Michael Biggs: The end of the line for a dutiful son?

In May, Michael Biggs brought his ailing father, Ronnie, back to Britain - and captivity; now the youngest son of the Great Train Robber faces deportation to Brazil, he tells Julia Stuart

Monday 03 December 2001 01:00

Michael Biggs, the son of Ronnie, the Great Train Robber, is a man often in tears. As he talks, his eyes fill up, the salty pools suddenly cascading down his cheeks. He repeatedly brushes them into his dark sideburns with one hand, while the other fiddles incessantly with the top of a mineral water bottle. It's not quite what you would expect from the handsome young Brazilian son of Britain's most famous criminal.

Michael, who is 27, has been in London since May, when his father spectacularly returned to this country from Rio de Janeiro, having spent almost 36 years on the run. Not wanting to die a fugitive, his last wish was to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of beer. Many believed the ailing crook was simply returning to take advantage of British health care. Either way, he was instantly arrested and sent to Belmarsh Prison, in south-east London. Michael, who has both a young family and a job as a musician back in Brazil, has been renting a small flat in London ever since.

Today, at an Immigration Appellate Authority hearing, Michael will learn whether he will be forced to leave the country. When he first came to Britain he was given temporary admission, which has been extended to January as he is appealing, on human rights grounds, for permission to stay in the country while he campaigns for his father's sentence to be reduced. Should he lose, he will appeal further.

At the start of the hearing on Friday, Michael told immigration officials that his visits to his father, currently at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, south-east London, were the highlight of the old man's day. "Even if he's feeling tired or dizzy or sick he always tries to look his best for me," says Michael. "I put his teeth in for him, cut his nails and generally try to make him feel better in himself." James Gillespie, Michael's barrister, says there was a "close emotional dependency" between the two men.

When we meet, Michael describes the time he has spent in London as "psychological hell". The uncertainty is the worst, not knowing if he will be forced to leave, or how long his father will have to serve. He desperately misses his girlfriend, Veronica, a psychologist, and their daughter, Ingrid, who will be two in January.

Then there is the famously precarious state of Ronnie's health. Now 72, Biggs has suffered a third stroke since returning to Britain, and has three stomach ulcers. He is now on his fourth stay in hospital, and last week underwent an operation to insert a feeding tube into his stomach. He now communicates using a spelling board. "My father will never be able to speak again, or have an unaided life again," Michael explains. "He's very frail, though his mind is working 100 per cent. He always manages to cheer me up." Michael, who visits his father daily, doesn't even know whether Ronnie will make it to Christmas.

"I don't like to think about it," he says meekly, slowly breaking the rim of the bottle top into tiny pieces. Nevertheless, funeral arrangements have already been discussed. Biggs would like his ashes to be divided and scattered in London, Australia (where he spent four years on the run with his first family) and Rio.

It would be a fitting end to the sorry story that began in 1963, when Biggs was part of a gang that stole £2.6m from the Glasgow-to-London mail train. Biggs's share was £147,000. What turned the caper into something far darker was that, during the raid, the train driver, Jack Mills, was hit with an iron bar by a gang member. Mills later died – though "nobody ever mentions that it was seven years afterwards, and of lymphatic leukaemia and pneumonia", says Michael. But equally, Michael himself fails to mention that Mills died a broken man, having never fully recovered from the attack. Mills's own son, John, is adamant that Biggs's sentence should not be reduced. "All the others had to do their time and so should he," he has said. "I have nothing but contempt for the man. He committed a crime and he must pay for it. He destroyed my father's life and I want him to die in prison."

Biggs was sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy and 30 years for robbery, the sentences to run concurrently. He escaped in 1965, however, having only served 15 months. Many would find Michael's insistence that his father was "literally pushed over the wall" by the pressure of being closely guarded 24-hours-a-day laughable.

Biggs fled to Paris where he underwent plastic surgery to disguise his appearance. He then slipped into Australia with his wife Charmian and their two sons, Nicky and Christopher. The couple went on to have another son, Farley. For four years the family lived under false names. Then, fearing that he was about to be caught, Biggs fled to Brazil, alone, with just $200.

