Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles
Sobhraj (born April 6, 1944), better known as
Charles Sobhraj, is a serial killer of Indian and
Vietnamese origin, who preyed on Western tourists
throughout Southeast Asia during the 1970s. Nicknamed "the
Serpent" and "the Bikini killer" for his skill at
deception and evasion, he allegedly committed at least
He was convicted and jailed in India
from 1976 to 1997, but managed to live a life of leisure
even in prison. After his release, he retired as a
celebrity in Paris; he unexpectedly returned to Nepal,
where he was arrested, tried and sentenced to life
imprisonment on August 12, 2004. The Supreme Court of
Nepal has finally convicted him and ordered the life
imprisonment, this decision was made on 30 July 2010.
While Sobhraj is widely believed to
be a psychopath — he has a manipulative personality and
is incapable of remorse — his motives for killing
differed from those of most serial killers. Sobhraj was
not driven to murder by deep-seated, violent impulses,
but rather for personal gain, as a means among many to
sustain his lifestyle of adventure. That lifestyle, as
well as his cunning and cultured personality, made him a
celebrity long before his release from prison. Sobhraj
immensely enjoyed the attention, charging large amounts
of money for interviews and film rights; his life has
already been the object of four books and three
documentaries. This search for attention and
overconfidence in his own intelligence are named as
causes of his unexpected return to one of the few places
on Earth where authorities were still willing and able
to arrest him, and his subsequent downfall.
Sobhraj was born Gurmukh Sobhraj
in Saigon to an unwed Vietnamese mother and an Indian (Sindhi)
father who soon deserted the family, for which the
mother blamed the child. Stateless at first, he was then
adopted by his mother's new boyfriend, a French
lieutenant stationed in Indochina, but was not given as
much attention as the couple's later children. Moving
back and forth between France and Indochina with his
family, feeling at home in neither place, Sobhraj
developed discipline and personality problems growing up
and soon turned to petty crime as a teenager.
Sobhraj got his first jail sentence (for
burglary) in 1963 at Poissy prison near Paris. He
weathered the harsh detention conditions using a
combination of self-defense and manipulation. The latter
earned him special favors from prison officials, such as
keeping books in his cell, and endeared him to visitor
When paroled, Sobhraj moved in with
d'Escogne and shared his time between the high society
of Paris and the criminal underworld. He started to
accumulate money through a series of scams and
burglaries, and began a relationship with Chantal, a
woman from a conservative Parisian family. He was
arrested for evading police in a stolen car on the very
night he proposed to her, and sent back to Poissy for
eight months, while a supportive Chantal waited for him.
Sobhraj and Chantal were married upon
his release. Soon after, facing mounting suspicions by
French authorities, he and a now pregnant Chantal left
France for Asia to escape arrest. Traveling through
Eastern Europe using fake documents and robbing people
who befriended them, they arrived around 1970 in Bombay,
where Chantal gave birth to a baby girl.
The couple made a good impression on
the expatriate community in India, while Sobhraj resumed
his criminal lifestyle by running a car theft and
smuggling operation, the profits of which were plowed
into his growing gambling addiction. A botched armed
robbery at a jewelry store in Hotel Ashoka in 1973 led
to his arrest and imprisonment. Faking illness, he
escaped with Chantal's help, but both were captured
shortly after. Borrowing money from his father in Saigon
to bail them out, they fled India for Afghanistan.
In Kabul, the couple resumed their
habit of robbing tourists following the "hippie trail."
Arrested once again, Sobhraj escaped in a similar manner
as in India, pretending illness and drugging the
hospital guard, then fleeing to Iran, leaving his family
behind. Chantal, although still loyal to him, wanted to
leave their criminal past behind, and returned to France,
vowing to never see him again.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on
the run, using as many as 10 stolen passports and
visiting several countries in East Europe and the Middle
East. He was joined in Istanbul by his younger brother
André, who quickly became a pawn in many crimes in
Turkey and Greece; both were eventually arrested in
Athens. After an identity-switch plan gone awry, Sobhraj
escaped in his usual manner, leaving his brother to
serve an 18-year sentence after being turned over to the
Turkish police by Greek authorities.
