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Continued: Britain's 'Great Train Robber' Ronnie Biggs dies at 84; lived high life in Rio after escape

  • Article by: JILL LAWLESS , Associated Press
  • Last update: December 18, 2013 - 12:15 PM

"He spoke a sort of English-Portuguese, but you could understand him. People liked him a lot, and when he disappeared from Rio it was a surprise to us all."

Maria do Ceu Narciso Esteves, who owns a grocery store in Rio's Santa Teresa neighborhood that Biggs frequented for decades, said he "was a good client and a friend."

"He used to buy his whiskey here, one, two or three bottles, and also ingredients for lunches at home that he served to tourists. That's how he earned his money," said Narciso, 77. "He didn't do anything for free.

"He used to buy here on credit and always paid his bill in the end," she said. "He was a good person, a polite person and a good client."

In 1997, Brazil's Supreme Court rejected an extradition request on the ground that the statute of limitations had run out. At the time, Biggs said he didn't want to go back to Britain.

"All I have to go back to is a prison cell, after all," he said. "Only a fool would want to return."

But within a few years, debilitated by strokes and other ailments, Biggs began to yearn to see England again.

The Sun newspaper helped arrange his return, even chartering the private jet that flew him home. Aboard the plane was Detective Superintendent John Coles of Scotland Yard, who took Biggs into custody with the words: "I am now going to formally arrest you."

Biggs spent several years in prison, emerging as a frail shadow of his dapper "gentleman thief" image.

Biggs' lawyers had long argued that he should be released on health grounds, although then-Justice Secretary Jack Straw objected, saying Biggs was "wholly unrepentant."

Unionized train drivers, mindful that railway man Jack Mills never fully recovered after being hit on the head with an iron bar during the robbery — he died seven years later — also lobbied to keep Biggs behind bars.

Finally convinced that Biggs was a dying man, officials released him on Aug. 7, 2009, a day before his 80th birthday. He had been living in a nursing home since.

In late 2011, Biggs appeared at a London news conference to promote an updated version of his memoir. Unable to speak because of several strokes, he said through his son Michael Biggs that he had come to regret the train robbery and, if he could go back in time, he would now choose not to participate.

Still, he insisted he'd be remembered as a "lovable rogue."

Not everyone agreed.

"Biggs is not a hero. He's just an out-and-out villain," said the train driver's widow, Barbara Mills.

Biggs had not been one of the ringleaders of the robbery, but he became its most famous participant. The British media remained fascinated with him until the end.

The 50th anniversary of the train robbery this year brought a slew of new books and articles, and the very day of Biggs' death coincided with a long-planned BBC television show about the crime.

  • related content

  • 2011 photo: Ronnie Biggs, known for his role in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, died Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, his daughter-in-law said. He was 84.

  • A July 8, 1963 file photo shows Ronnie Biggs. Ronnie Biggs, known for his role in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, died Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, his daughter-in-law said. He was 84.

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