Ronnie Biggs on Brink of Freedom; Train Robber May Be out by July after Probation Service Backing

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen Wright Crime Editor

RONNIE Biggs was close to freedom last night after he was recommended for early release from prison by the Probation Service.

Seriously ill after a series of strokes, the 79- year-old Great Train Robber poses a low risk of reoffending, said probation officials.

Once freed, he will have 24-hour nursing care at the expense of the taxpayer and is likely to live in a care home close to his son in North London.

Biggs was locked up when he returned to Britain in 2001 after three decades on the run in Australia and Brazil. Confidential probation reports were leaked yesterday as a three-strong Parole Board panel met in London to consider Biggs's application for early release.

The final decision rests with Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who will consider the case after he has received the Parole Board's own report. But speculation was mounting that the Parole Board will recommend that Biggs be freed in July, when he will have served one third of his total sentence, in time to celebrate his 80th birthday in August.

The former playboy was sentenced to 30 years for his part in the robbery of a Glasgow to London mail train in August 1963 when a 15-strong gang made off with [pounds sterling]2.6million in used banknotes - worth [pounds sterling]40million today.

The train was stopped at a set of signals which the gang had switched.

Driver Jack Mills got out to investigate and was coshed with an iron bar and knocked senseless. He never returned to work and died in 1970 of an unrelated illness.

Biggs has always insisted he did not attack Mr Mills.

After only 15 months behind bars, Biggs escaped from Wandsworth prison by scaling a wall with a rope ladder and jumping on to an open-top furniture van with a mattress inside.

Following his return to Britain in 2001, he was imprisoned in Belmarsh high security jail in South-East London before being switched to Norwich Prison.

A probation officer who assessed Biggs this month said in her leaked report that he was 'suitable for early release on parole licence to a suitable provision with a full care package in place to manage his health needs'.

The document notes that Biggs has in the past sought to play on his celebrity status and this could lead to an issue of 'risk management' in the community he ends up living in.

The papers show that when asked if he had any regrets Biggs said: 'Positive'.

The probation officer goes on to say 'it was difficult to ascertain whether he was referring to his life in general, or specifically the commission of the offence, although I gained the impression that this was meant in the context of having no regrets in general'.

Biggs has had three strokes, can communicate only with the aid of an alphabet board and is fed through a tube in his stomach.

The report says: 'In order to respond to questions, Mr Biggs relies upon the use of gestures and spelling out words using a page of letters of the alphabet.

'Due to his level of impairment, communication was extremely difficult. …