On the run again, Sobhraj financed
his lifestyle by posing as a mysterious drug dealer to
impress tourists and defrauding them when they let their
guard down. In Thailand, he met Marie-Andrée Leclerc
from Lévis, Quebec, one of many tourists looking for
adventure in the East. Subjugated by Sobhraj's
personality, Leclerc quickly became his most devoted
follower, turning a blind eye to his crimes and
philandering with local women.
Sobhraj started gathering followers
by helping them out of difficult situations, indebting
them to him while he actually was the very cause of
their misery. In one case, he helped two former French
policemen, named Yannick and Jacques, to recover their
passports that he himself had stolen; in another, he
provided shelter and comfort to another Frenchman named
Dominique Rennelleau, whose apparent dysentery illness
was actually the results of poisoning by Sobhraj. He was
also joined by a young Indian named Ajay Chowdhury, a
fellow criminal who became his lieutenant. Sobhraj
wanted to start a criminal "family" of sorts, in the
style of Charles Manson's.
It was then that Sobhraj and
Chowdhury committed their first (known) murders in 1975.
Most of the victims had spent some time with the "clan"
before their deaths and were, according to some
investigators, potential recruits who had threatened to
expose Sobhraj. The first victim was a young woman from
Seattle, Teresa Knowlton, who was found burned like many
of Sobhraj's other victims. Soon thereafter, a young
American Jennie Bollivar, was found drowned in a tidal
pool in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a flowered bikini.
It was only months later that the autopsy and forensic
evidence revealed the drowning to be murder.
The next victim was a young, nomadic
Sephardic Jew named Vitali Hakim, whose burned body was
found on the road to the Pattaya resort where Sobhraj
and his clan were staying.
Dutch students Henk Bintanja, 29, and
his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25, were invited to
Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong. Just as he
had done to Dominique, Sobhraj poisoned them, and then
nurtured them back to health to gain their obedience. As
they recovered, Sobhraj was visited by his previous
victim Hakim's French girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou,
coming to investigate her boyfriend's disappearance.
Fearing exposure, Sobhraj and
Chowdhury quickly hustled the couple out; their bodies
were found strangled and burned on December 16, 1975.
Soon after, Carrou was found drowned in circumstances
similar to Jennie's, and wearing a similar-styled
swimsuit. Although the murders of both women were not
connected by investigations at the time, they would
later earn Sobhraj the nickname of "the bikini killer."
On December 18, the day the bodies of
Bintanja and Hemker were identified, Sobhraj and Leclerc
entered Nepal using the couple's passports. There they
met and, on December 21-22, murdered Canadian Laurent
Ormond Carrière, 26 and Californian Connie Bronzich, 29.
(The two victims were incorrectly identified in some
sources as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont.) Sobhraj
and Leclerc then returned to Thailand, once again using
their latest victims' passport before their bodies could
Upon his return to Thailand, Sobhraj
discovered that his three French companions had started
to suspect him, found documents belonging to the murder
victims, and fled to Paris after notifying local
Sobhraj then went to Calcutta, where
he murdered Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob for his passport,
and used it to move to Singapore with Leclerc and
Chowdhury, then to India and - rather boldly - back to
Bangkok in March 1976. There they were interrogated by
Thai policemen in connection with the murders, but
easily let off the hook because authorities feared that
the negative publicity accompanying a murder trial would
harm the country's tourist trade.
Not so easily silenced, however, was
Dutch embassy diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who was
investigating the murder of the two Dutch backpackers,
and suspected Sobhraj even though he did not know his
real name. Knippenberg started to build a case against
him, partly with the help of Sobhraj's neighbour. Given
police permission to conduct his own search of Sobhraj's
apartment (a full month after the suspect had left the
country), Knippenberg found a great deal of evidence,
such as victims' documents and poison-laced medicines.
He would from then on accumulate evidence against
Sobhraj for decades, despite the lack of cooperation by
The trio's next stop was in Malaysia,
where Chowdhury was sent on a gem-stealing errand, and
disappeared after giving the jewels to Sobhraj. No trace
of him was ever found, and it is widely believed that
Sobhraj murdered his former accomplice before leaving
with Leclerc to sell the jewels in Geneva.
