Great Train Robber on the Lam in Brazil Finds British Lion on Trail
The aging expatriate sits by the pool, an arm draped over a concrete lion, and laughs at the idea of visiting his homeland. He couldn’t if he wanted to.
“I keep reading that I’m pining for the green, green grass of home,” the Englishman says. “Nonsense. I’ve been away too long.”
Nevertheless, at 68, Ronald Biggs, fugitive Great Train Robber, has the settled air of a country squire.
“All I have to go back to is a prison cell, after all,” he adds softly. “Only a fool would want to return.”
But Biggs may have little choice. In August, Brazil and England at last ratified an extradition treaty, bringing him a step closer to the British lion’s claws.
Scotland Yard has not yet asked Brazil to hand Biggs over, and the British Consulate in Rio declines to comment on the case. But lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic are preparing to fight his extradition. After 32 years on the run, Biggs will make his last stand in Rio.
“It is stressful, yes, but I am no stranger to stressful situations,” he says. “I’ve been living under the shadow for some time.”
Her Majesty’s prosecutors want Biggs to finish serving a 30-year sentence for the Great Train Robbery, a 1963 crime that became known as “the heist of the century.”
Biggs was one of 17 robbers who stole $7.3 million (2.6 million pounds) from the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail Train. It went smoothly except for the injury to engineer Jack Mills, who was hit over the head with an ax handle and never completely recovered.
Twelve gang members were caught and convicted of the robbery. Five others were never brought in. Biggs got the maximum sentence and was sent to Wandsworth Prison. But in 1965, he went over the wall and just kept going.
Biggs fled to France, where plastic surgery changed his looks, and then to Australia, where his wife, Charmian, and their three sons joined him. With Scotland Yard closing in, he left them behind and boarded an ocean liner to Panama. In 1970, the loot from the train robbery spent, he arrived in Rio.
It took four years for the Yard to track Biggs. But without an extradition treaty, they were powerless to take him back.
When Brazil’s military regime considered deporting him, Biggs produced another surprise--a Brazilian girlfriend pregnant with his child. By law, Biggs could not be expelled as long as his son Michael, a Brazilian citizen, was his dependent.
Biggs’ early life in Rio was no paradise. With no passport or work permit, reporting twice a week to the police, Biggs survived by doing carpentry and odd jobs--"scratching a living from the soil, as it were,” he says.
Until one Christmas Eve, virtually broke, he discovered he could make a living just being Ronald Biggs, “the last of the gentleman crooks,” as he likes to call himself.
On that day, a reporter asked for an interview and agreed to pay a few hundred dollars. Biggs could scarcely believe it. “I paid my bar bill, bought a present for Mikey and thought, ‘Christmas really does exist,’ ” he recalls.
Next came a request from a German interviewer, who agreed to pay $1,000 and a bonus when the story ran. Then it was a Japanese crew, and Biggs asked $2,000. They paid without a murmur and even threw in a watch, calculator and cigarette lighter.
“I thought I must have been nuts not to do it sooner,” says Biggs.
Meanwhile, Mike blossomed into a child star and the family breadwinner. As part of the kiddie group Balao Magico--Magic Balloon in Portuguese--Mike had a hit TV show and sold 8 million records. His earnings helped buy their roomy, terraced apartment high in Rio’s green hills.
The good life almost ended in 1981. Two men posing as journalists grabbed Biggs at a Rio restaurant, gagged him, stuffed him into a duffel bag and flew him by Learjet to the city of Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River.
From Belem they set sail for Barbados, expecting to turn Biggs in and sell their story to the tabloids. But Barbados also had no extradition treaty with England. Back in Rio, Mike was on television pleading for Daddy to come home.
“This boy has captivated all Brazilians,” Justice Minister Ibrahim Abi-Ackel said at the time.
So Biggs returned to Brazil, where his new celebrity made him a tourist attraction. For $50 (now $60), visitors could enjoy a barbecue at the Biggs home, listen to tales of the heist from the man himself and buy a T-shirt that read: “I went to Rio and met Ronnie Biggs . . . honest.”
Biggs tackled other quasi-jobs. He recorded with the punk rock group Sex Pistols, wrote a memoir called “Odd Man Out,” even promoted a home alarm system with the slogan: “Call the thief.”
Then, in 1995, Brazil and England finally signed an extradition treaty, although it would take two years to ratify. Mike was 21 and no longer in school. Suddenly the safety net was gone.
Still, his Brazilian lawyer insists that Biggs has nothing to worry about.
Wellington Mousinho looks after Biggs’ interests behind an unmarked yellow door in a Rio high-rise, where he offers legal advice and rental cars.
Brazilian law, he says, does not permit extradition once the 20-year statute of limitations for robbery has expired.
“This is political persecution,” Mousinho insists. “The British have made it a point of honor to extradite Biggs.”
Biggs has another group of legal advisors in England, including Alan Jones, a specialist in extradition and how to avoid it. Although his attorneys have urged him to keep a low profile and refuse interviews, Biggs agrees to talk--at no charge--if no TV cameras are present.
“In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe anything is going to happen,” he says, leaning forward in his armchair to be nuzzled by his Rottweiler, Blitz.
Time has caught up with Biggs, even if Scotland Yard has not. His white hair is thinning, his face florid from the tropical sun and a fondness for Antarctica beer.
If he goes back, Biggs must serve half of the remaining 28 years to become eligible for parole. That would make him at least 82 before he could get out.
Biggs is through running. His wife recently visited him in Rio for the first time, raising the prospect of a reunion.
“I live simply,” he says. “I’m not flush with cash, got no money in the bank and a few debts, but I do enjoy life.”
Biggs swings his legs in the near-empty pool, which was drained for Mike’s 23rd birthday bash to give the 150 guests room to dance. The beer cans have been cleaned out, and it’s starting to fill.
“It’s been a screwed-up life in many respects, but a different life,” he says. “I’ve never been much of a 9-to-5er.”