Ronnie Biggs, the criminal who helped stage Britain’s Great Train Robbery and eluded justice for 36 years after his escape from prison, has died. He was 84.
Biggs, who was being looked after in a care home in north London, died early today, the BBC reported, citing an unnamed spokeswoman. He had been unable to speak and had difficulty in walking after a series of strokes, according to the broadcaster.
Biggs lived without fear of extradition in Brazil until 2001, when he returned to the U.K. voluntarily, saying he wanted to give himself up and perhaps even have a pint of British beer with the Scotland Yard detective who for years had pursued him. Biggs was jailed to complete the 30-year sentence imposed after the 1963 train heist. In 2009, he was released on compassionate grounds due to ill health.
The country’s most notorious train robber escaped from prison in 1965. He fled to France and then Spain, recuperating from plastic surgery before slipping out to Australia and eventually Brazil.
By the time detective Jack Slipper traced Biggs to Rio de Janeiro in 1974, Biggs’s girlfriend Raimunda de Castro was pregnant. He evaded deportation to Britain because Brazilian law protects the father of a local-born child from extradition.
Allowed to stay in Brazil, but prohibited from formal employment, Biggs began a new life in Rio. With little remaining of his 147,000-pound share from the robbery, he undertook odd jobs and business ventures. He made furniture, a craft he learned in prison, and sold his celebrity to tourists and journalists. He was often seen on the narrow mountainside streets near his home and flower-filled garden in Rio’s Santa Teresa neighborhood.
His status as a counter-culture hero was enhanced by a friendship with the punk-rock band, the Sex Pistols, in the late 1970s. Biggs appeared in the group’s film, “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.” He said he was robbed of royalties for their song “No One Is Innocent,” written about Biggs.
In 1981, bounty hunters kidnapped Biggs near Rio’s landmark Sugar Loaf Mountain and took him by yacht to Barbados, hoping to get him extradited to Britain. A judge in Barbados released him.
Biggs, who married Raimunda in prison in July 2005, sought release from his sentence more than once. His request was rejected in October 2005 because his illness was deemed not terminal. He had been transferred from the prison infirmary to a southeast London hospital after suffering strokes.
Ronald Arthur Biggs was born on Aug. 8, 1929, in London’s East End. He grew up as a tough teenager with a string of convictions for petty crimes. Learning carpentry in prison, he formed a partnership with the husband of a friend of his wife.
Struggling to make ends meet, he asked Bruce Reynolds, a key plotter of the train robbery, for a loan. Reynolds said he couldn’t provide the money but said “a piece of business” may interest Biggs. That business turned out to be the train heist.
The Great Train Robbery occurred on Aug. 8, 1963, when 16 robbers stole 2.6 million pounds in cash, Britain’s then biggest holdup and worth about 46 million pounds ($75 million) today, from the Glasgow-to-London mail train. They were captured after leaving their fingerprints in an isolated farmhouse where they had divided the money. The cash was never recovered.
Biggs and other gang members clad as rail workers had stopped the train, which was carrying used bank notes, near Linslade in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, by rigging railway signals. The gang took a train crew member captive, then moved the train down the line where they took about 120 bags of cash to the farmhouse they had rented in Oxfordshire.
Slipper, who had pursued Biggs for years, said in 1997 he no longer saw “any point” in bringing the fugitive back from Brazil. Biggs had suffered strokes and minor heart attacks, Slipper said, noting the crime had been committed long ago.
Biggs expressed regrets over his estrangement from his former wife Charmian, and serious injury to train engineer Jack Mills during the crime. “I only wish it would not have happened but there’s no way that I can put the clock back,” he told the BBC in 2000. The train driver, hit over the head with an ax handle, never fully recovered and died of cancer in 1970.
Biggs told the BBC, though, that he didn’t regret the robbery, saying, “I’m totally involved in vast greed, I’m afraid.”
Gang member Buster Edwards, who fled to Mexico for three years before returning, had his life story dramatized in the Phil Collins film “Buster.” He later ran a flower stall at London’s Waterloo Station before committing suicide in 1994. Fellow heist participant Charlie Wilson was shot dead by a hit man in Spain in 1990.