By Bill Hewitt
December 24, 2007 12:00 PM

The stranger in the English seaside town of Seaton Carew had arrived from nowhere several years ago. But with his marked limp and flowing bird’s-nest beard, it didn’t take long for him to attract attention. At least one resident also noted he was soon keeping company with Anne Darwin, whose husband John, a prison guard, had been declared dead in a 2002 kayaking accident. One neighbor, who moved in after John’s disappearance, recalls seeing the stranger scores of times. “I thought it was her boyfriend,” says the neighbor, who had never met John. “He looked like he was out of ZZ Top.”

In the days ahead the stranger, who it now turns out was none other than John Darwin, may well be singing the blues. On Dec. 1 Darwin, now 57, walked into a London police station, claiming he had been suffering from amnesia and could remember nothing since 2000. But the heartwarming tale of a man returned from the dead went sour when a quick Internet search turned up a photo of John and Anne, 55, living it up in Panama last year. Police quickly announced the couple would be charged with faking the tragedy in order to collect on John’s insurance policies. But, as they tell it, no one was more deeply deceived by the alleged scam than the couple’s two sons, Mark, 31, and Anthony, 29, who had apparently been left to grieve all this time over their father’s disappearance. “How could our mam continue to let us believe our dad had died when he was very much alive?” said the furious boys in a joint statement.

In fact there was some question from the very beginning whether Darwin was truly dead. The day he went kayaking was perfectly calm. Rescuers found his battered boat and a paddle in the North Sea, but no body. Thirteen months later he was declared dead. As a result Anne was able to cash in two insurance policies for $330,000, see the mortgage paid off on their home and—perhaps most important—erase debts that the family had piled up.

Around town there was whispering that perhaps the disappearance was a bit fishy, especially after another prison guard reported spotting John nearby in 2005 after he had gone missing. (Anne told authorities it was “a cousin” who looked liked John.) Anne now claims that the first she knew her husband was alive was nearly a year after his disappearance, when he showed up at her door looking dirty and disheveled. “When I asked him where he’d been he said it didn’t matter, he was home now,” the Daily Mail quoted her as saying. She insisted that she hadn’t wanted to go along with the scheme, but that her husband threatened to implicate her if she didn’t cooperate. For roughly the next four years they evidently lived at their home in Seaton Carew. According to reports, during the summer months John would mostly stay indoors, reading and playing computer games, but in colder weather he would go out regularly in his beard and cap disguise, affecting a limp.

When people came to visit Anne, he would sneak through a secret passage in the wall that led to a room in the attached building. Earlier this year Anne separately sold their two buildings for $925,000 and moved to Panama, where she and John, who had allegedly obtained a fraudulent passport under the name of John Jones, bought a large estate with plans to open an eco-resort.

So why did Darwin return now? It is unclear, but one possibility is that the couple had been wrangling over money, and John believed that by coming forward he could secure his share. But the whole caper may be beyond rational explanation. “No one else has thought of a plot as daft as this,” says John’s 80-year-old aunt Margaret Burns. “What were they thinking?”