Ronnie Biggs was one of a gang of at least a dozen men who ambushed a British mail train in 1963. They made off with $4 million ... and most of the money was never recovered.
Biggs was caught a short time later and went to prison in 1964. A year later, he escaped, beginning half a lifetime on the lam. He lived in Australia and Brazil before voluntarily returning to Britain in 2001, where he spent eight more years in prison. To this day, Britons can't decide quite what they think of him.
On Wednesday, Biggs died at the age of 84
"You get people on both sides," said Christopher Pickard, who ghost-wrote his autobiography. "You still have people who say hanging was too good for him. You have others who met him, who knew that he was a very kind and generous man with a very good sense of humor."
Even for those who admired him, Biggs was a bit of a guilty pleasure. Guilty because he was a criminal — and because the robbery he took part in was violent. The train driver was attacked with an iron bar and never fully recovered from his injuries.
A pleasure because he was — strange as it may sound — honest. He 'fessed up to his greed in taking part in the robbery. He expressed regret about the beating of the train driver. And he genuinely believed he did not deserve to serve out his sentence. He explained it this way in a phone interview with the BBC in 2000: "The purpose of prison is to rehabilitate the person. I am a totally different person. I am honest. My friend here sitting beside me has his wallet stuffed full of money. And I am not about to lay a hand on it."
Biggs' train robbery partners had nicknames like Buster, Flossie and Pop. Fun names, but these guys were tough, and not exactly charming. But Biggs was different. At the farm where the gang hid out, he was the entertainer and the cook.
"He had always been a great cook," Pickard said. "His dad had been a chef. It‘s not surprising [that] at the farm, when someone said, 'Who’s going cook?' Ron stepped up and did it. And he would have kept things jovial and laughing."
He remained candid about his love of money. He "squandered" his share of the robbery haul within a few years. In Brazil — which had no extradition treaty with Britain — he made money as a kind of tabloid celebrity. He posed on the beach in Rio for British newspapers, and he charged interested visitors a fee to have dinner at his house.
And then there was the collaboration with two members of the band Sex Pistols who visited him in Brazil.
In 1978, Biggs recorded a few songs with Steve Jones and Paul Cook, including No One is Innocent. The song is deliberately offensive, but it also displayed Biggs' trademark humor. It was a top 10 hit in Britain — and in an instant, this aging criminal who stuck it to the humorless authorities had found a new audience.
Biggs' financial problems continued and his health faltered. He returned to Britain in 2001, where he was promptly arrested and imprisoned.
The fact that he went back to prison makes the pleasure of appreciating his life a little less of a guilty one.
This story was updated to add the correct year of the robbery and clarify that Biggs was part of a gang of a dozen or more.