Ronnie Biggs, a British thief with a roguish streak who had a minor role in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, one of the more flamboyant crimes in modern history, and who became one of the world’s most wanted and unrepentant fugitives, died Wednesday in London. He was 84.

The death was confirmed by his daughter-in-law, Veronica Biggs, who did not provide a cause.

Ronnie Biggs suffered from pneumonia and other ailments that led the government to grant him compassionate release from prison in August 2009. He had turned himself in to British authorities in 2001 after 36 years on the run.

Biggs, who fashioned himself as “the last of the gentleman crooks,” spent much of his life brashly evading and taunting Scotland Yard, first from Australia and later from Brazil.

To his most devoted followers, he was a folk hero who symbolized rebellion against authority. He recorded with the British punk rock band the Sex Pistols on its single “No One is Innocent,” sold T-shirts of himself and even made a TV commercial for a Brazilian instant coffee company. His pitch: “When you are on the run, like I am all the time, you really appreciate a good, satisfying cup of coffee.”

Biggs became an international celebrity, flaunting his freedom for as long as he could after undermining attempts by Scotland Yard to have him extradited to Britain. He was, to his many detractors, a menace: part of a gang whose daring August 1963 robbery of a Glasgow-to-London mail train netted them what today would be more than $50 million. Biggs’ role was limited to finding a substitute train driver to take over the controls during the robbery.

During the crime, the real train driver, Jack Mills, was hit on the head with an iron bar, was never again able to work and died several years later. Biggs later expressed regret for any role he played in the death of Mills. Police soon rounded up nearly all the suspects, but the money was never recovered.

The robbery became known as the “heist of the century” and brought its participants a lifetime of publicity. Biggs made the most of it.

Ronald Arthur Biggs was born in London on Aug. 8, 1929, to a hotel cook. He endured a two-year separation from his family during the German wartime blitz, and the death of his mother shortly after the family was reunited in 1942.

He was a petty thief as a child and stole from rubble piles created by Nazi bombs. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1947 and appeared for a while to respond well to the discipline, becoming an expert in food preparation.

Then, in 1949, he was dishonorably discharged after robbing a chemist’s shop while AWOL.

At 27, Biggs married Charmian Powell, a decade his junior. She was the church-going daughter of a middle-class family and had been charmed by his attention, notably playing Ella Fitzgerald records for her. She stole money from her parents in what she called a “test” of her affection for him, but the money did not last.

In need of cash, Biggs visited an old jailhouse friend, Bruce Reynolds, a London antiques dealer who had a sideline in thievery. Reynolds flattered Biggs and told him of his plan for a rail robbery that would involve more than 12 men.

The only person missing was a train driver, and Biggs solved the problem: He was doing carpentry work for a retired train driver. That driver, known only as “Peter,” became the only member of the crew to escape arrest.

On the night of the robbery, Aug. 8, 1963, the gang altered the railroad signals and climbed aboard the stopped train in rural Buckinghamshire. It turned out that Peter was unable to figure out the complex control panel and could not take the train to a less-visible location. The criminals quickly divvied up their spoils – Biggs’ cut was reportedly $350,000 – and scattered.

Biggs’ fingerprints matched those found at the gang’s farmhouse hideaway, and he was quickly arrested. After his conviction for the train robbery, Biggs was indignant about his 30-year sentence and vowed to escape from the maximum-security prison in which he was being held.

In July 1965, he and three other convicts tackled unarmed guards as they made a daytime escape from Wandsworth prison near London. Pursued by bounty hunters, Biggs went to France for plastic surgery and to see the Folies Bergere. Under a false name, he then fled to Australia and soon summoned his wife and three sons.

Under threat of arrest, he left his family in 1969 and moved to Brazil. In March 1981, British mercenaries came after him in a Rio bar. They bound and gagged him, wrapped him in a sack labeled “Live Snake,” and sped him by yacht to Barbados, a former British colony.

The Barbados Supreme Court ordered his release, and Biggs announced: “It’s back to Brazil! Champagne for everyone!”

Gradually, Biggs longed even more for home. Once a man whose public statements veered from swagger to pity for Scotland Yard, he began to redefine his public image.

He sent an e-mail and thumbprint to Scotland Yard. In 2001, a London tabloid paid for his flight to Britain, where he expected lenient treatment, perhaps even a pardon from the queen. He got neither and was spirited away to Belmarsh jail in London to serve the remainder of his term.

As Biggs’ health worsened, his lawyers repeatedly sought his release on humanitarian grounds. He was unexpectedly freed in August 2009, as his 80th birthday approached, after the government granted him a compassionate release.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.