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'Great Train Robber' Ronnie Biggs Dies; Was Famed Fugitive

Ronnie Biggs, showing off his notoriety in 1994 while he was living in Brazil.
AFP/Getty Images
Ronnie Biggs, showing off his notoriety in 1994 while he was living in Brazil.

He was "a petty criminal" who joined a gang responsible for one of the 20th Century's most notable heists.

Ronnie Biggs, who went to jail for his role in the U.K.'s "great train robbery" of 1963 — but was more famous for his flamboyant life during 36 years as a fugitive following his escape from prison in 1965 — died Wednesday.

"Sadly we lost Ron during the night," his publicist's Twitter feed reads. "As always, his timing was perfect to the end. Keep him and his family in your thoughts."

Biggs was 84. His death came on the same day the BBC airs part one of A Robber's Tale — a dramatic account of the heist.

As The Associated Press reminds readers:

"Biggs was part of a gang of at least 12 men that robbed the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail Train in the early hours of Aug. 8, 1963, switching its signals and tricking the driver into stopping in the darkness. The robbery netted 125 sacks of banknotes worth 2.6 million pounds — $7.3 million at the time, or more than $50 million today — and became known as 'the heist of the century.'

"Biggs was soon caught and jailed, but his escape from a London prison and decades on the run turned him into a media sensation and something of a notorious British folk hero.

"He lived for many years beyond the reach of British justice in Rio de Janeiro, where he would sometimes regale tourists and the media alike with stories about the robbery. He appeared to enjoy thumbing his nose at the British authorities and even sold T-shirts and other memorabilia about his role in the robbery.

"He was free for 35 years before voluntarily returning to England in 2001 in a private jet sponsored by The Sun tabloid."

Biggs returned to England on that jet provided by The Sun to seek medical treatment after suffering a series of strokes. He got medical attention — and a return to prison. But Biggs never served out his full 30-year sentence. In 2009, he was given a compassionate release based on what was thought to be his frail health.

The decision to free Biggs didn't set well with some. "Unionized train drivers, mindful that railway man Jack Mills never fully recovered after being hit over the head with an iron bar during the robbery, lobbied to keep Biggs behind bars," the AP says.

In 2011, Biggs had this to say about why he became something of a star in Britain during his time on the run: "I'm a lovable rogue."

The BBC rounds up "The Great Train Robbers: Who Were They?" here.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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