Obituary: Ronnie Biggs / Great Train Robber

Aug. 8, 1929 - Dec. 18, 2013

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Ronnie Biggs, a carpenter and petty crook who became an international celebrity for his role in one of Britain's most famous crimes, the Great Train Robbery of 1963, and for the decades he spent afterward eluding a worldwide manhunt by Scotland Yard, died Dec. 18 in London. He was 84.

His publicists announced the death but did not give a cause.

Imprisoned in England since he returned there voluntarily in 2001, Biggs was granted compassionate release for health reasons in August 2009 by Jack Straw, the British justice secretary at the time.

The decision was a highly public reversal by Mr. Straw, who earlier had denied Biggs' application, saying he had shown no remorse for the crime, in which 15 men robbed a Glasgow-to-London mail train of more than $7 million in bank notes. The train's driver was seriously injured.

Biggs, who had had several strokes and other health problems in recent years, had been serving what remained of his 30-year sentence in Norwich Prison, in eastern England.

At his death, Biggs had been living at a nursing home in the East Barnet neighborhood of north London, the Press Association news agency reported.

Biggs' enduring reputation stemmed not so much from the heist itself as from what happened afterward. Tried and convicted, he escaped from prison and became the subject of an international manhunt; spent the next 36 years as a fugitive, much of that time living openly in Rio de Janeiro in defiance of the British authorities; and enjoyed almost preternatural luck in thwarting repeated attempts to bring him to justice, including being kidnapped and spirited out of Brazil by yacht.

The supreme irony is that had he not fled Britain, Biggs would have served his sentence and been paroled years ago.

Ronald Arthur Biggs was born on Aug. 8, 1929, in the south London borough of Lambeth.

In 1960, Biggs married Charmian Powell, a schoolmaster's daughter he had met on a train. They had two sons, and for the next few years, by his later accounts, Biggs settled into a happy routine as a husband and father, working as a carpenter.

It was hard to make ends meet. In 1963, Biggs approached Bruce Reynolds, a man he had known in jail, to request a small loan. But Reynolds had other plans, involving a very unusual Royal Mail train. Running by night and appearing on no printed schedule, it transported vast quantities of cash between provincial bank branches and central banks in London. The money was in the second of 12 cars.

The gang Reynolds assembled included men with intimate knowledge of railroad timetables, signals and switches. Biggs recruited a retired engineer to drive the train.

After midnight on Aug. 8, 1963, the gang turned a signal light along the route to red. The train ground to a halt in the Buckinghamshire countryside at 3:15 a.m.

The whole thing was over in about 15 minutes. As was widely reported, Biggs spent most of that time sitting in a Land Rover near the railway embankment, his engineer, who was unable to release the train's brake, beside him.

The bank notes in the bags came to 2.6 million pounds (about $7.3 million) -- roughly $70 million today. Most of the money has never been found. Mills never fully recovered from his injuries and was unable to work again. He died in 1970.

Within a month, Scotland Yard had caught most of the gang, including Biggs. Convicted in April 1964, he was sent to Wandsworth Prison in London.

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