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Britain’s ‘Great Train Robber’ Back

May 7, 2001

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LONDON (AP) _ Fugitive train robber Ronnie Biggs, one of the 20th century’s most colorful criminals, returned home to Britain Monday and was promptly arrested by Scotland Yard, which had hunted him for years.

The ailing 71-year-old Biggs, barely able to speak or move after a series of strokes, flew from Brazil aboard a jet chartered by the tabloid Sun newspaper, which reportedly bought the rights to exclusive interviews with Biggs.

``Got Him,″ said a banner headline in Monday’s editions of the tabloid, with a full-page picture of Biggs in his wheelchair, wearing a cowboy hat.

Dozens of police officers were on hand when the plane touched town at Northolt air base, west of London, and Biggs was whisked away in a van with blacked-out windows, escorted by half a dozen police cars.

Biggs, who was part of the gang that pulled off the infamous ``Great Train Robbery″ in 1963, was arrested aboard the plane by Scotland Yard detectives moments after landing. Within hours, he was back behind bars, after a brief court appearance to determine his identity.

``The law requires me to return you to prison, which I will now do,″ the judge told him. Biggs’ lawyers told reporters they would file an appeal regarding his unserved 28-year jail sentence.

The Great Train Robbery went down in crime folklore at the time as the heist of the century. The then-record holdup of the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail Train yielded 2.6 million pounds _ worth $7.3 million at the time, or nearly $47 million today.

During the robbery, engineer Jack Mills was hit over the head with an ax handle and never fully recovered _ the only aspect of the crime about which Biggs ever expressed any public remorse.

Caught and sentenced to 30 years in jail, Biggs made a daring escape after serving only two years, going over the wall of Wandsworth Prison in 1965. He fled to France, then to Australia and Panama, and finally, in 1970, to Rio de Janeiro.

Most of Biggs’ share of the train loot was spent on his escape, flight and plastic surgery to change his appearance. It was widely speculated that he was giving himself up at last to get free medical care.

Throughout his decades of exile, Biggs cultivated an image as a wily, debonair ``gentleman criminal″ who foiled repeated attempts to snare him.

Scotland Yard tracked him down in 1974, but the lack of an extradition treaty with Brazil saved him. When Brazil’s military government tried to deport him, Biggs produced a son by a Brazilian woman _ Michael, 26, who accompanied him on the flight home _ which gave him legal grounds to stay.

When Brazil’s Supreme Court in 1997 rejected an extradition request on grounds the statute of limitations had run out, Biggs seemed a free man.

But strokes left him debilitated and barely able to speak. Lately, he rarely left his Rio home except for twice-a-week physical therapy sessions.

In Brazil, Biggs had become a household name _ and a tourist attraction. For $50, later hiked to $60, visitors could enjoy a barbecue at the Biggs home, be regaled with tales of the heist and buy T-shirts reading: ``I went to Rio and met Ronnie Biggs ... honest.″

He was a devotee of Rio’s Carnival, an ever-present glass of beer in his hand. He recorded with the punk rock group Sex Pistols, wrote a memoir called ``Odd Man Out,″ and even promoted a home alarm system with the slogan: ``Call the thief.″

His only regrets, he said, were the estrangement from his first wife, Charmian, and the injury of Mills, the train engineer, who died of cancer in 1970.

Biggs’ age and health has sparked debate over what ought to be done with him. A crowd of curiosity-seekers turned out at the airfield where the jet carrying Biggs landed, arguing that question as they watched the plane approach. ``He’s only coming over here because he’s run out of money,″ said 52-year-old Brian Battams, an engineer who lives nearby. ``If he can’t support himself, hard luck.″

Kathleen Farrell, 38, was more sympathetic.

``He should be allowed to live out his old age in peace,″ she said. ``It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to put him back in prison. I don’t think he’s going to rob anyone again.″

Word that Biggs was ready to give up came last week in an e-mail he sent to the head of Scotland Yard’s so-called Flying Squad, Det. Chief Superintendent John Coles. Coles personally went aboard the jet to make the arrest.

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