SEATON CAREW, England - The wife of a man who was missing for five years says that she knew he was alive and that a photo of the two taken last year in Panama was authentic, British newspapers reported yesterday.

Anne Darwin's purported confession came as police in northeast England questioned her husband, John, 57, who was arrested early Wednesday on suspicion that he faked his death.

Five years ago, John Darwin paddled his canoe into the North Sea from a town in northern England and disappeared. The smashed remains of his red boat later washed ashore. A year later, the missing man was pronounced dead and his widow collected a life insurance payout.

On Saturday, Darwin turned up at a London police station, tanned but appearing dazed. "I think I am a missing person," he told officers. The former science teacher and prison official said he had no memory at all since 2000.

For a brief time, his tale appeared to be nothing less than a miracle return from the dead. But after his arrest, police are now investigating whether the missing canoeist is really a con man.

"We don't know what happened," said Tony Hutchinson, the senior investigating police officer in the northern city of Cleveland, where Darwin disappeared. "Nobody was more surprised than I when he walked into that London police station, believe you me."

British news reports, citing police sources, said Darwin's e-mail at the time of his disappearance indicated he had romantic relationships with more than one woman in the United States. Others who knew Darwin told reporters that he had many debts when he vanished.

Authorities are trying to verify the authenticity of a photo that appears to show Darwin with his wife in Panama last year. Anne Darwin, 55, moved to Panama City, Panama, six weeks ago. The newspaper that printed the photo said it had been on the Web site of a company that helps people move to Panama.

She said that her husband had not been in Panama for all of the last five years, but that the couple had rented a villa for a brief holiday and that's when a real estate agent took their photo.

Darwin's wife said in an interview published by the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror newspapers that she initially believed her husband had died in the North Sea in March 2002.

"It was years later," she said, when her husband contacted her and revealed he was still alive, the news reports said. She would not say when or how he made contact.

John Darwin might have turned himself in because he was tipped that police were closing in on the scam, the police official said.

The Darwins' two sons said yesterday that they wanted nothing to do with their parents if Anne Darwin's apparent confession proved accurate.

"If the papers' allegations of a confession from our mum are true, then we very much feel that we have been the victims in a large scam," they said in a statement. "How could our mum continue to let us believe our dad had died when he was very much alive?"

John Darwin came to the attention of police again in the last few months after his wife was overheard by an acquaintance speaking to him on the phone, the police official said. That acquaintance has been in contact with detectives for some time.

At the same time, police were alerted to suspicious credit card applications.