Reporter David Leigh who scooped the story of canoe wife Anne Darwin used five matching black BMWs, three different hotels, false names and three flights to escape the chasing Fleet Street pack.
Former Daily Mirror and Daily Express news editor Leigh tracked down Mrs Darwin in Panama City with staff photographer Steve Dennet for news agency Splash.
He told Press Gazette that nothing had been paid to Darwin for the exclusive. And in a bizarre twist he revealed that the 55-year-old wife, a trained receptionist, acted as a copy-taker as he dictated the story in a Panama hotel room.
Leigh, who rates the story as ‘the most incredible’of his career, said: ‘After talking to her for hours I said, ‘I’ve got to write this now’. My fingers were going on the keys, and she said ‘I can touch type you know’. So she sat down and wrote her story.”
The Daily Mail’s foreign editor Gerry Hunt called Miami-based Leigh in the early hours of Tuesday morning last week, with news that Anne Darwin was in Panama City.
Soon after, he and Dennett were on their way to try to find her. With nothing but a name and a city, they were at a loss until Anthony Harwood, the Mirror news editor, who had worked with Leigh during his 12 years at the paper, rang them with the address. After that tip-off, Leigh knew he would have to give the story to both papers. He said the agency rejected lucrative offers ‘from every big newspaper player”, and that cash offers were made to Splash staff just to find out where Leigh was.
The story of 57-year-old John Darwin’s reappearance was broken by Press Association 24 hours after he had walked into a west London police station claiming to be a ‘missing person”.
On 4 December the Daily Mirror reported that the police had ‘a lot of questions that need answering’about where Darwin had been. The paper’s North East reporter Jeremy Armstrong spoke to locals in Hartlepool, who called him an ‘oddball”.
A Daily Mail spokesman said: ‘We felt straight away this was an old fashioned story where speed would really count. That’s why, when we heard that Mrs Darwin was probably in Panama, our foreign editor Gerry Hunt went straight on to David Leigh in Miami and asked him to get there as fast as possible.”
Leigh said that on Tuesday evening he ‘raced around to the address, knocked on the main door and got nothing at all for ages, about an hour”. Eventually a neighbour let him into the complex.
‘You could see there was no light on but we knocked and knocked. Then this little voice said, ‘What do you want?'”
Leigh persuaded Darwin to talk to him by explaining that before long reporters from almost every newspaper would be stalking her and camping outside her door.
After 45 minutes of talking through a door, and after she had consulted a family member in England, she packed her suitcase and left the apartment.
To evade the press pack, the two journalists and Darwin checked into a nearby hotel at about 11pm.
‘We stopped at the first place we came to,’he said. ‘I was worried whether she would still be there in the morning. I nervously knocked on her door and was relieved to see her there.”
The next day the three travelled to another hotel and checked in under false names to escape rival reporters.
That day Darwin told Leigh she was delighted her husband was not dead, but said ‘I have a few things to sort out’before flying back to Britain to see him.
Leigh said his interviewee looked ‘nervous’all day, but it wasn’t until proof emerged that she was lying that the true story became clear.
‘At about midnight the phone goes and it’s the Mirror news desk saying they have a picture of Anne and John together last year.
‘I told her I had something to show her, opened the laptop and said ‘the game’s up, we know you’re lying’.
‘I asked her what she had to say about it and she said ‘I think that picture says a lot doesn’t it?'”
The Mirror had the picture in Wednesday’s paper under a ‘2AM NEWS’strapline and Darwin’s confession was in both papers on Thursday.
The picture of the Darwins in Panama is understood to have been sent in to the Daily Mirror by a reader who found it on a Panama website by Googling the names John, Anne and Panama.
The next day the Splash pair took her to her attorney’s office in Panama City, but by this point Fleet Street reporters were on the trail and had surrounded the office.
A reporter from The Sun burst in and took some pictures. Leigh said he considered going out of a window on to a tin roof to escape with his exclusive intact.
‘The lawyer suggested that her staff would race off in their five or six black BMWs in different directions, with Anne in the last one. It was like The Italian Job. The lawyer rang me later and said journalists were still following her staff.”
The trio flew to Leigh’s base in Miami where Darwin gave her full account of how John had faked his death to escape his mounting debts and she had hid him in a next-door bedsit.
Leigh flew back to Manchester with Darwin on Monday when she was arrested on arrival.
The mother-of-two faced magistrates in Hartlepool on Tuesday, charged with dishonestly obtaining £25,000 and £137,000 in 2003.
On Monday her 57-year-old husband appeared before the court accused of making an untrue statement to procure a passport and of obtaining a money transfer by deception in relation to a £25,000 life insurance policy.
They were remanded in custody.