Ronnie Biggs, notorious participant in Britain’s Great Train Robbery, dies at 84

December 18, 2013

Ronnie Biggs, a British thief with a roguish streak who had a minor role in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, one of the more flamboyant crimes in modern history, and who became one of the world's most wanted and unrepentant fugitives, died Wednesday in London. He was 84.

The death was confirmed by his daughter-in-law, Veronica Biggs, who did not provide a cause.

He suffered from pneumonia and other ailments that led the government to grant him compassionate release from prison in August 2009. He had turned himself in to British authorities in 2001 after 36 years on the run.

Mr. Biggs, who fashioned himself as “the last of the gentleman crooks,” spent much of his life brashly evading and taunting Scotland Yard, first from Australia and later from Brazil.

To his most devoted followers, he was a folk hero who symbolized rebellion against authority. He recorded with the British punk rock band the Sex Pistols on its single “No One is Innocent,” sold T-shirts of himself and even made a TV commercial for a Brazilian instant coffee company. His pitch: “When you are on the run, like I am all the time, you really appreciate a good, satisfying cup of coffee.”

Mr. Biggs became an international celebrity, flaunting his freedom for as long as he could after undermining attempts by Scotland Yard to have him extradited to Britain. He was, to his many detractors, a menace: part of a gang whose daring August 1963 robbery of a Glasgow-to-London mail train netted them what today would be more than $50 million. Mr. Biggs’s role was limited to finding a substitute train driver to take over the controls during the robbery.

During the crime, the real train driver, Jack Mills, was hit on the head with an iron bar, was never again able to work and died several years later. Mr. Biggs later expressed regret for any role he played in the death of Mills. Police soon rounded up nearly all the suspects, but the money was never recovered.

The robbery became known as the “heist of the century” and brought its participants a lifetime of publicity. Mr. Biggs made the most of it.

Ronald Arthur Biggs was born in London on Aug. 8, 1929, to a hotel cook. He endured a two-year separation from his family during the German wartime blitz and the death of his mother shortly after the family was reunited in 1942.

He was a petty thief as a child and stole from rubble piles created by Nazi bombs. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1947 and appeared for a while to respond well to the discipline, becoming an expert in food preparation.

Then, in 1949, he was dishonorably discharged after robbing a chemist’s shop while AWOL.

At 27, Mr. Biggs married Charmian Powell, who was a decade his junior. She was the churchgoing daughter of a middle-class family and had been charmed by his attention, notably playing Ella Fitzgerald records for her. She stole money from her parents in what she called a “test” of her affection for him, but the money did not last.

In need of cash, Mr. Biggs visited an old jailhouse friend, Bruce Reynolds, a London antiques dealer who had a sideline in thievery. Reynolds flattered Mr. Biggs and told him of his plan for a rail robbery, which would involve more than 12 men.

The only person missing was a train driver, and Mr. Biggs solved the problem: He was doing carpentry work for a retired train driver. That driver, known only as “Peter,” became the only member of the crew to escape arrest.

On the night of the robbery, Aug. 8, 1963, the gang altered the railroad signals and climbed aboard the stopped train in rural Buckinghamshire. It turned out Peter was unable to figure out the complex control panel and could not take the train to a less-visible location. The criminals quickly divvied up their spoils — Mr. Biggs’s cut was reportedly $350,000 — and scattered.

Mr. Biggs’s fingerprints matched those found at the gang’s farmhouse hideaway, and he was quickly arrested. After his conviction for the train robbery, Mr. Biggs was indignant about his 30-year sentence and vowed to escape from the maximum-security prison in which he was being held.

In July 1965, he and three other convicts tackled unarmed guards as they made a daytime escape from Wandsworth prison near London. Associates on the other side of the prison wall had thrown rope ladders into the prison exercise yard. Mr. Biggs and company dropped onto an awaiting van and sped off to meet three separate cars that dispersed them.

Pursued by bounty hunters, Mr. Biggs went to France for plastic surgery and to see the Folies Bergere. Under a false name, he then fled to Australia and soon summoned his wife and three sons.

Under threat of arrest, he left his family in 1969 and moved to Brazil, where he met a sultry beauty sometimes described as a professional samba dancer and other times as a stripper. Her name was Raimunda, but he nicknamed her Xu Xu. They had a son, for whose sake the Brazilian government granted Mr. Biggs protection from extradition to Britain.

At times, Mr. Biggs was tempted to turn himself in. When his oldest son, Nicholas, was killed in a car accident in 1971, his wife back in Australia insisted that her husband stay in hiding.

She was, however, displeased to hear of Mr. Biggs’s child with Raimunda and soon divorced him. “I didn’t expect him to be a saint,” Charmian Biggs once said, “but I didn’t expect him to become a father, either.”

In Rio, Mr. Biggs led a generally listless life. He drank beer and sunned himself on famous beaches. Reynolds visited him after serving a decade behind bars, prompting Mr. Biggs to ask, “Well, Bruce, got any more good ideas?” (Reynolds died in February.)

As a price for remaining in Brazil, the authorities restricted his movements. He offered his story to any journalist willing to pay, so he could afford rent and food.

He became poor, he said, and homesick. He was also lonely, Raimunda having left him innumerable times during his frequent philandering.

He became increasingly daring when he wanted attention.

He climbed aboard a British warship docked in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 and shared a few beers and songs with the sailors. He claimed he had told them his identity and that they had not believed him.

In March 1981, British mercenaries came after him in a Rio bar. They bound and gagged him, wrapped him in a sack labeled “Live Snake,” and sped him by yacht to Barbados, a former British colony.

But the Barbados Supreme Court ordered his release, and Mr. Biggs announced: “It’s back to Brazil! Champagne for everyone!”

The bungled abduction brought Mr. Biggs great attention. The musician Bruce Henry, who lived for a time in Brazil, said he worked with the fugitive on a soundtrack for a possible film of his life.

“To me, Ronnie symbolized a rupture from the restraining chains of politics, police, short hair and suits,” Henry told an interviewer in 2004. “I think Ronnie and I shared an attitude — he still had this adolescent restlessness, and was seeking new forms of expression, a bit more tingle in his life.”

Gradually, Mr. Biggs longed even more for home. He had several strokes and wished to spend his final days drinking beer in a familiar pub. Once a man whose public statements veered from swagger to pity for Scotland Yard, he began to redefine his public image.

“I’ve always liked to differentiate between crooks and criminals,” he once said. “I see myself as an ex-crook. I don’t see myself as a criminal.”

He sent an e-mail and thumbprint to Scotland Yard. In 2001, a London tabloid paid for his flight to Britain, where he expected lenient treatment, perhaps even a pardon from the queen.

He got neither and was spirited away to Belmarsh jail in London to serve the remainder of his term.

In 2002, he married Raimunda in a prison chapel. Besides his wife, survivors include their son, Michael Biggs, a pop singer in Brazil; and two children from his marriage to Charmian, Christopher and Farley.

As Mr. Biggs’s health worsened, his lawyers repeatedly sought his release on humanitarian grounds. He was unexpectedly freed in August 2009, as his 80th birthday approached, after the government granted him a compassionate release. His son Michael issued a statement saying his father “will now be retreating fully from public life.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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