The last Rio run

Jack Straw announced last week that he would ask Brazil to extradite Ronald Biggs. Biggs has said his running days are over - but he has fooled everyone before. We revisit an earlier chapter in the saga of the Great Train Robbery
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It was the greatest Fleet Street caper of all time and, some would say, the biggest cock-up too. The year was 1974 and Ronnie Biggs, then as now Britain's most famous fugitive, was tired of doing the lambada. For a price - and the right paper - he might be willing to return to Wandsworth nick to serve his remaining time. Or so he confided one steamy night in Rio to Count Constantine Benckendorff, an Old Etonian White Russian nobleman who had little idea who Biggs was and even less idea how to flog his exclusive story.

Twenty-three years on, what happened next and, more importantly, who is to blame is still a source of considerable controversy. For old Fleet Street hands - like Brian Hitchen, the former editor of the Daily Star and then news editor of the Daily Express, and Colin MacKenzie, the Express reporter who landed the so-called "scoop of the century" - the wounds have still not healed. Others who were to play a supporting role in the unfolding drama - such as Anthea Disney, the chief executive of Harper Collins, New York, and then a feature writer on the Express's rival, the Daily Mail - have gone on to bigger and better things. But for Hitchen and MacKenzie it is as if Lord Beaverbrook were still signing their expenses chits. Even Biggs' old adversary, big Jack Slipper of the Yard, aged 73 and generally magnanimous in retirement in Harrow, could not resist a dig at his old Fleet Street sparring partners.

"I don't believe Biggs ever intended to give himself up," says Slipper, still clearly irked by the suggestion that he "slipped up" in Rio in 1974. "Remember, we are talking about a man who wouldn't even turn up for his own son's funeral in Australia."

The event that brought back memories of those hot-tempered days was the announcement last week by Jack Straw, Home Secretary, that he will be asking Brazil to return Biggs when a new extradition treaty with that country comes into force next month. At first Biggs' response was that he would fight extradition, but if the Brazilians deemed that he should return to Britain then so be it. True to form, by the end of the week, however, Biggs had subtly changed his tune. This is the man who after robbing pounds 2.6m from a Glasgow to London mail coach in 1963 and being jailed for 30 years, hopped over the wall at Wandsworth two years later, had a facelift and fled to Australia. In 1970 he caught a liner to Brazil and has been there ever since.

"I UNDERSTAND people are saying they do not want me back now because I would be a burden on the taxpayer," said Biggs from his home in Rio on Friday. "It's laughable. If I am deported I would try not to return to England. I would rather go to another country."

It's starting to sound like 1974 again. When Colin MacKenzie and Express photographer Bill Lovelace caught up with Biggs in February of that year, after pursuing him from Rio to Brasilia, and challenged him to honour the deal he had struck with the Express, Biggs' legendary response was: "You're two nice guys but you work for a grubby organ. And organ's the right word."

By now Biggs was in the custody of the Brazilian federal police, not Scotland Yard as the Express had planned, and his girlfriend, Raimundo, was insisting he couldn't leave because she was about to bear his child. As Biggs said at the time: "I wanted to give myself up. That is why I contacted Mr MacKenzie, but it turned sour. Now Brazil has taken over. If I don't get extradited I will fight expulsion."

It hadn't just turned sour, it was a mess. By now Biggs was being pursued not just by MacKenzie but by the whole of Fleet Street and the Australian press too. Without telling MacKenzie, Brian Hitchen had dispatched the Express's assistant editor Brian Vine to Rio to help write the memorable splash, "Train Robber Biggs Captured In Rio... Our Men Are There", followed by several reinforcements. David English, then editor of the Daily Mail, retaliated by sending his veteran New York correspondent Dermot Purgavie and photographer Mike Brennan, followed by Anthea Disney. To add to the confusion, the BBC ordered its Washington correspondent, John Humphrys, to the scene and a young reporter, Martin Bell. Not to be outdone, ITN sent in its roving foreign correspondent, Michael Brunson.

It could all have been so different. When Biggs first confided in Count Benckendorff his plan had been for the count to approach any paper but the Express, which Biggs saw had done a "hatchet job" on his fellow Great Train Robber, Charlie Wilson, and wasn't to be trusted. Unfortunately, the only journalist Benckendorff knew was MacKenzie, a former diary writer on the William Hickey column and Express foreign correspondent. When Benckendorff told MacKenzie about Biggs' proposition, he couldn't believe his luck.

"There were only two other stories at the time that compared," recalls MacKenzie, now the senior racing correspondent on the Daily Mail. "Getting an interview with Howard Hughes or Martin Boorman, and the Express had just got its fingers badly burned on Boorman."