Soon back in Asia, Sobhraj started
rebuilding his clan, starting in Bombay with two lost
Western women named Barbara Sheryl Smith and Mary Ellen
Eather. His next victim was Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon,
who succumbed to the poison intended to incapacitate him
during a robbery.
In July 1976 in New Delhi, Sobhraj
and the three women tricked a tour group of post-graduate
French students into accepting them as guides. He then
drugged them with pills which he pretended were anti-dysentery
medicine. However, when the drugs started acting too
quickly and the students started dropping unconscious
where they stood, three of them quickly realized what
was happening and overcame Sobhraj, leading to his
capture by police. During interrogation, Barbara and
Mary Ellen quickly cracked and confessed everything.
Sobhraj was charged with the murder of Solomon, and all
four were sent to Tihar prison outside New Delhi while
awaiting formal trial.
Conditions inside the notorious
prison were unbearable; both Barbara and Mary Ellen
attempted suicide during the two years before their
trial. Sobhraj, however, had entered with precious gems
concealed in his body and was experienced in bribing
captors and living comfortably in jail.
Sobhraj turned his trial into a show,
hiring and firing lawyers at whim, bringing in his
recently-paroled and still-loyal brother André to help,
and eventually going on a hunger strike. He was
nonetheless sentenced to 12 years in prison instead of
the expected death penalty. Leclerc was found guilty of
the drugging of the French students, then later paroled
and returned to Canada when she developed ovarian cancer.
She was still claiming her innocence, and reportedly
still loyal to Sobhraj, when she died at home in April
Sobhraj's systematic bribery of
prison guards at Tihar reached outrageous levels. He led
a life of luxury inside the jail, with TV, and gourmet
food, having befriended both the guards and the
prisoners. He would walk in and out of jail whenever he
wanted. Revelling in his notoriety, he gave interviews
to Western authors and journalists, such as Oz
magazine's Richard Neville in the late 1970s, and Alan
Dawson in 1984. He freely talked about his murders,
while never actually admitting to them, and pretended
that his actions were in retaliation against Western
imperialism in Asia, an excuse which most criminologists
find highly doubtful.
He also needed to find a way to
prolong his sentence, since the 20-year Thai arrest
warrant against him would still be valid on his intended
release date, leading to his deportation and almost
certain execution. So in March 1986, on his tenth year
in prison, he threw a big party for his prisoner and
guard friends and, having drugged them with sleeping
pills, walked out of the jail.
Sobhraj was quickly caught in Goa and
had his prison term prolonged by 10 years, just as he
had hoped. On February 17, 1997, 52-year old Sobhraj was
released, with most warrants, evidence and even
witnesses against him long lost. Without any country to
deport him to, Indian authorities let him return to
Celebrity and re-capture
Sobhraj then lived in the suburbs of
Paris, enjoying a comfortable retirement. He hired an
agent and charged thousands of dollars for interviews
and photographs, and upwards of $15 million for a movie
deal based on his life. Meanwhile, families of victims,
and investigators such as Knippenberg, despaired of
seeing justice served.
Then, on September 17, 2003, Sobhraj
was unexpectedly spotted by a journalist in a street of
Kathmandu and quickly reported to the local authorities.
He was arrested two days later by Nepalese police in the
casino of the Yak and Yeti hotel. On August 20, 2004,
the Kathmandu District Court sentenced him to life
imprisonment for the 1975 murders of Bronzich and
Carrière. Most of the evidence against him came from the
painstaking accumulation of documents by Knippenberg and
Sobhraj's motives for returning to
Nepal remain unknown, although arrogance and need for
attention likely had a part in it. He appealed the
conviction, claiming he was sentenced without trial. In
September, his lawyer announced Sobhraj's wife in France
would file a case against the French government before
the European Court of Human Rights, for refusing to
provide him with any assistance. His conviction was
confirmed in 2005 by Kathmandu's Court of Appeals.
In late 2007, news media reported
that Sobhraj's lawyer had appealed to the current French
president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for intervention with Nepal.
