However, five years later, a disheveled Darwin showed up at a police station in London, claiming to have no memory of what had happened to him.
Very quickly, it emerged that the former prison officer had engaged in a web of deceit with his wife Anne to carry out a £680,000 fraud that ultimately saw the couple live together in Panama.
The couple had told no one of their plot and had even made their sons believe that the worst had happened.
In her 2016 memoir, penned after her release from prison, Anne recounted how, when she told them she was emigrating to the South American country and was selling the family homes, her two sons had selected possessions of their father’s to keep in memory of him.
But the couple’s plot was nearly exposed when Anthony chose a book that had been printed in 2003, the year after his father had supposedly died. Incredibly, Mrs Darwin said Anthony only noticed this fact later.
The Darwins’ cruel collusion tore their sons’ lives apart, with one of them branding their mother a ‘hideous, lying b***h’ and testifying against her in court at her trial.
The moment that the Darwins’ sons selected possessions to keep was depicted in last night’s episode of ITV Drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, which retells the saga. It stars Eddie Marsan as Darwin and Monica Dolan as his wife.
Dolan’s character is seen telling her sons: ‘Take whatever you want, or take nothing at all if it doesn’t feel right. It is entirely up to you.’
The camera then shows a trove of possessions on the table, including three books, a tape recorder, a watch and Darwin’s original passport.
Darwin told her sons she was moving to Panama after she had received thousands of pounds in life insurance and pension money.
It enabled her to pay off the debts that she and her husband had accrued. Whilst her sons believed she was going there alone, she had in fact already set up home with Darwin in a flat in Panama and had had a picture taken with him that would later expose the pair’s giant fraud.
Writing of the moment that she told her sons she was emigrating to the country, Anne Darwin said in her book: ‘Though shocked that I — supposedly a widow — was contemplating moving halfway across the world to a place in which I’d never expressed the slightest interest, Anthony and Mark both supported my decision.
‘It was just another of the wicked lies I told them, which I will regret to my dying day.
‘Before I left for good, I asked the boys if they would like a keepsake from their father’s possessions.
‘Mark chose a pair of black onyx cufflinks and his wristwatch, while Anthony opted for his pocket watch, wedding ring and passport.
‘He also selected some books, one of which he later realised had been printed in 2003, long after his dad had supposedly ‘died’.
‘Another had an American sticker on it, and Anthony realised that it must have been bought while his supposedly deceased dad was on his travels.’
Mrs Darwin said her sons were ‘grief-stricken’ at the time of the handover. She added that it was ‘very emotional’ for her to see the pair’s reactions.
‘I was happy that they had something of John’s but I felt awful because I was, yet again, deceiving them,’ she said.
The Darwins’ plot was exposed after a photo emerged online of them in the office of an estate agent in Panama.
For much of Darwin’s missing five years, he had been living in secret in his own home in the seaside resort of Seaton Carew, where he shared a bed with his wife.
And when family and friends visited – and his sons returned from the inquest into his alleged death – Darwin hid in a bedsit the couple owned next door that was accessed through a passageway that linked the two properties.
Darwin later admitted that he would carry out DIY on the front of his family home and even walked around his area disguised as an old man – even as his two now grown-up sons Anthony and Mark continued to grieve for him.
After they had served half of the six-year jail sentences they were handed for their crimes, the couple divorced – with Darwin remarrying and moving to the Philippines.
After her release from prison, Anne Darwin moved to a village near York and was able to get a new job with the RSPCA thanks to qualifications she gained in prison. She was also able to reconcile with her two sons.
She claimed in her memoir that, a week after her husband had ‘disappeared’ – in what was their first conversation since the plot was hatched – she pleaded with him to let her tell their sons that he was alive.
Darwin refused and instead callously told her: ‘They’ll get over it. The police will stop looking and everyone will go home and get back to normal. Trust me.’
Mrs Darwin also recounted in her book the moment that Mark and Anthony discovered their father was alive.
The fraudster opted to return to the UK from Panama when the South American country’s government changed its visa rules, meaning that to get permanent residency he needed a letter from his local police force in Britain testifying to his ‘good character’.
This wouldn’t be possible using his fake identity of John Jones, which he had stolen from a dead baby.
Darwin walked into a police station in December 2007 and said he thought he was a ‘missing person’ but said he could not remember anything that had happened in the past five years.
Mark received a call from Hartlepool police telling him that someone claiming to be their father had turned up and immediately began shaking.
‘My whole world stopped,’ he said later. ‘My heart was pumping. I couldn’t believe it. I was overjoyed.’
Anthony was told when he was at his home with his wife, Louise, in Hampshire.
‘It was as though everything was stopped in the room,’ said Mark.
‘I remember us looking at each other as he walked in and I said: ‘I didn’t believe it was you.”
Anthony later told his mother of the moment he was reunited with his father: ‘When I first saw him, he called my name and we hugged. I just sat and stared at him for about ten minutes and didn’t say a word. I felt overwhelming joy that he was there.’
The Darwins also had to pretend to be astonished when they ‘reunited’ in front of their sons.
Mrs Darwin said that her husband told her: ‘Hello Anne, is that really you, are you all right?’
The couple’s fraud was exposed when the photo of them in Panama was found online and came to the attention of police.
In a statement in December 2007, after their parents’ lies had been uncovered, Mark and Anthony Darwin said: ‘How could our mam continue to let us believe our dad had died when he was very much in alive?
‘We have not spoken to either of our parents since our dad’s arrest and at this present time we want no further contact with them’.
Mrs Darwin said in a 2016 interview hat deceiving her sons was ‘unforgiveable’.
‘I was totally shocked by how dark and full of anger they were. To see that was absolutely horrendous. It jolted me. I could easily have buckled then and there,’ she said.
However, she said she is now reconciled with both of her sons and has been on holidays with them and their families.
Asked if her sons were in touch with their father, she said ‘that’s a private matter for them’.
In March, Mrs Darwin was tracked down by MailOnline to a village near Middlesbrough, where she lives quietly.
The 70-year-old has reverted to her maiden name and lives where few of her neighbours are aware of her past.
Anne moved to the sheltered housing six months ago having previously lived in York where she had a part time £10 an hour job with the RSPCA.