Scotland Yard's 'Slipper' Dies at 81

Melissa Block talks with journalist Duncan Campbell of the British newspaper The Guardian about detective Jack Slipper, who cracked the Great Train Robbery case. Slipper died earlier this week at the age of 81. He had suffered from cancer and a stroke.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

He was known as Slipper of the Yard, Jack Slipper, one of Scotland Yard's most famous detectives. Slipper died this week in London at age 81. He's best known for his role doggedly tracking down the man who carried out the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Duncan Campbell is special correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. He used to cover crime. He describes that notorious crime and what happened next.

Mr. DUNCAN CAMPBELL (Special Correspondent, Guardian): It was 1963, and two and a half million pounds' worth of money was coming down from Glasgow to London to be destroyed because it was old money. The train was stopped by a faulty signal deliberately organized by a team of about 14 robbers. And they got on board, and they made off with all that money. And it looked, for a while, as though they'd got away with it. And at the time it was, and it remains, the most audacious crime in British criminal history.

BLOCK: And where did Jack Slipper come in?

Mr. CAMPBELL: He was then a young detective sergeant. He was one of a large team of officers who went off in hunt of the robbers. And they were pretty successful. They saw them all go to prison. And they got very long sentences for that time, 30 years.

BLOCK: Now one of these suspects, Ronnie Biggs, manages to escape from jail after 15 months. What happened?

Mr. CAMPBELL: That's right. He had some friends on the outside. It was a very daring escape from a horrible jail called Wandsworth Prison, and he made his way to Paris. He had some plastic surgery there, so he changed his face. And from there he went on with a new identity to Australia, met up with his family there. And then the police were looking for somebody else who was missing at the time, and neighbors said, `Oh, he looks a bit suspicious.' So he went on the run again to Brazil, and that's when he was finally tracked down by Jack Slipper.

BLOCK: Well, tell us this story. This sounds like something straight out of a movie--of how Jack Slipper, the detective, finds the escaped convict, Ronnie Biggs.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Ronnie Biggs was running out of money. He was living in Rio de Janeiro with his girlfriend Raimunda, who was a dancer--I think is the nicest description. And he was short of money, and the newspaper here had found out where he was and were offering him some money to talk to them. And to their shame, I think, the newspaper tipped off the police.

And so as the newspaper went out to meet him in the hotel, so, too, did Jack Slipper, who was--this is now 11 years after the train robbery. He's the last detective on the squad still working as a police officer, so he knew Ronnie Biggs, and, therefore, he was the ideal person to bring him back. And he knocked on the door of the hotel room in Rio, having been tipped off by the press, and said the immortal words of `Long time no see, Ronnie,' and tried to arrest him.

What happened then was that it turned out that Ronnie's girlfriend Raimunda was pregnant. Under a loophole in the Brazilian law, if you're a father or a potential father of a Brazilian citizen, you can't be extradited. So Jack Slipper had to make a long and lonely journey home, and there's a famous picture of him sitting on that flight back with an empty seat beside him.

BLOCK: It seems that Jack Slipper was troubled by the fact that he would be remembered for this Great Train Robbery episode, which didn't end terribly happily for him, and not for some of the other high-profile cases that he handled over the years.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, he didn't hold grudges. He actually went back to Rio years later for--courtesy another newspaper and had a reunion with Ronnie Biggs. And Ronnie Biggs is now back in this country. He got ill in Brazil, and he decided he didn't want to die out there. So he gave himself up four years ago. He's now in prison and fairly close to death, according to Michael Biggs, his son. Slipper said he hoped that Biggs wouldn't die in prison, and he hoped that he would outlast Biggs, so that he could prove that his way of life was a healthier one than Biggs. But that was not to be.

BLOCK: Well, Duncan Campbell, thanks for talking with us with your memories of Detective Jack Slipper.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: Duncan Campbell of the Guardian newspaper talking about Jack Slipper. The retired Scotland Yard detective died this week. He was 81.

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