In 2008, Sobhraj announced his engagement to Nihita
Biswas (aged 20) from Nepal. On 7 July 2008, issuing a press release
through his fiancée Nihita, he claimed that he was never convicted of
murder by any court and asked the media not to refer to him as a serial
killer. Later, it was claimed that he married his fiancée on October 9,
2008, on the occasion of Bada Dashami, a Nepalese festival, in a much
famed, but not publicised, wedding that took place in the jail itself.
On the following day, Nepalese jail authorities
dismissed the claim of his marriage. They said that Nihita and her
family had been allowed to conduct a tika ceremony, along with the
relatives of hundreds of other prisoners. They further claimed that it
was not a wedding but part of the ongoing Dashain festival, when elders
put the vermilion mark on the foreheads of those younger to them to
signify their blessings.
In July 2010, the Supreme Court of Nepal postponed
the verdict on an appeal filed by Sobhraj against a district court's
verdict sentencing him to life imprisonment for the murder of American
backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975. Sobhraj had appealed against the
district court's verdict in 2006, calling it unfair and accusing the
judges of racism while handing out the sentence.
On July 30, 2010 the Nepalese Supreme Court upheld
the verdict issued by the district court in Kathmandu of a 20-year life
term for the murder of US citizen Connie Jo Bronzich and another year
plus a Rs 2,000 fine for using a fake passport to travel. The seizure of
all his properties was also ordered by the court. His mother-in-law/lawyer
and his wife, Nihita, expressed that they were dissatisfied with the
verdict and Thapa
claimed that Sobhraj had been "denied" justice.
Sobraj currently has another case pending against him
in the Bhaktapur district court for the murder of Laurent Armand
Carrière, a Canadian-born tourist.
In the episode "Slither," part of the
fifth season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the
character of Bernard Fremont (played by Michael York) is
clearly based on Charles Sobhraj. Fremont is killed (offscreen),
most likely by his former lover and accomplice Nicole
Wallace (played by Olivia d'Abo), who may have been
partly based on Leclerc or Chantal.
- Julie Clarke & Richard
Neville (1980). The Life and Serious Crimes of
Charles Sobhraj. Pan Macmillan. ISBN 0-330-27001-X.
- Thomas Thompson
(1979). Serpentine. Carroll & Graf Publishers.
- Julie Clarke & Richard
Neville (1989). Shadow of the Cobra. Penguin
Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0140129373.
- Farrukh Dhondy (2009).
The Bikini Murders. Harper Collins India
Charles Sobraj: The Tale of the Serpent
by Mark Gribben
Crime Does Pay
Imagine that you could
earn nearly a million dollars for every year you spent in prison with
the understanding that you would likely get out in the prime of your
life. Would you take that deal?
suppose you could live like royalty behind bars, in almost total
control, with guests free to come and go as they pleased, cellphones,
TV, gourmet food and fine wine to eat and drink. Would that make the
deal worth 20 years of your life?
For serial murderer
Charles Sobhraj, the idea of retiring to Paris and making $15 million
for a movie deal based on his life made spending more than two decades
in a notoriously corrupt Indian prison worthwhile. Sobhraj, a
Vietnamese-Indian by birth and French national by adoption, turned a
sentence for homicide in India into almost a life of leisure while at
the same time evading prosecution for a dozen murders in jurisdictions
that should have brought a death sentence.
He was a con man, jewel
thief, drug dealer and murderer, but one who lived a life of adventure
and intrigue that made him a media celebrity. He amassed enough money to
bribe his captors who provided him with amenities to make life in an
Indian prison more bearable. For most of his incarceration he had access
to typewriters, a television, refrigerator and a large library. That's
in addition to the drugs and food that he used to entertain and control
his fellow inmates in the prison that was supposed to be the harshest in
Even more vexing was the
idea that, at 52 years old, Sobhraj could walk out of Delhi's Tihar
prison, sign a $15 million deal for his life story and then charge the
media upwards of $5,000 an interview once he returned to Paris.
Not bad for a man who
was convicted of one homicide and accused of committing at least 10
more. Some authorities believe Sobhraj killed more than 20 unsuspecting
European and American tourists and pilgrims who journeyed to the Far
East and the subcontinent. Some came east in search of drugs and others
came in search of spiritual growth. Instead, they found Charles Sobhraj
and his gang of killers.
