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Ronnie Biggs

Great Train robber

Great Train robber

Born: August 8, 1929; Died: December 18, 2013.

RONNIE Biggs, who has died aged 84, became the best-known member of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery in 1963 - often described as the Crime of the Century - stealing at least £2.6million from a Euston-bound mail train which had pulled out of Glasgow Central the night before. That would be close to £50million in today's money.

He was by no means the brains behind the heist, but he became Britain's most-wanted fugitive and his later life story, as he was often photographed surrounded by bikini-clad Brazilian girls on Rio's Copacabana beach, added a certain romanticism to his infamy.

As did the fact that he survived a kidnap attempt by ex-British army bounty hunters who smuggled him by yacht to Barbados. He also foiled a Scotland Yard attempt to arrest him in Rio by announcing he was expecting a baby with a Brazilian woman and could therefore not legally be extradited.

His image to many in the UK varied between loveable rogue and folk hero although there were those, as shown in numerous tweets after his death, who thought he should "rot in hell".

Although he had tremendous charisma, as I discovered on two occasions when I interviewed him in Rio, the sympathy for him came more from the Great Train Robbery itself. It was the Swinging Sixties and anti-establishment rebellion was in the air. When the news broke that a Royal Mail train (the very word "royal" became significant) had been robbed of pound notes and fivers, reaction around the UK was largely "nice one!"

However, the one thing that soured the folk hero image was the fact that one of the gang - Biggs always insisted to me it wasn't him but refused to say who it was - coshed and badly injured the train driver Jack Mills.

"The Yard knew it never got the whole gang, but the whole principle was that no-one would talk," Biggs once told me in Rio. "Old Bill could chop your legs off and you wouldn't grass." Also on board the night train were 72 Scottish and English Royal Mail sorters on 12 carriages, who would eventually be tied up by the robbers.

After the robbery in Buckinghamshire, an hour out from Euston, the gang laid low in a disused farm at Leatherslade. When they left, they tried to erase all fingerprints but police found the fingerprints of Biggs - on file because he was a petty criminal and convict - on a bottle of ketchup. He was arrested and, with the rest of the gang, jailed for 30 years. It was a sentence unheard of for a crime which did not involve guns or murder and was clearly a reaction to the establishment's unease. But it merely added to public sympathy for Biggs.

With the help of some of his £147,000 slice of the robbery takings, he escaped from Wandsworth prison, London, in 1965 using a rope ladder and began a life on the run in Spain, France and Australia, spending a quarter of his robbery takings on plastic face surgery before sailing to Brazil in 1970. He was soon traced by British tabloid journalists - knowing him, I suspect he invited them - but one of them "squealed" and the head of Scotland Yard's Flying Squad, Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper, flew to Rio in 1974 to arrest him. That's when Biggs released the bombshell that his girlfriend Raimunda Castro, a professional stripper, was expecting their baby.

The Brazilian authorities then ruled that he should be allowed to stay to look after the baby and Chief Superintendent Slipper flew back to London alone, famously photographed on the plane with an empty seat beside him. Young Michael Biggs later became a pop superstar in Brazil with a band called the Magic Balloon Gang and Ronnie Biggs himself recorded a song in 1978, No One is Innocent, with the Sex Pistols.

Ronald Arthur Biggs was born in Stockwell, south-east London, in 1929, the youngest of five children of a cook. Wartime made him streetwise - he was not averse to picking up "goods" from bombed-out London buildings or around his evacuation home in Cornwall - and he put his "skills" to good use after the war, shoplifting and selling anything that was scarce during rationing. He used that experience during a spell with the RAF after 1947, earning himself a dishonourable discharge for stealing medicaments he thought might be saleable. After years of petty crime, he met Bruce Reynolds, who would become the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.

As a foreign correspondent, I visited Biggs twice in Rio. He lived in a gated, middle-class house in the Santa Teresa district, up a very steep hill from Rio's beaches. His son Michael, then a teenager, and their rottweiler were the first to greet me. Biggs was used to tabloid journalists giving him big bucks but when I told him I couldn't, he said: "OK, but you're on expenses. Just buy me lunch." I did, in a churrascaria, or steak restaurant, across the road from the beach, and much wine was consumed. It would probably have been cheaper to have given him £500 in cash.

On the steep road back to his home, Biggs, wearing a flat cap and a pony-tail, was constantly greeted fondly by locals giving him high fives and shouting: "Senhor Beeg-ezz!" In his local grocery-store-cum-bar, he was treated like a pop star and all beers were on the house.

In 2001, with his health deteriorating, Biggs decided to return to Britain and complete his sentence. He did so until 2009 when he was released on compassionate grounds after reportedly suffering strokes and heart attacks. He lived his last few years in a care home in North London, tended not only by carers but by his son Michael. He had married Raimunda in Belmarsh prison in 2002.

He was last seen in public in March this year at the funeral of fellow Great Train Robber Reynolds. Although clearly dying, in a wheelchair and almost unrecognisable, he did what he had always done - posed for the media and gave them a V-sign: whether for victory or "up yours," only he knew.

When I once asked him: "Any regrets?" he replied: "I don't think anyone should have any regrets ... You're an adult, you know the difference between right and wrong, and if you go down, you have to bite the bullet. That's part and parcel of the whole scam, you know?"

Ronnie Biggs is survived by his first wife Charmian (née Powell), by two of their three sons, Christopher and Farley, and by his second wife Raimunda and their son Michael.

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