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The great train robber gains his freedom

Ronnie Biggs, the last prisoner from Britain's "great train robbery" and once a high-living fugitive in Rio de Janeiro, gained his freedom on Friday but remained near death in his hospital bed.
Ronnie Biggs surrendering to authorities in 2001. Britain's Justice Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday that he decided to release Biggs from prison because he is seriously ill and not expected to recover. Biggs turns 80 on Saturday.Alastair Grant / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ronnie Biggs, the last prisoner from Britain's "great train robbery" and once a high-living fugitive in Rio de Janeiro, has gained his freedom but remained near death in his hospital bed.

Weakened by pneumonia, unable to speak and enfeebled by a series of strokes, Biggs laboriously tapped out on a spelling board that he was "very happy" that he had been given a compassionate release from custody.

"It was very emotional when the guards left," his son Michael said.

The change of status came Friday, a day before Biggs' 80th birthday and the 46th anniversary of the robbery, labeled "the heist of the century."

British officials saw Biggs as an unrepentant thief who lived it up on his share of the gang's haul from 125 mail sacks holding 2,631,684 pounds, equivalent to at least $68 million today.

But to others he was, if not a lovable rogue, then at least someone who posed no threat to society and was unlikely to scale a 25-foot wall as he did to escape from prison in 1965.

"It would be ridiculous, even for this government, to leave an old man to die in prison. He is hardly a threat to anyone," said Nick Bowles, 27, from south London.

"I'm sure that in five years his life will be a huge Hollywood hit," said Julian Rache, 37, from France. "As a robber he had a beautiful story, but what a sad way to go."

Unionized train drivers, mindful that railwayman Jack Mills never fully recovered from being bashed on the head with an iron bar, thought Biggs should die in custody. Biggs' lawyer argued he has hardly received a real reprieve.

'His condition is not expected to improve'
"This man is ill, he's going to die, he is not going to any pub or going to Rio, he is going to stay in hospital," said Biggs' lawyer, Giovanni Di Stefano.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who had previously ruled out release for a man who was "wholly unrepentant," also seemed to feel that it no longer mattered.

"His condition is not expected to improve," Straw said in a statement.

Michael Biggs hopes to move his father to a nursing home, after he undergoes some minor surgery.

Biggs was part of a gang that robbed a Glasgow-to-London mail train in August 1963, in what was called the "heist of the century."

He was one of the first five to be arrested, incriminated by fingerprints on a ketchup bottle and a Monopoly board at the gang's hideout, where they played the game with real money while lying low. Twelve men eventually were convicted of involvement in the robbery.

Sentenced to 30 years in jail, Biggs escaped after 15 months in prison in 1965.

He fled to Paris, spending some of his loot on plastic surgery to disguise his identity, then went to Australia and ultimately to Rio de Janeiro.

British officials sought his extradition over the years, but Biggs dodged every attempt before returning to Britain in 2001 in wise-guy pomp, aboard a plane chartered by The Sun newspaper. He was promptly arrested.

In 1974, he announced that his Brazilian girlfriend, Raimunda Rothen, was pregnant. As the father of a Brazilian dependent, he could not be deported. He married Raimunda in 2002 in Britain's high-security Belmarsh Prison.

In 1981, a gang kidnapped Biggs in Rio and took him to Barbados, intending to send him home to Britain. The Barbados High Court ruled that there was no valid extradition treaty, and let Biggs go free.

Brazil's Supreme Court in 1997 rejected an extradition request on grounds the statute of limitations had run out.

In 1999, Biggs had announced plans to help design a video game based on the robbery. "Ronnie Biggs' life since that day represents the ultimate action adventure," SCi Entertainment Group said at the time.

The reality was more mundane — and there's no record of the game reaching the market.

Lived the high life in 1970s
Styling himself "the last of the gentleman crooks," Biggs charged $50 — later hiked to $60 — for visitors to join a barbecue at his home where they could also buy the T-shirt: "I went to Rio and met Ronnie Biggs ... honest."

Biggs made a recording in 1978 with the Sex Pistols called "No One is Innocent," wrote a memoir called "Odd Man Out," appeared in a hair replacement commercial and promoted a home alarm system with the slogan: "Call the thief."

In Brazil, Michael blossomed as a children's TV star with the kiddie group "Balao Magico" (Magic Balloon) in the 1980s. The group sold 8 million records, and the boy's earnings helped buy a roomy, terraced apartment on a cobblestone street in Rio.

Some of Biggs' adversaries professed a grudging respect. In 1994, the late Jack Slipper, the Scotland Yard detective who pursued Biggs to Brazil 20 years earlier but failed to bring him home, called the train robber "a villain and a cunning monkey," but added: "When it comes to the important things in life, like his son and family, he seems to be an honest man."

Regrets? Biggs admitted only one, the injuries suffered by the train driver, who died in 1970.

Laid low by a series of strokes in the 1990s, Biggs' thoughts turned to England.

"My last wish is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter," Biggs said, according to a statement his son released.

His family was delighted to win Biggs' release after years of campaigning.

"This is good news for the taxpayer," Michael Biggs said as he celebrated the decision. "They will no longer have to pay to have three prison guards with metal detectors and so on watching over my father."