Sobhraj wanted to create
a family-like cult of sorts with himself as the father figure, says
Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who spent years trying to bring
Sobhraj to justice. Knippenberg said Sobhraj wanted to create "his own
family of Charles Manson-like characters, with himself as the father.
The ones he killed were the people who saw through his mask and who
tried to get away."
Today, you may be able
to find Charles Sobhraj idling away his days in a Paris bistro and for a
fee he may even sit down and talk about his life.
He has slipped easily
into the life of a celebrity, with mainstream publications willing to
pay for posed pictures of the murderer enjoying the good life. In the
words of his agent: "No money, no meeting."
The friends and
relatives of his victims only hope that karma -- the concept that says
the collective force of a man's actions dictates his destiny -- isn't
done yet with Charles Sobhraj.
Early childhood abuse,
injury to the brain -- usually the frontal lobes -- and extremely
indifferent or cruel parenting are often found in the backgrounds of
serial killers. But what made Charles Sobhraj evolve into a psychopath?
Could the constant travel back and forth between his natural parents and
the ensuing rejection be enough to drive a man to serial homicide?
Recent scientific research into the minds of psychopaths provides a
"Until the psychopath
came into focus, it was possible to believe that bad people were just
good people with bad parents or childhood trauma and that, with care,
you could talk them back into being good," writes journalist Robert
Hercz. “(Noted criminologist Bob Hare's research suggested that some
people behaved badly even when there had been no early trauma.")
A professor at the
University of British Columbia, Hare has spent years studying
psychopaths to try to address what has turned out to be a common malady.
Through decades of research, interviewing and conducting experiments on
some of society's most notorious criminals, Hare developed a commonly
used measurement scale to determine a subject's level of "psychopathy."
What he has learned is troubling.
"Hundreds of thousands
of psychopaths live and work and prey among us. Your boss, your
boyfriend, your mother could be what Hare calls a 'subclinical'
psychopath, someone who leaves a path of destruction and pain without a
single pang of conscience," Hercz writes. "Even more worrisome is the
fact that, at this stage, no one -- not even Bob Hare -- is quite sure
what to do about it."
Hare's research helps
explain the behavior of men like Charles Sobhraj. Unlike many serial
killers, Sobhraj killed for economic and personal gain. He only wanted
the passports and identity papers of his victims because that made it
easier for his jewel and drug smuggling operations. Sobhraj wasn't
driven to kill by perverse sexual desire, nor did he get any particular
satisfaction out of homicide. The people he murdered were merely in the
way. They had something that Sobhraj wanted and so he took it.
“If I have ever killed,
or have ordered killings, then it was purely for reasons of business,
just a job, like a general in the army,” Sobhraj told journalist Richard
Neville during his trial in India.
Psychopaths like Sobhraj
are incapable of feeling remorse. To them, the phrases "I want to kill
you" and "I want to kiss you" carry the same emotional punch. The
concept of fear is almost unknown to them, so threat of punishment will
never be a deterrent.
Within the psychopath
diagnosis is a subdivision of behavior that analysts call "the puppet
master." This class is made up of men like Charles Sobhraj, although
killers like Charles make up only a small portion of the puppet masters
"The puppet master would
manipulate somebody to get at someone else. This type is more powerful
because they're hidden," Hare said.
Paul Babiak attributes a trio of motivations to psychopaths:
thrill-seeking, an almost insatiable desire to win, and the propensity
to injure others. "They'll jump on any opportunity that allows them to
do those things," he says. "If something better comes along, they'll
drop you and move on."
In one of Charles
Sobhraj's earliest encounters with crime, he once explained to his
mother that he could "always find an idiot to do what I wanted." The
comment came when 10-year-old Charles was accused of inducing a
stepbrother to rob a shopkeeper.
Hare talks about how
imprisoned psychopaths learn "the words but not the music" that parole
boards and society want to hear. "They can repeat all the psychiatric
jargon -- 'I feel remorse,' they talk about the offense cycle -- but
these are words, hollow words."
