Bruce Reynolds nearly got away with it — and for a time he did. As the brains behind England's 1963 "Great Train Robbery," Reynolds netted some $7 million in small bills for himself and his confederates.
Robbing stagecoaches and, later, trains became a fashionable and lucrative pursuit for such 19th-century outlaws as Jesse James, Bill Miner, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it once had been part of life in the rugged Old West, where travelers boarding steam cars did so at their own risk.
So imagine my interest looking at the front page of The New York Times on a warm summer day in 1963 and seeing a picture of two Royal Mail cars sitting apart from their train, while Scotland Yard and British Rail officials stood trackside trying to figure out exactly what had happened.
The robbery was masterful from every angle and conducted with a high degree of criminal precision.
Reynolds, who died last month in England, was a professional and sophisticated burglar who was used to the good life, including vacations in the south of France, champagne, bespoke suits and fashionable cars.
Reynold used insider information obtained from postal workers to plan the Aug. 8, 1963, robbery of the Glasgow-to-London mail train with his gang of 14.
Gang members, who had an intimate knowledge of railway operations, planned to stop the train at Cheddington, Buckinghamshire. To ensure that phone calls could not be made, they cut roadside telephone lines that went into the village.
The gang lay in wait for the train that was due into London's Euston Station at 3:59 a.m.
It was 3:15 a.m. when engineer Jack Mills and his co-driver, David Whitby, spotted a red signal and brought the diesel-powered train to a stop.
The robbers had covered the lens of the green signal with an old glove and illuminated the red with several batteries. As Whitby climbed down from the locomotive cab to make his way to a line-side railway phone, he noticed the wire had been cut, and then saw a man standing between the second and third car.
Ten gang members made their way onto the engine, and after a brief fight with Mills, who was bashed over the head with a piece of metal, the locomotive and two mail cars were uncoupled from the rest of the train, which was left behind.
Unsuspecting postal workers in the remaining cars had no idea they were in the midst of one of the most daring heists in English history.
Bleeding profusely, Mills was ordered to move the train a half-mile down the line to Bridego Bridge, where it was stopped. Meanwhile, the masked robbers smashed their way into the mail cars and overpowered the four postal workers.
There was no time to waste. Within 10 minutes, the miscreants had thrown down a 15-foot embankment 120 mail sacks of money — mostly in small bills — that today would be worth $60.5 million. They quickly loaded the money aboard a waiting truck.
One robber advised the engineer not to talk: "For God's sake, don't speak, because there are some right bastards here."
They raced to a farmhouse they had purchased earlier as a temporary hideout. Within a few months, most of them had been arrested and sent to prison, with the exception of Reynolds, who fled to Mexico with his wife and son.
They roamed to Canada and France, and then, broke, eventually returned to England. They were living in the seaside town of Torquay, Devon, when a Scotland Yard detective, Tommy Butler, who had been obsessed with the case from the beginning and was acting on a tip, pressed the doorbell at 6:30 a.m. Nov. 8, 1968.
Reynolds answered in pajamas and a dressing gown.
"Long time, no see, Bruce," said a triumphant Butler. "I've got you now."
"C'est la vie, Tom," replied Reynolds.
Sentenced to 25 years, he was paroled in 1978. In 1995, he published his memoir, "The Autobiography of a Thief."