LONDON — Britain's most famous fugitive, "Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs, ended 35 years on the run Monday with a thoroughly British surrender, first to a tabloid newspaper and then to Scotland Yard.
"Got Him," said the headline on the Sun tabloid, which managed with money what police had been unable to accomplish by force of law. The newspaper chartered the private jet that flew the ailing 71-year-old home from his haven in Brazil, and it reportedly paid his son for other "expenses."
The celebrity criminal, who walks with difficulty and is unable to speak after a series of strokes, donned a cowboy hat and Sun T-shirt for the trip. He had said a hankering for beer in a British pub was driving him back to England, but it appears Biggs is broke and unable to pay for medical treatment.
"I'm coming back in style with my head held high," Biggs told the Sun in an exclusive interview to which he scribbled replies. "I'm on my way and ready to finally face the music."
After touchdown at Northolt air base, west of London, Biggs was arrested for being "unlawfully at large" following a jailbreak. He made a brief court appearance during which he confirmed his identity with barely audible grunts. A police doctor wiped his chin with a handkerchief.
At the end of the eight-minute hearing, Biggs was taken to high-security Belmarsh Prison in southeastern London. His lawyers said they would appeal the more than 28 years he has still to serve on a 30-year prison sentence.
Biggs was part of a 15-member band of thieves who held up the Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963, in a Wild West-style heist romanticized in Britain as the "Great Train Robbery" of the 20th century. The masked bandits made off with a record 2.6 million pounds in old bank notes worth $7.3 million at the time, or nearly $47 million today.
An insider helped the thieves with vital scheduling information--intelligence that would prove useless today, the Independent newspaper said last week, because Britain's trains now run chronically late.
The gang stopped the train by turning on a red track signal, which the on-board fireman went to investigate. He was captured, and engineer Jack Mills was severely injured by a blow to the head, from which he never fully recovered.
The bandits then grabbed 120 mailbags and went to a nearby farm, where they divided the booty. They paid six people to burn down the farmhouse afterward, but the arsonists bungled the job and police were able to salvage the robbers' fingerprints.
Fifteen men connected with the heist, including Biggs, eventually were convicted and jailed.
Bruce Reynolds, an antiques dealer who masterminded the crime, was caught in 1968 and spent 10 years of a 25-year sentence in jail. He flew to Rio de Janeiro to bid his old buddy good luck on the journey home.
The other members of the gang included a race car driver, a bookmaker, a former paratrooper, a hairdresser and a lawyer. Police believed two other men were involved, but the suspects were never arrested, because of lack of evidence. Most of the money was never recovered.
Biggs, a carpenter from Redhill, Surrey, served 15 months of a 30-year sentence before scaling a wall out of Wandsworth Prison in 1965 and fleeing in a furniture van. He spent most of his share of the loot on plastic surgery to change his looks and on his escape to Australia with his wife, Charmaine, and sons.
When Scotland Yard tracked him down in Australia in 1970, he fled to Brazil.
From his new home in Rio de Janeiro, Biggs cultivated an image of the affable playboy criminal who dallied with Brazilian beauties and foiled attempts to bring him to justice. British police tracked him down in 1974 but were unable to gain custody because there was no extradition treaty with Brazil.
Later, a military government in Brazil tried to deport him but found that Biggs had fathered a Brazilian son, Michael, which gave him legal grounds to stay in the country.
British adventurers kidnapped Biggs in 1981 and flew him to Barbados, but he won a legal battle to return to Brazil. Britain and Brazil eventually signed an extradition treaty, but in 1997, Brazil's Supreme Court ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on Biggs' case. He was to remain free.
Free, but not flush. To make a living in Brazil, he turned himself into a tourist attraction, charging visitors $50 to $60 each for a barbecue at his house and a chance to buy a T-shirt that read: "I went to Rio and met Ronnie Biggs--Honest."
With a gift for gab, Biggs dined out on tales of the great train heist, particularly with members of the British media. He also promoted a home alarm system with the slogan "Call the thief."
Biggs was photographed during Carnival with a beer in his hand, or stretched out on one of Rio's famous beaches in a skimpy bathing suit. He loved jazz, recorded the song "No One Is Innocent" with the punk rock group the Sex Pistols and wrote a memoir titled "Odd Man Out."