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Train Robber Ronnie Biggs is dead
Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, who died today, gestures to the waiting press at the funeral of Bruce Reynolds earlier this year
Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who won worldwide notoriety for spending 36 years on the run after escaping prison, has died aged 84.
Biggs, who was last seen in public in March, "flicking the V" at the funeral of fellow robber Bruce Reynolds, died early this morning.
The world-renowned robber was being cared for at Carlton Court Care Home in East Barnet, north London, after suffering several strokes in recent years.
He was released from prison in 2009 on compassionate grounds due to ill health, despite being re-arrested in 2001 after evading the authorities since his first escape from Wandsworth Prison in 1965.
At the time of his escape, Biggs had served just 15 months of the 30-year sentence he was handed for his part in the robbery of a Royal Mail freight train between London and Glasgow on August 8 1963.
Speaking earlier this year, he said he was proud to have been part of the gang behind the robbery, which saw 15 men escape with a record haul of £2.6 million - the equivalent of about £46 million today.
Biggs, who could not speak due to his strokes and communicated through a spelling board, said: ''If you want to ask me if I have any regrets about being one of the train robbers, my answer is 'No'.
''I will go further: I am proud to have been one of them. I am equally happy to be described as the 'tea-boy' or 'The Brain'.
''I was there that August night and that is what counts. I am one of the few witnesses - living or dead - to what was 'The Crime of the Century'.''
The gangster's death prompted mixed reactions from those affected by the robbery.
For many, the glamour of the crime was overshadowed by the brutal attack on the train's driver. Jack Mills, who was coshed, reportedly by Biggs, never fully recovered from the ordeal and died a few years later.
Mr Mills's family described Biggs as just a criminal.
His son Stephen died on Christmas Day 2011, aged 48. Widow Barbara Mills, 57, from Sandbach, Cheshire, said: "I'm just sad Stephen died before he did.
"Biggs is not a hero, he's just an out and out villain."
Peter Rayner, former chief operating officer of British Rail, said: "My view is that whilst I was - and am - critical of the Great Train Robbers and the heroes' welcome they got, especially in light of the death of Jack Mills, my sympathies go out to his family and I would not wish to speak further on the subject."
When he spoke earlier this year, Biggs admitted he "regretted" the attack on Mr Mills.
He said: ''It is regrettable, as I have said many times, that the train driver was injured. And he was not the only victim. The people who paid the heaviest price for the Great Train Robbery are the families.
"The families of everyone involved in the Great Train Robbery, and from both sides of the track. All have paid a price for our collective involvement in the robbery. A very heavy price, in the case of my family. For that, I do have my regrets.''
Biggs's death comes on the day BBC1 is to screen a new drama about the record-breaking crime, The Great Train Robbery: A Robber's Tale, in which his role is played by Jack Gordon.
The 28-year-old actor said: "That's a strange thing to hear. I'm really sorry for everybody who knows him, and who have gone through the turmoil of the last 20 years, for everyone involved in the robbery.
"What great timing and bad timing, how strange that it happened today. I made a vow not to contact him because I knew what a bad state he was in.
"That's a really big blow for me. I am in Aruba on holiday right now, living the Ronnie Biggs life of running after the robbery, in a way."
He added: "The day I started filming as him was the day I opened up the newspaper and saw him swearing, with two fingers up at the press, with tubes coming out of him in a wheelchair. It was such a two fingers to society.
"But the robbery was a tragic event. He was a family man at this point, he'd been taken away from the city and put into the countryside from the war. He was a delinquent, his mother died and even before that he was off the rails.
"And he wanted to get out of it by the time he met Bruce Reynolds. He just wanted not to be a part of the crime world but he was broke and trying to bring up a family and start a business. It was a big move going for him, going back to the crime world."
Reflecting on the end of Biggs's life, Gordon added: "The man was in a lot of pain for a long time. He couldn't speak, he couldn't talk, he found it very hard, walking was practically impossible, but by the looks of things - his energy and his spirit - he never seemed to be downtrodden.
"He had a fascinating life, but in the programme I play Ronnie Biggs before he became famous, when he wasn't very focused on the gig and he wasn't number one in the world. It was his audacity to never give in, never give up, that dominated his later life."
Biggs's relatively minor role in the robbery was overshadowed by his life as a fugitive, which gained him fame in later years.
After having plastic surgery, he lived as a fugitive for 36 years, first in Australia then Brazil, where he fathered a son Michael, who became the key to him being allowed to stay in the country and not face extradition.
Biggs's money ran out and he traded on his notoriety to scrape a living before returning to the UK voluntarily in 2001 to get better care for his deteriorating health.
He was freed in 2009 on ''compassionate grounds'' by then-justice secretary Jack Straw, who said he was not expected to recover.
Author Mike Gray, who has written numerous books on the Great Train Robbery and on Biggs, spoke of his sadness at his death.
The 56-year-old, from Rainham, Kent, said he visited Biggs every month for eight years while he was held at HMP Norwich and HMP Belmarsh.
He said: "He was never a bad person. His criminal CV was laughable before the train robbery and none of the train robbers wanted him on the robbery as they had never heard of him.
"He was only invited as mastermind Bruce Reynolds was Biggs' best pal and Biggs knew a retired train driver. Biggs always regretted the injury to (train driver) Mr Mills."
Mr Gray, whose books include Ronnie Biggs - The Inside Story and The Ronnie Biggs Quiz Book, last visited him at his north London care home earlier this year.
"I feel very sad as he has become part of my life and myself part of his," he added.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef,said: "While, naturally, we feel sorry for Mr Biggs' family at this time, we have always regarded Biggs as a non-entity and a criminal, who took part in a violent robbery which resulted in the death of a train driver.
"Jack Mills, who was 57 at the time of the robbery, never properly recovered from the injuries he suffered after being savagely coshed by the gang of which Biggs was a member that night."