LONDON – Ronnie Biggs, a British petty criminal who became infamous for his role in the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and his subsequent life on the run, has died at age 84 at a care home in London, it was announced on his website Wednesday.
Biggs was part of a gang that held up a Royal Mail train, making off with $4.3 million, a huge sum in those days. But their plan was not as cunning as they thought and the gang members were soon rounded up. Biggs received a 30-year jail sentence in 1964.
However, after serving just 15 months, Biggs made a daring escape by climbing over the prison wall using a rope ladder and dropping into a waiting furniture van.
He then used his share of the money to undergo elaborate plastic surgery in Paris, before traveling on to Australia. It was the beginning of 35 years on the run, most of which were spent in Rio de Janeiro.
Biggs infuriated British governments for years as their attempts to extradite him failed, but he returned to Britain at age 71 after suffering three strokes, saying he could not afford treatment in Brazil.
He was immediately arrested and jailed, though in 2009 then-Home Secretary Jack Straw agreed to release him on compassionate grounds when it became clear he did not have much longer to live.
Biggs never expressed any remorse for the heist itself, saying only that it was “regrettable” that train driver Jack Mills, who was hit over the head during the robbery, was never able to work again and died some years later.
“If you want to ask me if I have any regrets about being one of the train robbers, my answer is, ‘No,’ ” he said earlier this year, communicating via a spelling board since he could no longer speak.
“I will go further: I am proud to have been one of them. …
“I was there that August night and that is what counts. I am one of the few witnesses – living or dead – to what was ‘The Crime of the Century,’ ” he said.
“It is regrettable, as I have said many times, that the train driver was injured. And he was not the only victim. The people who paid the heaviest price for the Great Train Robbery are the families,” he continued.
“The families of everyone involved in the Great Train Robbery, and from both sides of the track. All have paid a price for our collective involvement in the robbery. A very heavy price, in the case of my family,” he said.
He was last seen at the funeral of fellow Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds in March.
But Mills’ widow Barbara, now 87, said Biggs was just a criminal, adding that she was sad her own son Stephen had died before him. “Biggs is not a hero, he’s just an out and out villain,” she said.