Legendary train robber returns quietly to prison

In Britain, a surrender after 35 years on run

May 08, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Legend of the Great Train Robbery, media-made folk hero, fugitive and hedonist, Ronnie Biggs was on the run for 35 years, hiding out in sun-splashed places such as Australia and Brazil while living up to a reputation for spending ill-gotten gains on booze and blondes.

Yesterday he returned to his homeland of cold weather and warm beer.

It was a very British surrender, orchestrated by a mass-circulation tabloid. Biggs, 71, returned broke and ailing after three strokes that have left him nearly speechless. A judge promptly sent him back to finish the 30-year sentence he escaped from 35 years ago.

Five dozen officers from Scotland Yard were on hand to arrest Biggs when he landed at a military airfield aboard a private jet chartered by Britain's best-selling daily, the Sun. Then it was off to see the judge without a stop for the pint of bitter he said he yearned for.

Biggs has about 28 years left to serve on a 30-year sentence for his role in the Great Train Robbery, the looting of the Glasgow-to-London mail train on Aug. 8, 1963, when a 15-member masked gang made off with 2.6 million British pounds, the equivalent of more than $40 million by today's standards.

Effectively, Biggs was ordered to complete his sentence, pending an appeal. There is likely to be a tabloid-inspired campaign to get Biggs released early on compassionate grounds.

"The law requires me to return you to prison, which I will now do," Judge Tim Workman told Biggs during an eight-minute hearing in which the longtime fugitive used a cane, grunted replies and had spittle wiped off his chin by a doctor, according to Britain's Press Association.

The pathetic scene was in stark contrast to Biggs' reputation for criminal daring that was sealed during the train robbery, subsequent jailbreak and lush living in Rio de Janeiro.

Through it all, his tale held a fascination for the British media, particularly the tabloids. So it was little surprise that the Sun was in on the final chapter, supplying the plane for Biggs' return and gaining exclusive stories while playing up the folk hero angle until yesterday's two-word banner headline: "Got Him."

Still, there was a soft spot for Biggs, with the Sun noting his concern about the chilly British weather.

"The only thing I don't have are woolly jumpers," he was quoted as telling the Sun. "I've never needed them since the day I arrived in Rio. I've not got one to my name. I don't want to get back to England and catch my death of cold."

The Great Train Robbery enraged authorities but caught the public's imagination as a crime from the American Wild West played out in Britain. It became the stuff of legend and the grist for books and movies. All this despite injuries to the train driver Jack Mills, who was hit on the head and never returned to work before dying 6 1/2 years later.

Police apprehended 15 members of the gang that included a race car driver, an antiques dealer, a hairdresser, a florist and an ex-paratrooper. Authorities failed to recover most of the loot, which was used banknotes.

Biggs was sentenced in 1964. Fifteen months later, he broke out of Wandsworth Prison, climbing a 25-foot wall and leaping onto a mattress in a waiting van.

For Biggs, life on the run became a series of close calls and high times on a globetrotting jaunt to Australia and Brazil, via France, Spain, Panama, Argentina and Bolivia. He found time to create an Internet Web site, record a single with punk rockers the Sex Pistols and write books. Apparently, he went through his share of the spoils, 147,000 pounds, more than $2 million in today's money.

"Who exactly is Ronald Arthur Biggs, who was born in the London borough of Lambeth on August 8, 1929?" his Web site says. "Ron has outrun and outlasted them all over four decades. He never intended to be the most famous element of the Great Train Robbery, neither did he plan to rob the train on his birthday, or become Britain's most wanted man."

Hunted, arrested and kidnapped, Biggs foiled every effort to deport him to Britain.

In Paris, he had plastic surgery. In Australia, he skipped the country after a co-worker recognized him from a television documentary on the heist.

In Brazil, which long had no extradition treaty with Britain, he was arrested in 1974 by Scotland Yard detective Jack Slipper, who reputedly said, "Long time, no see, Ronnie. I think you know who I am."

Biggs got the last laugh when he avoided deportation on a technicality because he was about to have a Brazilian-born child. His 19-year-old Brazilian girlfriend was pregnant with his son Michael. Now 26, Michael accompanied his father on the flight to Britain.

In 1981, British mercenaries took him to Barbados, but authorities there refused to extradite him to Britain.

In recent years, Biggs ran out of cash and his health deteriorated.

"I can't keep running any longer," he was quoted as telling London's Sun. "I am a sick man. My last wish is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter."

Last week, he made the first move to return by sending an e-mail to John Coles, head of the Serious and Organized Crime Group at London's Metropolitan Police, known as Scotland Yard.

"I would like to give myself up to you," Biggs wrote.

Coles was waiting at the airport when Biggs landed and handled the matter as one Englishman to another. "I am now going to formally arrest you," he told Biggs.

Such a civilized welcome for such a notorious crook.

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