LONDON — Ronnie Biggs, one of the most famous criminals in British history, who helped commit the Great Train Robbery of 1963, broke out of prison, enjoyed a notoriously colorful life on the lam in Brazil and then gave himself up, in thoroughly British fashion, to a tabloid newspaper decades later, has died. He was 84.
Biggs died during the night, his official Twitter account said Wednesday morning; a woman at the nursing home where he was living, outside London, confirmed the news. He had been ill off and on for the last several years.
Biggs fulfilled a wish by going to his grave a free man, despite having been thrown back in jail after returning to England in 2001 and surrendering to authorities. In August 2009, the British government relented from its unyielding stance and released Biggs from custody, concluding that — at age 79 and nearly incapacitated in his hospital bed — he no longer posed a threat to society.
Biggs joked at his release that he would try to last until Christmas “to spite those who want me dead.” He lived four more years. By coincidence, he died hours before the BBC prepared to broadcast a new two-part dramatization of the Great Train Robbery on Wednesday and Thursday.
Biggs' last public appearance came in March, at the funeral of Bruce Reynolds, the robbery's mastermind. Frail, in a wheelchair, but still spirited, Biggs was caught on camera flashing an obscene gesture at a photographer.
His death brought to a close a long-running saga that has fascinated and repelled this country for nearly half a century, sparking heated debate over the competing demands of justice and mercy and whether Biggs was an unrepentant felon who was party to a violent crime or merely a lovable rogue who loved to party.
He certainly saw himself as the latter, cultivating an image as a catch-me-if-you-can figure who lived a playboy's life on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, merrily thumbing his nose at the authorities across the Atlantic while marketing himself as a tourist attraction to visitors he'd regale with stories — for a fee.
But Biggs also gave ammunition to his critics with statements like the one he made in a 1997 interview.
“I don't regret the fact that I was involved in the train robbery. As a matter of fact, I'm quite pleased with the idea I was involved, because it's given me a little place in history,” Biggs said. “I've made a mark for myself.”
His role in the robbery was almost an afterthought. The heist's mastermind, Reynolds, an antiques dealer who went by the nickname “Napoleon,” invited Biggs to join in late in the process of putting together a daring plan to ambush the Glasgow-to-London mail train.
By then, Ronald Arthur Biggs, who was born Aug. 8, 1929, in Surrey, south of London, was a carpenter looking for some easy money. On his 34th birthday, in 1963, Biggs and 14 other masked thieves forced the mail train to stop by turning a track signal to red, swarming aboard under cover of darkness.
They beat the driver senseless with an iron bar; the man never fully recovered from his head injuries. Then they made off with 120 mailbags stuffed with unmarked currency amounting to 2.6 million pounds — well in excess of $65 million today. Biggs' share was a little less than 150,000 pounds.
The gang divvied up the loot in a farmhouse, which they paid some people to burn down afterward. But the arson did not go off as planned, leaving behind enough evidence for authorities to track them down.
For the British, caught in the grip of imperial decline, the robbery was a national sensation, the “crime of the century.”
Authorities arrested and convicted more than a dozen people, including Biggs, in connection with the heist. But most of the stolen money was never recovered.
Barely 15 months into his 30-year sentence at Wandsworth Prison in London, Biggs managed to escape in July 1965 by scaling a 30-foot wall with a rope ladder. He fled in a furniture van and eventually washed up in Australia, spending much of his share of the stolen cash along the way on plastic surgery to alter his appearance.
But Scotland Yard — in particular, a detective named Jack Slipper — kept up its pursuit of him, which forced Biggs to look for a new fugitive-friendly haven. He chose Latin America.
“There's 100,000 Nazi war criminals hanging out there,” he said. “That's the place to go.”
In 1974, Slipper, who was Sherlock Holmes to Biggs' Professor Moriarty, was tipped off to the train robber's whereabouts by a British newspaper. He flew to Brazil for the collar.