enthusiast who lived in the coastal town of Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, failed to show up for his job as a prison officer. His wife reported him missing at 10:30 p.m., touching off a major sea and air search over several days.

Mr. Darwin’s body was never recovered, for reasons that are now obvious. But his paddle was found in the sea within a day, and the remains of the kayak washed up on shore on May 7 that year.

Mrs. Darwin, a doctor’s receptionist, always maintained that she had had no contact with her missing husband. Six months after he vanished, she told reporters how hard it was to move on.

“People die, have a funeral, they have a headstone, there is something to mark the fact they existed on this earth,” she said. “But without a body, I don’t know how we can mark John’s life. All I want is to bury his body. It would enable me to move on.”

The next year, in April 2003, a coroner in Hartlepool declared Mr. Darwin officially dead.

At that point, Mrs. Darwin did appear to move on. She collected on his life insurance. And six weeks ago, having sold two of her family’s properties for $927,000, she moved to Panama City.

In an interview with The Daily Mail in Panama before her husband’s arrest — and before she knew of the emergence of the photograph that appeared to show the two of them together last year — Mrs. Darwin stuck to her story that his reappearance had come as a total shock.

She said that she had spoken to him by telephone three times since Saturday and that, as soon as she addressed “some issues with my visa” and oversaw “the arrival of my furniture from the U.K. this week,” she would return to Britain to meet her husband.

“I will fly back and see John, and hopefully he will be able to move back over here with me and we can start afresh,” she said. “There are many, many things we have to talk about. I know it’s not going to be easy.”

She said that Mr. Darwin, described as tanned, fit and healthy by the police, told her he had lost his memory of everything that had happened since a family trip to Norway in 2000.

“He had no idea where he had been, where he had been living,” she told The Daily Mail. “Nothing. But what happened, I don’t know. There must have been an accident that day he went out on the canoe and he must have hit his head or something.”

Detective Superintendent Hutchinson said that the authorities had not yet spoken to Mrs. Darwin, who for now is staying in Panama, and that they were trying to verify the authenticity of the Internet photo. It was posted on the Web site of Move to Panama, a company that specializes in relocating well-to-do foreigners to Panama.

“I remember posing with them for that picture,” the owner of the company, Mario Vilar, told The Daily Mail. “They said they were starting a new life in Panama.”

The police cannot explain what is perhaps the greatest mystery about the affair: Why, if he had successfully dropped out of sight for so long, did John Darwin suddenly come back? “

We have no information as to why Mr. Darwin came forward,” Detective Superintendent Hutchinson said, “but clearly there is some trigger and some motivation for him to walk into the police station.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times of Thursday, December 6, 2007.

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