Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, 35 years a fugitive, dies aged 84

Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, who evaded long arm of British justice for 35 years, has died

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 10:39pm


Ronnie Biggs, known for his role in Britain's 1963 Great Train Robbery, died yesterday, his daughter-in-law said. He was 84.

Veronica Biggs did not provide details of his death. He had been released from prison four years ago on compassionate grounds because of ill health.

Biggs was infamous for taking part in the 1963 robbery and then escaping from Wandsworth prison. He made his way to Brazil, where he lived for many years beyond the reach of British justice.

He was free for 35 years before voluntarily returning to England in poor health in 2001. He was arrested and imprisoned on arrival.

Biggs was part of a gang of at least 12 that robbed the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail train in the early hours of August 8, 1963, switching the signals and tricking the driver into stopping in the darkness. The robbery netted 125 sacks of banknotes worth £2.6 million - US$7.3 million at the time, or more than US$50 million today - and became known as "the heist of the century".

Most of the gang was caught and sentenced to long terms in jail. Biggs got 30 years, but 15 months into his sentence escaped from London's Wandsworth prison. It was the start of a life on the run that would make him a folk hero to some - the rascal one step ahead of the law.

Biggs fled to France, then to Australia and Panama before arriving in Rio de Janeiro in 1970. By that time, life on the run and plastic surgery to change his appearance had eaten up most of his loot from the train robbery.

He spent more than 30 years in Brazil, making a living from his notoriety. For a fee, he regaled journalists and tourists with the story of the heist and offered T-shirts with the slogan "I went to Rio and met Ronnie Biggs ... honest." He recorded with punk band The Sex Pistols, wrote a memoir called Odd Man Out, and even promoted a home alarm system with the slogan: "Call the thief."

"It's been a screwed-up life in many respects, but a different life," he said in 1997. "I've never been much of a 9-to-5er."

Biggs foiled repeated attempts to force him out by deportation, extradition and even kidnapping. British detectives tracked him down in 1974, but the lack of an extradition treaty with Brazil saved him. When Brazil's military government tried to deport him, Biggs produced a son by a Brazilian woman, giving him the right to stay in that country.

In 1981, two men posing as journalists grabbed Biggs at a Rio restaurant, gagged him, stuffed him into a duffel bag and flew him to the Amazon River port of Belem. From there they sailed to Barbados, expecting to turn Biggs in and sell their story to the tabloids. But Barbados also had no extradition treaty with Britain and sent him back to Rio.

In 1997, Brazil's Supreme Court rejected an extradition request on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out.

At the time, Biggs said he didn't want to go back to Britain.

"All I have to go back to is a prison cell, after all," he said. "Only a fool would want to return." But within a few years, debilitated by strokes and other ailments, he began to yearn to see England again.

Britain's Sun newspaper helped arrange his return, chartering the jet that flew Biggs home. Aboard was detective superintendent John Coles of Scotland Yard, who took Biggs into custody with the words: "I am now going to formally arrest you."

Associated Press