Unfortunately, MacKenzie did not realise at the time just how badly. If he had, he might not have informed Vine, his superior, or indeed, Ian McColl, the Express's editor, about Biggs. MacKenzie already had his doubts about the Express's ability to keep the news of Biggs' whereabouts secret. Besides, it was his scoop and he hoped to negotiate an exclusive deal with a publisher.

"I had already been speaking to Biggs on the phone for three or four weeks before I approached Vine. We had struck a deal that we would pay pounds 35,000 to his wife, Charmian, in Australia, write his story and then hand him over to Scotland Yard."

However, according to Tony Delano, author of Slip-Up, the book that so irked Jack Slipper, McColl and Hitchen saw things differently. "Basically, they had no confidence in Colin's ability to handle the story," says Delano. Unknown to MacKenzie, the Express had paid pounds 50,000 for the Boorman "scoop" only to discover they had wrongly identified a schoolteacher in Buenos Aires as Martin Boorman. McColl was determined to avoid similarly costly errors in the future. Without telling MacKenzie, McColl informed Scotland Yard that Biggs was in Brazil.

By the time MacKenzie discovered his secret had been betrayed it was too late and he had no choice but to go along with McColl and Hitchen's plan. Slipper and his Flying Squad colleague Peter Jones would accompany MacKenzie and Lovelace to Rio but hold off arresting Biggs until the Express had its front-page scoop. Originally the idea was to run the story on a Monday when it would have the maximum impact. In the event, Scotland Yard brought the arrest forward to Friday, meaning a Saturday publication date. But such was the scale of its scoop, the Express printed more than 4 million copies.

On the day, MacKenzie played his part perfectly. He was to interview Biggs and then, when Slipper burst in to arrest him, act as though it was a big surprise. But Slipper, who in tropical suit and sandals cut a comical figure as The Plod Abroad, had miscalculated: he had informed the Rio police of his intentions but not the all-important federales who controlled the airport. No sooner did Slipper have his quarry in custody than Biggs was taken from him and put in a Brazilian holding cell.

With the help of Brian Vine - who had been sent to Biggs' flat to collect his letters and personal possessions - MacKenzie met his deadline and scooped the world. But he would not catch up with Biggs again until he was in a federal police cell in Brasilia several days later. By which point, of course, the rest of the hack pack had descended on Brazil and Biggs had decided who the real villains were. Reunited with Charmian, he preferred to talk to anyone but the Express, and particularly to the Mail's Anthea Disney, who played brilliantly on the rivalry between Charmian and Biggs' girlfriend, Raimundo.

There were several more "scoops" to be had before the saga played itself out, but the best came when Mike Brennan, the Mail photographer, caught Slipper napping on the return flight to Lisbon beside an empty seat. The implication was clear: the Yard had dismally failed to get its man. "I did not enjoy myself in Rio de Janeiro," admitted Slipper on his return, with classic understatement.

However, to this day, Slipper insists he did everything right. Scotland Yard and the Home Office were fully informed from the start and if anyone was to blame for not clearing Biggs' departure with the Brazilian authorities he says it was the British consulate in Rio. In Slipper's view, to try and extradite Biggs today would be a pointless exercise as British prisons are already overcrowded enough. "Personally, I'd leave him there," he says.

MacKenzie agrees. On his return to Britain he wrote a bestselling book and then felt so guilty about the way the Express had treated Biggs that he agreed to split the royalties. He still believes that the Express was wrong to inform Scotland Yard and feels betrayed by Hitchen, insisting that Biggs would have gone along with his plan to hand himself in. "He would have done his bird and be a free man by now," says MacKenzie.

However, Hitchen, who now has his own media consultancy and lectures occasionally on the QE2, insists that whatever the merits of MacKenzie's plan he could never have swung it alone. And guess what? He also feels sorry for Biggsy.

"HE'S been on the run for 34 years. To my knowledge in all that time he's never been caught breaking the law. If anyone has reformed, it's him. I see no point in retribution now."

But the final word in this sorry tale surely belongs to Ronnie. Just call him up (he's still listed in the Rio phone directory under "R Biggs"). Since settling in Brazil, he's posed nude for Playboy, written two books and generally had a good time taunting the British authorities. But now in his 68th year (his birthday is on Friday) he is reduced to entertaining tourists for a living and cuts a sorry figure. Does he still harbour a grudge?

"There's no bitterness, but I often think of the way things might have turned out if the Express had gone along with the arrangement," he says. "I would have done my time and could be making one now with Bruce Reynolds [one of the 12 train robbers] in the line-up for the dole."

Making one? "That's villains' talk," jokes Biggs. "It means we could be planning another robbery together."