A Quarter Century After His Great Train Robbery, Ronald Biggs Isn't Railing Against Life on the Lam
updated 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Twenty-five years after the crime that made him famous, Ronald Biggs, who was convicted in February 1964 for his role in Britain's Great Train Robbery, is a happy man. Not a rich one, despite the $7.3 million haul in what London papers called the "crime of the century." But a happy one nonetheless. Settling onto the beach, Biggs and Michael watch contentedly as the waves roll in and the string bikinis saunter by. Reviving himself with another beer, Biggs savors the day, beyond the reach of British law and secure in the celebrity he earned that distant night in Buckinghamshire.
In his adopted city, Biggs is a local attraction on the order of Sugarloaf Mountain or the girls from Ipanema. On the streets, people wave and nod. Fan mail from overseas addressed simply to "The Honorable Ronald Biggs of the Great Train Robbery, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil" has no trouble making it to his door. Recently swarms of journalists made pilgrimages to Rio to write anniversary reports on the aging desperado. Polish film director Lech Majewski has just released Prisoner of Rio—a fictionalized account of a 1981 attempt to kidnap Biggs from Brazil. (Another film starring Phil Collins, about one of Biggs's accomplices, is also out this fall.) And for Britons who can't wait for the movie, Virgin has just published Biggsy's Bible—a paperback collection of jokes to complement his 1981 autobiography, My Own Story.
And there's more. This year Biggs has begun hawking himself as a tourist attraction. In February the first group of German travelers will pay $200 a head to spend 12 hours chez Biggs and share a poolside barbecue. For an extra $10, they can buy autographed T-shirts that proclaim, "I know someone who went to Brazil and met Ronnie Biggs—Honest!"
Notoriety is Biggs's lifeline now; with his $400,000 cut of the train-robbery loot long gone, it is fame that keeps him afloat. "I used to worry that the press was going to lose interest, that this could only last for so long," he says. "How wrong I was. Just now, the job is almost complete of me being turned into a figure of international interest. Though," he adds unconvincingly, "it doesn't seem I deserve it—little old humble me."
If Biggs has retained the affections of the press, it is because the Great Train Robbery—a stunt that would have been the dramatic climax in the life of any other man—was for him merely a prologue. Since then, he's escaped from prison, thwarted four recapture attempts and lived through several lifetimes on the lam—all of them, it seems, charmed. "They say a villain gets his just deserts. Well, if I've been given a good hand, it's only because I'm not a bad guy at heart," he says.
Perhaps not; but Biggs assumed the role of black sheep early on. The fourth son of a family with five children in hard-scrabble Brixton—where father Henry was a jack-of-all-trades and mother Lillian a housewife—Biggs turned to petty thievery after Lillian died in 1943. He stole art supplies from trade school and copper cable from his job with the phone company. In the Royal Air Force (which he joined in 1947 and left, AWOL, a year later), he pilfered from the canteen. "I've always had this craving for adventure," Biggs explains. "There is this incredible thrill to being a crook."
Despite his enthusiasm, Biggs was never a very successful thief. He lived hand to mouth, and he had spent a total of eight years in jail by the time he was 30. In 1960 he married Charmian Powell, a schoolmaster's daughter, and the birth of their son Nick set him on the straight and narrow for three years. Being a father, he says, "became the most important thing in my life. I couldn't wait to get home to kiss the wife and spend the evening playing with my boy." A second son, Chris, was born three years later.
Biggs was working seven days a week as a contractor—and struggling to meet his payroll—when jail crony Bruce Reynolds tracked him down in 1963. Reynolds (who'd done time for robberies) promised him at least £40,000 if he could round up a co-conspirator who could drive a locomotive and bring him along on a mission to rob a Royal Mail night train. Like any thrill junkie, Biggs jumped; in the wee hours of Aug. 8, 1963 (his 34th birthday) he arrived at Sears Crossing with an elderly neighbor who was a retired train driver.
The robbery itself was pulled off with just two hitches: Jack Mills, the train's legitimate engineer, was injured when he jumped one of the thieves and was struck on the head with a pick handle padded in cloth. ("Nobody wanted to inflict injuries that would be lasting," Biggs says. "This was a professional thing, not a bloodthirsty outing.") The second snafu was that Biggs's driver was unable to release the train's brakes; he was pushed aside, and the injured Mills was pressed into service. In all, the 15 robbers removed almost two tons of bills from the train, a haul of about $400,000 each. Only a fraction of the money was ever recovered.
But their euphoria was short-lived. After a few days, the police found the remote five-acre farm where the group had hidden out for a time and harvested a wealth of fingerprints. Arrested just 21 days after the heist, Ronnie went to trial with his cohorts in January 1964. Because they were charged with a conspiracy—against Her Majesty's mail, no less—the sentences were stiff. At a time when England had no parole system and sentences could only be shortened by one-third for good behavior, the 34-year-old Biggs was sent to prison for 30 years. (Four of the conspirators were never caught. The others pulled sentences from five to 30 years. None is serving his time today.)
Biggs immediately began plotting his escape. A fellow inmate, Paul Seabourne, who was released in May 1965, agreed to return to Wandsworth Prison on July 9 with a van equipped with a platform that could be raised and lowered. As Biggs walked around the exercise yard, Seabourne parked next to the 30-foot wall and tossed over a rope ladder; while two other inmates distracted the guards, Biggs scrambled up the ladder and dropped onto the van's raised platform.
With the help of a fake passport, he then fled to Paris, where he underwent a face-lift and a nose job. "Don't let anyone tell you it doesn't hurt," he laughs. "I had 144 stitches.... I suppose that was God's punishment." Thus disguised, he flew to Australia and later sent for Charmian and their two sons. Renamed the King family, they settled into suburban Adelaide.
