Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ronnie's Rio Adventure

At 6:50 PM on Wednesday, the 7th of August 1963, as it had done every night for 125 years, the Glasgow to London mail train set off on its journey from Scotland to the Capital. The second car behind the engine, where registered mail was sorted and valuables were carried, contained 2.6 million pounds in used bank notes. They’d be worth over forty million in today’s money and were being returned to the Bank of England for destruction. Shortly after 3 AM the driver, Jack Mills, responded to a red signal light and brought his train to a stop. But Mills had been fooled; what he’d seen was a ruse. A gang of robbers from London had covered a green light and connected a six-volt battery to power a red one. They quickly dominated the men in the locomotive and the mail car. Then they uncoupled the engine and the first two cars from the train. Mills was forced to drive them one and one half miles to the designated unloading spot: Bridego Bridge.
There, the thieves removed 120 sacks containing two-and-a-half tons of money, brought it back to their safe house and divvied it up. Within forty-eight hours a flying squad from Scotland Yard had been formed and was busy chasing the criminals. Their first break came when a suspicious vehicle was reported at Leatherslade Farm about 30 miles from the scene of the crime.
Inside the abandoned farmhouse they discovered a few of the stolen banknotes, a number of empty post office sacks, and a ketchup bottle upon which there were fingerprints belonging to a petty criminal named Ronald Biggs.
Biggs was arrested a few weeks later. He was subsequently tried, sentenced to thirty years, and incarcerated in Wandsworth Prison. That was supposed to have been the end of the story – but it wasn’t. Fifteen months later Biggs escaped, underwent plastic surgery to disguise his face and disappeared. Four years later, it turned out that the place he’d disappeared to was Australia. He was spotted, but managed to evade his pursuers and disappeared for a second time. Scotland Yard didn’t give up. They kept searching and finally caught up with him again in 1974. By that time, Biggs was in Rio de Janeiro. They gleefully pounced, only to discover that his Brazilian girlfriend, Raimunda de Castro, was pregnant.
And guess what? Before the law enforcement people could get their act together, the baby was born.
As the father of a Brazilian child, Brazilian law proscribed Biggs’ extradition. And, since he’d committed no crime in Brazil, there were no grounds upon which to arrest him.

The cops, both British and Brazilian, gnashed their teeth, but there wasn’t a thing they could do about it. But it wasn’t all sunlight and roses for the former fugitive. The money the gang had stolen had, in turn, been stolen from them, and Biggs was broke. To support himself and his little family, he hit on the idea of turning his home into an “invitation only” barbecue restaurant where the price of the meal included a free “I had lunch with Ronald Biggs” T-shirt and where, for an extra charge, you could have yourself photographed arm in arm with the host. 
The restaurant endeavor led to invitations to perform with various punk rock groups...

...and participation in a series of advertising campaigns. This one, done late in life, was for a lingerie manufacturer.
Finally, in 2001, requiring the kind of medical care he could no longer afford in Brazil, but could get for free in an English prison, Biggs voluntarily returned to the U.K. to serve the remaining 28 years of his sentence. 
He was released from a Norwich prison for elderly inmates (on compassionate grounds) on the 6th of August, 2009, two days before his eightieth birthday.

Ya gotta wonder how Ronnie is dealing with the climate after thirty-odd years in the tropics.
Leighton - Monday


  1. What a great bit of history. Got to wonder what happened to the other members of his gang.

  2. Thanks Leighton, I've often wondered what happened to him and the loot...:)

  3. Hi Leighton,

  4. Ronald Biggs and his cohorts didn't plan nearly as well as did the two men who robbed the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston, 20 years ago.

    There are only four actual facts known about the theft and they were known within minutes of the robbery's discovery. Two men, posing as Boston police officers, entered the museum by claiming there was a report of suspicious activity in the area. They took the two security guards to the basement and hand-cuffed them to a pipe. They stole, at today's value, $500,000,000.00 worth of art, including works by Vermeer and Rembrandt. They were in an out in 81 minutes.

    There have been myriad theories about the identity of the mastermind (Whitey Bulger, who benefited from the theft (the IRA), and the location of the art (either a Middle East oil-producing country) or Japan. There has never been as much as a whisper about the actual location.

    The theft gets attention because Isabella Stewart Gardner established the museum with the stipulation that not one piece was to be moved from the location in which she placed it or the contents of the museum would revert to Harvard (like Harvard needs more value added to its endowment). So visitors to the museum for the past 20 years see the empty spaces, left as they were the early morning of March 18, 1991.

    If I remember correctly, no one was seriously injured during the Great Train Robbery. Biggs was a thief but not a murderer.

    Whitey Bulger is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. He is shown to the right of Osama Bin Laden. The Jack Nicholson character in THE DEPARTED is generally considered to have been based on Bulger. Whitey (James) is the son of Irish immigrants. He left school when he was about 14 years old but he is brilliant and an autodidact. Whitey is also a killer and a drug dealer and people in South Boston were terrified of him. In local popular culture the question "Where's Whitey?" is answered with another question, "Whitey who?". (The Irish, down to the third and fourth generation have an annoying habit of answering a question with a question).

    One can feel some sympathy for Ronald Biggs. Not so Whitey Bulger. Whitey certainly has the intellectual capacity to plan a perfect robbery of such magnitude. The case against his involvement is the difficulty in unloading the art secretly.

    Whitey disappeared in 1994 after being told by an FBI agent that he was about to be arrested for racketeering. The art may be found before Whitey is.

  5. Great stuff Leighton. The Great Train Robbers become almost folk heroes, and Ronnie Biggs, despite being a crook, a tabloid jack-the-lad. He used to entertain and lavish drinks upon visiting journalists and revelled in his myth. One of the other robbers, Buster Edwards had a highly romanticised film made about him too. Played by Phil Collins of all people. And contrary to the romantic view, beth, the train driver, Jack Mills, was walloped over the head during the heist and never fully recovered. He died in 1970 because of his injuries.

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