Page last updated at 17:21 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 18:21 UK

Profile: Ronnie Biggs

Ronnie Biggs at the Rio de Janeiro carnival
Biggs escaped to Brazil, which had no extradition treaty with the UK

The Ronnie Biggs being freed on compassionate grounds is a very different man to the one who entered custody shortly after taking part in the Great Train Robbery.

Now 79, Biggs was imprisoned in 1964 for his part in the infamous robbery, but the walls of Wandsworth prison could not contain him for long.

Just 15 months after he began a 30-year jail sentence, he used a rope ladder to clamber over to begin a life on the run.

But the aged Biggs is no longer blessed with such agility. His lawyers say he has recently suffered two strokes and has facial paralysis, which means he cannot speak or eat.

In a statement issued from Norwich prison in 2007, he said he had "been in jail for a long time and I want to die a free man".

He has been behind bars once again ever since the Sun newspaper flew him back to Britain from his sanctuary in Brazil in 2001.

But his life before then, said Biggs, "had not been an easy ride over the years".

"Even in Brazil I was a prisoner of my own making," he said.

Biggs's parole denial is the latest in a long series of events that have marked him out as one of Britain's most famous escapees.

It is more than 45 years since he and his gang stole £2.6m from the Glasgow to London mail train, but Ronnie Biggs has seldom been out of the news.

His escape from prison boosted his profile from a bit-part player in the robbery to a celebrity fugitive.

My last wish is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter
Ronnie Biggs

And his success at evading recapture for so long drew a sort of fascinated admiration from the British press and its readers.

Less publicised was the fate of one of Biggs's victims - train driver Jack Mills who was coshed by an unknown gang member, and who never fully recovered from his injuries.

In April 1965, Biggs scaled the wall at London's Wandsworth prison with a home-made rope ladder and dropped on to a waiting removal van.

Biggs initially fled to Paris, with his wife Charmian and two sons, Farley and Chris.

He had plastic surgery and then moved to Australia. But when Scotland Yard tracked him down he escaped to Brazil, which had no extradition treaty with the UK.

In 1974 Scotland Yard detective Jack Slipper, who spent his career tracking Biggs, managed to arrest him in Rio de Janeiro

But once again Biggs managed to evade British justice.

This time he successfully argued against extradition because he had fathered a son by a Brazilian girlfriend, having started proceedings to divorce his English wife.

Evading the law

Biggs avoided arrest again in 1977 when he attended a drinks party on board a British frigate docked in Rio.

And four years later he was kidnapped by a gang of ex-British soldiers who smuggled him to Barbados by boat.

Yet again, however, he pulled off a Houdini-like escape and used extradition laws to get himself returned to Brazil.

In 1997 the British government tried and failed again to get Biggs extradited.

Ronnie Biggs
Ronnie Biggs was in his mid-30s when he went on the run

Biggs's notoriety meant he was able to regularly charge newspapers for the "scoop" that he was coming home.

He even attracted the attention of the Sex Pistols, who used him as a vocalist.

He remained unrepentant about his crime.

"I don't regret the fact that I was involved in the train robbery," he said in 1997.

"As a matter of fact I'm quite pleased with the idea that I was involved in it... because it's given me a little place in history... I've made a mark for myself.

"My poor old dad used to say to me, 'I know you'll make good one day'. Well I made good in a curious way, I suppose. I became infamous."

It was the Sun that finally brought Biggs home in May 2001, when he was very ill.

'Last wish'

A statement issued by his son Michael said his father "fearing that the end of his life is close... has chosen to voluntarily return to this country".

"My father took this decision knowing that he would be arrested and imprisoned," Michael added.

I am an old man and often wonder if I truly deserve the extent of my punishment
Ronnie Biggs

Biggs and his family denied that he had returned to the UK solely to seek free health care.

Through his son he told a newspaper: "My last wish is to walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter."

On his return Biggs was immediately arrested and taken to high-security Belmarsh Prison to serve the remaining years of his original sentence.

In 2002, he married Raimunda Rothen, the mother of his son Michael.

Biggs's health then worsened but in 2005 the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, declined Biggs's appeal for release, because his illnesses were not deemed terminal.

However two years later Biggs was moved from Belmarsh prison to Norwich prison on "compassionate grounds".

In December 2007, Biggs issued a further appeal asking to be released: "I am an old man and often wonder if I truly deserve the extent of my punishment. I have accepted it and only want freedom to die with my family and not in jail."

In February 2009 Biggs fell ill with pneumonia, prompting fresh calls for his release on compassionate grounds.

In July his parole was denied by Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who said the Great Train Robber was "wholly unrepentant" about his actions, and had "outrageously courted the media" during his many years on the run.

However Mr Straw has now reversed his decision, citing medical evidence that Biggs's condition has deteriorated and he was not expected to recover.

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Timeline: Ronnie Biggs
06 Aug 09 |  UK

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