LONDON – Ronnie Biggs, known for his role in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, died Wednesday, his daughter-in-law said. He was 84.
Veronica Biggs did not provide details of the cause of death. He had been released from prison four years ago on compassionate grounds because of ill health and had suffered several strokes.
Biggs was famous — or notorious — for taking part in the 1963 robbery and then escaping from Wandsworth Prison. He eventually 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 immediately arrested and imprisoned.
Biggs was part of a gang of at least 12 men that robbed the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail Train in the early hours of Aug. 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 — $7.3 million at the time, or more than $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 he escaped from London’s Wandsworth Prison by scaling a wall with a rope ladder and jumping into a waiting furniture van. It was the start of a life on the run that would make him a folk hero to some — the cheeky 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 told AP 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, and the law again prevented his expulsion.
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 England and sent him back to Rio.
In 1997, Brazil’s Supreme Court rejected an extradition request on the ground 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 tabloid Sun newspaper helped arrange his return, even chartering the private jet that flew Biggs home in 2001. Aboard the plane was Detective Superintendent John Coles of Scotland Yard, who took Biggs into custody with the words: “I am now going to formally arrest you.”
Biggs spent less than a decade in prison, although emerging as a frail shadow of the dapper “gentleman thief” of popular image.
Biggs’ lawyers had long argued that he should be released on health grounds, although then-Justice Secretary Jack Straw objected, saying Biggs was “wholly unrepentant.”
Unionized train drivers, mindful that railway man Jack Mills never fully recovered from being hit over the head with an iron bar during the robbery, also lobbied to keep Biggs behind bars.
However, finally convinced that Biggs was a dying man, officials released him on Aug. 7, 2009, a day before his 80th birthday. He had been living in a care home since.
In late 2011, Biggs appeared at a London news conference to promote an updated version of his memoir. Unable to speak because of his strokes, he said through his son, Michael Biggs, that he had come to regret the train robbery and, if he could go back in time, would choose not to participate.
The British media remained fascinated with him until the end. The day of his death coincided with a long-planned BBC television show about the case.
In 2002, he married Raimunda Rothen, the mother of his son, Michael. They survive him, as do children from his first marriage to Charmian Brent.