"He lost all the money escaping; within a year he was broke," says Michael. "You have to buy people's silence, you've got to buy passports. That's the irony of the whole thing, he ended up with nothing." A year later Nicky, Biggs's eldest son, died in a car crash.

In 1974, Biggs was arrested by Scotland Yard's Chief Supt Jack Slipper. While in prison, he learnt that under Brazilian law he could not be extradited because his then girlfriend, Raimunda Rothen, a stripper, was four weeks' pregnant with Michael. "He told my mother to get rid of me after he was arrested," says Michael. "He said, 'I'm going down for a long time so you might as well get rid of that child because I can't be a father to it'. That's when another prisoner told him that if he had a Brazilian child he could stay. The chief of police then told my mum that if she was expecting a child to have it because it would keep Ronnie in the country."

But when Michael was 11 months old, Raimunda walked out on Ronald Biggs and moved to Europe.

"I think she never forgave my father for lying to her," says Michael. Biggs had told her he was Mike Haynes, the name of a friend who had given him his passport in Australia so he could leave the country. Raimunda and Biggs got back together for a couple of years in the Eighties, but split up again. She now lives in Switzerland and sees her son once a year.

Not permitted to work in Rio, Biggs earned his money as a self-confessed "tabloid whore". "Tabloid reporters would come over and say, 'Here's £1,000, raise your glass to the Queen.' If you've got a hungry child in the house, what are you going to do? Are you going to think about honour and respect for the government that sentenced you to 30 years?" asks Michael.

In 1981 Biggs was kidnapped by "a bunch of British commandos", according to Michael, and taken to Barbados where he was held for 40 days. Michael appealed for his return on television. That was when the head of CBS Records in Brazil spotted him and invited him to join a children's pop group. Michael was six when he joined the Magic Balloon Gang. "Within a year and a half we had sold 200,000 albums. It just went mad. We had our own television programme from Monday to Friday from 8am to 12noon for four years; we toured for three years non-stop; we had the private planes and the screaming kids outside the hotels." Success also bought father and son a yacht, a restaurant and disco – even a private island.

But by 13, Michael's career had flagged, and all that was gone. "We were broke, so my father had to start the Ronnie Biggs experience again, receiving tourists and portraying the image that he was having a good time. Our phone number and address is in the Lonely Planet guide to Brazil. There were times when we had 30 or 40 people at the house. They'd have a barbecue and a drink, paying about $60 each, and spend three or four hours with my father, listening to his stories and taking his photograph." Still, whatever picture Michael paints of his father's tiresome life in Rio, it was certainly preferable to one spent in prison.

It was Michael who arranged for his father to return to Britain, courtesy of The Sun newspaper. He refuses to stipulate how much the tabloid paid him, but says the money is being spent on the campaign to reduce his father's sentence. "But the way things are going, pretty soon I'll be broke," he says.

Indeed, things are not looking good. The petition only has 2,000 signatures, and last month the Criminal Cases Review Commission made a provisional decision not to refer Biggs's case back to the Court of Appeal, which would in turn determine whether to reduce the sentence. Assuming that it sticks to this decision, Michael's team of lawyers will submit an appeal. Michael says his father has no regrets about coming back. "He's very confident that the British justice system will realise that 55 years was far too excessive for an unarmed robbery."

Does Michael regret his decision to bring his father back? "Personally? Every second of my life," he says, tears rolling again. "But I couldn't live with myself if the man who gave me everything asked me for help and I said no.

"People have to understand that this was not about money or medical treatment. It's about justice being done. He didn't want to die a fugitive. He wanted to come back to Britain, he wanted to go down fighting. He didn't want to be remembered as a sick old man who died in Brazil, a lonely old train robber." But if his legal team fails to pull a surprise rabbit out of its hat, Biggs may well die a sick, lonely old train-robber in jail, albeit a British one.

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