Times were hard. Lawyers' fees, escape expenses, loans to comrades and the occasional splurge had eaten up Biggs's booty. Instead of backsliding into a life of crime, however, he found work as a carpenter and enjoyed a rare peace for three years. "Those were really happy times," he says. "I was just hoping it would never end."
But the story of the Great Train Robbery refused to die in the press. Law-enforcement officials continued to speculate about Ronnie's whereabouts, and in June 1969 the Australian Women's Weekly ran an article illustrated by a photo of the pre-face-lift Biggs. A former neighbor spotted the resemblance, and Biggs barely managed to slip out the back door before the police arrived.
Fond of samba music, he considered Brazil. A crony thought it was a good choice. "Nazis have been hiding out in Brazil for years," he told Biggs. "If they can make it there, you can too." The robber set his sights on Rio.
Reincarnated as Michael Haynes, the unsinkable Biggs arrived in Brazil on March 11, 1970 with just $193 to his borrowed name. He found work as a carpenter and established himself as a local roué Charmian and their children (including third son Farley, born in 1967) had planned to follow him when things quieted down, but after son Nicky, 10, died in a car accident in February 1971, everything went awry. "That was such a savage blow," says Biggs. "I almost turned myself in when I heard the news. But first I went to a bar and had a couple of brandies. I decided my kid definitely wouldn't have wanted me to give myself up."
For the next three years Biggs lived under his assumed name in near-poverty. Then, one day in late 1973, holed up in a house where the electricity had been shut off, homesick for his family, he decided to give himself up—though not without some profit. He asked an acquaintance to ferry a message to a London journalist, offering to sell his story before he surrendered to Scotland Yard.
The plot thickened on Jan. 31, 1974, when Biggs, talking to a reporter from the Daily Express in a Rio hotel room, was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper of the Yard. Tipped off by the Express, Slipper had flown in from London to collect his high-profile quarry. But Biggs refused to come quietly.
As usual, luck was on his side. Slipper had made a fatal error: He had failed to make sure there was an extradition treaty between Brazil and England, hardly the best of diplomatic friends. There wasn't, and since he hadn't bothered to introduce himself to the proper authorities, Brazilian officials weren't inclined to bend the rules.
With Biggs in a local jail and Slipper still on the scene, Ronnie's girlfriend of the moment stepped forward to save the day. Raimunda Rothen—who had been living with "Michael Haynes" off and on for several years—announced to the world that she was carrying his baby. (That child, Michael, was born six months later.) Since the law forbade the deportation of a parent of a Brazilian child, Biggs was safe.
Free to claim his own identity, Biggs blossomed. Released from jail in Brasilia, he was denied citizenship but given a considerable degree of freedom. He was ordered to check in twice weekly at the federal prison in Rio and to observe a curfew and was forbidden to travel outside Rio, hold a job or marry. (Some of these conditions were later relaxed.) Barred from working, Biggs instead found ways to capitalize on his notoriety. Since 1974, he has been a one-man industry of sorts: He immediately began selling his story to the news media, and later he hooked up with those other geniuses of self-promotion, the Sex Pistols, who had him singing on one of their records.
In 1981—just when Biggs's curiosity value might have begun to wane—fate stepped in again. Two men accosted Biggs in a restaurant one afternoon, threw him into a headlock and dragged him into a waiting van. Gagged, blindfolded, he was then bundled onto a Learjet bound for the coast and taken from there, by yacht, to Barbados. His kidnappers—dispatched by a London private detective—planned to obtain extradition papers on the island so they could return Biggs to Britain and claim a fee from an undisclosed client.
Brazilian officials were angered by the escapade. Michael, then 6, went on TV to appeal for Biggs's return. "I know the Queen of England wants my dad," he said, "but I want him too." A Barbadian lawyer came to Biggs's rescue, and, again, a loophole set him free. He was released by a magistrate because officials hadn't followed the proper extradition procedure. Flown back to Rio, Biggs kissed the ground as thousands of Brazilians cheered.
But the uncanny luck didn't end there. A CBS Records executive who had seen Michael on television asked the boy to audition for a singing group that went on to cut several successful children's albums. Suddenly Ronnie Biggs, ex-con, was a single-parent chaperone traveling the country on the preteen concert circuit. (Mother Raimunda had left Michael in Biggs's care while she pursued her career—as a stripper.) By the time Michael grew tired of singing in 1986, his group had three gold and four platinum records, and he had earned enough to buy the family an apartment.
Today a private school student, Michael lives with Ronnie, Raimunda and Andre (her child by another man) on the ground floor of a three-story stucco house in a middle-class suburb and enjoys such minor luxuries as a pool table and a swimming pool. (Though she divorced Biggs in the mid-'70s, Charmian still visits occasionally with their sons, now 25 and 21.)
A man who has learned not to focus on the future, Biggs prefers to ignore one darkening cloud on his horizon. In 1992 Michael will no longer be a minor, and Biggs will lose an important defense against deportation. "I don't worry about that too much though," Biggs says. "If I get sent back to prison then, I'll be 63 or 64. The way sentiment is toward me now in England, I don't think I'd spend too much time behind bars. People would say, 'Let the old bugger out.' "
And for now, being a fugitive has advantages. "People say, 'Oh, Ron, you must really want a pardon more than anything,' " says Biggs. "But I say, 'What? Stop being Ronnie Biggs?'...If I lose the interest there is in me, then I might as well just fade into insignificance." And that, one suspects, would be the harshest punishment of all.
—By Michelle Green, with Meg Grant in Rio de Janeiro