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Bandits, Burglars, Thieves!*

July 8, 2008, 10:56 pm

My trip’s going fine, thanks. It’s nice of you to ask. Well, fine except for the fact that Wikipedia can’t be trusted. [teachable moment] Hear that, kids? You always have to double-check your sources. [/teachable moment] So, because of that, I’ve been called in from the bullpen. And because I’m not really warmed up yet, I’ll just note, without further ado, that on this day in 1965, Ronnie Biggs escaped from prison. Who was Ronnie Biggs, you ask? Look it up, lazy. No, I’m just kidding.

Ronnie Biggs was part of the gang that robbed the Glasgow-to-London mail train on August 8, 1963, a caper later widely known as the Great Train Robbery. The heist itself unfolded like so: one of the thieves tampered with a signal, covering the green light with a glove and temporarily illuminating a red one with a battery pack. When the train stopped, the gang boarded and hijacked it. After decoupling the high-value car, Biggs and company then offloaded the cash (approximately $80 million in today’s dollars) into waiting getaway cars and headed for a safe house.

And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for a meddling anonymous tipster, who alerted police to the whereabouts of the robbers’ hideout. Ultimately, thirteen members of the gang were caught and convicted. Biggs began contemplating how to escape almost immediately upon being incarcerated. After prison guards foiled one planned breakout, Biggs waited nearly two more years before trying again. Conspiring with a former inmate, Biggs and several other convicts scaled rope ladders thrown over the wall of the exercise yard on this day in 1965. The escapees then piled into a van, which drove them to various hideouts.

Biggs, for his part, next fled England for Belgium, where he purchased a new identity: built upon forged papers and plastic surgery. He then moved to Australia, where he lived for years as “Travis Furminger” — until police once again picked up his trail. Under yet another name, “Michael Haynes,” Biggs finally lit out for Rio de Janeiro. In 1974, hard up for money, he decided to peddle his tale to the London papers. After cutting a deal with the Daily Express, though, police burst in on Biggs and the reporter who had traveled to Rio to interview him for an exclusive.

Fortunately for Biggs, England and Brazil had no extradition treaty. And because Biggs’s Brazilian girlfriend was pregnant with his child, the authorities were reluctant to hand him over to the British. As it turned out, he could live free in Brazil. Which he did, piecing together an odd existence: a hand-to-mouth lifestyle punctuated by the occasional paid appearance and songwriting collaboration with the Sex Pistols. Yes, really. If you don’t believe me, click the link. If you dare.

And that’s when the story gets weird. In 1981, a band of kidnappers decided they would snatch Biggs and auction him off to the highest bidder. They grabbed him off the street in Rio, spirited him away to a yacht waiting off the coast, and then sailed for Barbados. After the Barbados Coast Guard apprehended the boat, Biggs ended up in jail again. A local magistrate first ruled that he would be returned to British authorities, but after successfully appealing the decision, Biggs returned to Rio. He then became a stage father, managing the career of his six-year-old son, who had been discovered while doing a song-and-dance routine on Brazilian television.

In 2001, after the 71-year-old Biggs had a severe stroke, he decided to return to England. He explained that: “I am a sick man. My last wish is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter.” After arriving in London, Biggs surrendered to the authorities. He remains in a British prison to this day.

And yes, I know this is an odd post. Blame my friend Zach, who requested some Brazilian history. I’m staying with him right now, so I figured this was the least I could do. Plus, nothing else happened on this day in history. Check for yourself.

* First to catch the allusion wins, well, nothing at all. Sorry, I’m out of prizes.

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