Legendary Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, who has died aged 84, once played host in Brazil to a Cornish businessman who had “broken out of jail” in order to meet him.
John Rogers, of Scorrier, a former president of Redruth Chamber of Commerce, helped smash a charity fund-raising record in the process.
John died in September this year, aged 70, after a long illness, but he lived just long enough to see publication of his autobiography, “A Fighter All The Way,” ghost-written by former West Briton reporter Mike Truscott.
In these extracts from his book, John recalls his trip to Rio de Janeiro in May, 1990, to sample the new life of one of Britain’s most notorious criminals. Biggs was then still “on the run” from British justice after escaping from prison.
“I belonged to a very different ‘gang.’ There were three of us – myself, Phil Williams and David Hatton who, every year for several years, took part in the annual ‘Dartmoor Jailbreak.’
“Prior to the 29th such event in 2012, more than £610,000 had been raised since 1984 by teams participating in this ‘Jailbreak’ in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways, and involving some remarkable distances.
“Our own team must have raised some £10,000 in this way. We called ourselves ‘The Local Businessmen’ – and we were also dubbed ‘The Brazil Nuts’ when it came to our escape to Rio de Janeiro and the meeting with Ronnie B.
“It all came about after I had phoned a contact of mine in London, asking him if he could get in touch with the famous man. I didn’t hear anything for a month. Then, one evening, my wife Christine took a phone call from a man describing himself as a friend of Ronnie Biggs.
“He was not the guy I had originally contacted (to whom I had already explained why I wanted to see Ronnie.) I took over the conversation and this man, unrecognized by me and speaking with a gruff voice, asked me: ‘Wadya wanna see ‘im for?’
“I explained it all over again. I was told to send some paperwork – brochures, documents etc about the ‘Escape’ event, to confirm the authenticity of the whole thing. The caller gave me two addresses for this purpose, in London and Rio. Ronnie was understandably very, very wary about any kind of approach from an unfamiliar quarter.
“I received a letter direct from Ronnie, instructing me to book a certain hotel in Rio for the three of us in the Jailbreak team to stay, explaining that a taxi would then turn up at a certain time and take us to see him at his home.
“And that is exactly what happened. Well, almost. David Hatton had an attack of the runs on the day in question and so had to stay behind in the hotel, which was a bit tragic for him.
“We flew out to Brazil, as part of that Jailbreak event, and ended up spending a day with Ronnie and his son Michael, then 15. Ronnie’s home was a villa built on a hillside in a very upmarket area of Rio, with panoramic views of the city around and below it.
“Father and son came outside to greet us – myself and Phil Williams. Despite their high security awareness, there were no electrically-operated gates or anything like that. We chatted all day, including lunch as their guests.
“Ronnie’s Brazilian wife, Raimunda de Castro, was not at home, so we never got to meet her. Ronnie had a good sense of humour and was clearly very aware of all that was going on in the world, speaking very intelligently and possessing a large number of books, notably on politics.
“But he didn’t make a single reference to that Great Train Robbery. I used to know people like that in London – you had to think long and hard before you asked them about anything that was especially sensitive, and in the final analysis discretion was usually the better part of valour.
“As far as Ronnie was concerned, I took the view that he would have mentioned it if he had wanted to; otherwise, best left alone.
“He struck me as genuinely very interested in the Dartmoor Jailbreak business, and throughout the day I recorded our time together with the aid of a video camera I had hired and brought over with me from the UK.
“Alas, this camera ‘mysteriously’ went missing when we were going through the baggage procedure at the Rio airport for our return, and we never saw it again.
“For most of our time together, we were outside on the balcony. It was a very muggy day, with temperatures well up into the 90s. My recollection is that the bungalow was very nice, very spacious and comfortable, but without being anything truly special – nothing ostentatious or more pointedly reflecting great wealth.
“Ronnie was a very down to earth character. I remember him speaking very nostalgically about his days as a schoolboy evacuee in the war in the Cornish village of Delabole. He recalled the name and the street where he spent two years and hoped he would be remembered by the friends he made there.
“Ronnie took us out to an island on his boat while we were there. I had my picture taken with a parrot on my shoulder, much to his amusement! We also played football on the famous Copacabana beach.
“Ronnie and Michael had fun signing some bank notes that they gave me. On a £5 note, Ronnie wrote: ‘John, keep up the good work, best wishes, Ronnie Biggs.’ On a £1 note, he put: ‘John, come back to Brazil an honest man!’ Michael chipped in with “Come back” written on a £10 note.
“And talking of money . . . our ‘Jailbreak’ to Rio raised £6,000 for the Cornwall Spastics Society.
“At the time, this was a new record – the most money ever raised by a team taking part in the event, beating the previous record by £1,500. We also came second for the team travelling the furthest distance.”