The character seen by millions on ITV’s major new drama is portrayed as a “cheeky chappy” who masterminded one of the most notorious crimes of the modern era with his wife Anne – but the reality was very different
The real John Darwin was a serial philanderer who cheated on his long-suffering wife and went looking for women online even as a “dead man.”
The character seen by millions on ITV’s major new drama is portrayed as a “cheeky chappy” who masterminded one of the most notorious crimes of the modern era with his wife Anne.
The reality was very different. While in hiding from the police, the Canoe Man spent his time flirting with women while playing computer games.
He would deny the existence of his own sons, pretending he was a widower with no children.
He also lied to his wife, saying that he was looking to start a new life for them in the US and one online friend, Maria, had offered to let him stay in New York should he ever visit.
Darwin flew out and spent two weeks with her, as revealed in a new book, The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, by former Mirror journalist David Leigh.
According to David, Darwin thought it all “quite exciting” and claimed Maria was desperate to marry him, having neglected to mention he already had a wife. “Remove what he got up to is anyone’s guess,” said the author.
While there, Darwin was in constant touch with another online friend, Kelly Steel, a “lonely and bored” 41-year-old mother-of-three from Kansas.
They first chatted online in 2003 while playing the fantasy game EverQuest.
Darwin, using the alias John Jones, said he was a former teacher and prison officer and ran a property rental business. He said his wife of him was dead and he’d never had children.
He was having similar flirty conversations with women from Arkansas, Nebraska and Louisiana.
As he and Kelly got to know each other, they began discussing business opportunities. She said if he was prepared to invest, she could open an equestrian center and they could split the profits.
In May 2004, without telling Anne, Darwin cashed in £30,000 of Premium Bonds and wired Kelly $50,000 from his John Jones bank account.
“For a man who had always been so meticulous in his affairs, to entrust such a large sum on money to a woman he barely knew and had never met defies belief,” said David. “Maybe he was n’t thinking with his brain about him.”
The alarm bells only sounded when he discovered the money had gone into a joint account held by Kelly and her ex-husband. But he didn’t allow the reality of suspicion to cloud the dream.
Kelly told Darwin she had bought a 10-acre farm in Kincaid for $26,500, and spent more on renovations.
She would keep him informed of progress in regular emails and when they chatted, and flirted, online. He tried to keep his conversations secret from Anne by wearing headphones.
But she frequently heard him giggling like a pathetic schoolboy.
When he finally told Anne about the investment, she was furious and incredulous but was getting to the point of being past caring.
Darwin then flew out to Kansas itching to see the farm – and to get to know Kelly better.
He excitedly checked out everyone in the greetings’ hall, certain he’d recognize her from one of the photos she had sent. But there was no one who seemed even remotely to fit the bill. Then he noticed a woman standing among what looked like a “small group of hillbillies”, waving in his direction from him. John gulped. Kelly looked very different in the flesh.
But it seems neither was particularly impressed.
“He was such a weird kind of guy, he instantly creeped me out and it made me uncomfortable to be around
him,” Kelly later revealed.
“He is the creepiest, oddest and most frightening man I have met.”
Darwin moved to a small motel. The next day Kelly picked him up and drove him to see the farm.
“While we were there, he began asking me about the widows or single women in the town, and could I help him find a new wife, because that would help him get a visa and to stay in the US,” said Kelly.
Darwin, meanwhile, was not impressed by the plot, calling it “Crapsville” and demanding his money back. He hired a lawyer who discovered the farm had been purchased solely in Kelly’s biker ex-husband’s name de ella and that she had thousands of dollars in gambling debt.
John’s American dream was over and he was forced to write off £30,000 of his ill-gotten gains. Eventually, he told Anne the money was gone.
“Part of me wished he had just gone, disappeared for good,” she recalled.
It was an all too familiar story for Anne, with Darwin admitting he’d had an affair just after they married and being caught having another when their son Anthony was 15. She told David: “I was angry, heartbroken. The last thing I wanted was to tear the family apart.
“We agreed to make a fresh start, where we’d both make more of an effort and try to make things work.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to trust him again.”
- The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe by David Leigh, with Tony Hutchinson, is on sale now, published by Hodder. Part Three of The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe is on ITV, Tuesday at 9pm.