The constants in Charles
Sobhraj's formative years were abandonment and second-class status. Born
Gurhmuk Sobhraj to an unwed Vietnamese woman, Sobhraj grew up feeling
his parents' indifference to his existence. His mother, Song, was
abandoned by the Indian tailor soon after her first son was born and she
blamed him for her lover's dismissal.
His father wanted little
to do with Gurhmuk during the boy's childhood, but the youngster twisted
it around in his head to believe that his father was a mythic, heroic
Eventually Song met up
with a French officer stationed in French Indochina and they were wed.
The soldier, Lieutenant Alphonse Darreau, was willing to adopt Song's
son, but not to give the boy his name. Darreau was kind to Sobhraj, but
as other children were born to Darreau and Song, Gurhmuk began to feel
more and more an outsider in his own home. For his part, Darreau, who
had suffered shell shock during a battle and for the rest of his life
was in and out of hospitals for post-traumatic stress disorder, looked
at Sobhraj as a drain on scarce family resources.
A child shunned in such
a way will eventually do things to gain attention. For neglected
children, even negative attention is considered better than no attention
at all, and Charles (he took the name as a teenager after being baptized
a Catholic) was no different. From an early age he was disobedient and
delinquent. He was a smart, charismatic youngster, but his grades
suffered and he was often absent from school.. When he did show up
Charles was a discipline problem for his schoolmasters.
Living in Marseilles,
Charles had access to ships heading east to Indochina and he began
stowing away on them in an effort to reach his natural father. The
affection Charles held for his father was not returned, however. Several
times the boy managed to make it out of Marseilles only to be discovered
while at sea and returned to port -- at no small cost to his mother or
father, depending on who could be convinced to pay the boy's fare.
Charles bounced back and
forth between the Orient and Europe, at home in neither place. The
geographic cure his parents hoped for never occurred, because wherever
Charles went he took his psychopathic personality. He was uncontrollable
and as he reached his late teens his family became unwilling to bail him
out of trouble.
When he was arrested for
burglary in Paris and sentenced to three years behind bars, he went to
prison, estranged from his family. Alone, without anyone who cared
whether he lived or died, Sobhraj was determined to make his family and
all society pay for throwing him away.
Some consider this need
for vengeance a pretense.
“His claims that his
life was a protest against the French legal system or that his love for
Vietnam and Asia motivated his criminal career are absurd, but as tools
of psychological manipulation they were very effective,” Neville wrote.
The year 1963 would be
the first of many behind bars for Sobhraj, and he quickly adjusted to
life in prison. It was brutal and cruel, and a small half-Asian teen
like Charles should have been fresh meat for predators in jail. However,
Charles knew karate and he used it to defend himself.
Poissy Prison near Paris
was a terrible place. It was built in the 16th century as a convent and
converted into a prison by the agnostics of the French Revolution. High
stone walls separated prisoners from the outside world, and the
individual cells were so small they were used only for sleeping --
during the day the prisoners were lumped together in pens sorted into
groups based on their ferocity, sanity and nationality.
"It is a horror,"
Sobhraj biographer Thomas Thompson quotes a visitor as saying. "One
enters the place and chills pass through the bones like stepping into a
cellar. Each moment I am inside, I am repelled."
Sobhraj's behavior in
jail was indicative of things to come. Prisoners were forbidden to keep
books in their cells, but not Charles. Infractions that would have
brought harsh punishments were not enforced around Sobhraj, and he
portrayed himself as so pathetic he attracted the special attention of
one of the volunteers who visited prisoners. The man, Felix d'Escogne,
was a wealthy young man who came to Poissy each week to help prisoners
with letters, resolve simple legal issues and to provide companionship.
Charles quickly latched on to Felix, whom he treated as a savior and
The men struck up a
friendship during the time Charles was imprisoned and Felix even tried
to reconcile father and son, as well as Charles with his mother, with
limited success. He provided Charles with reading material, emotional
stability and encouragement as the young man idled away his days in
After he was paroled,
he moved in with his friend Felix and resumed his criminal lifestyle,
but he was much more adept and cautious. He straddled two very different
worlds. In one, the bright world of Felix d'Escogne, was filled with
work and service, and interaction with some of the best Parisian
families. The other world was the darker, more sinister place where
Charles Sobhraj felt at home -- the Parisian underworld.
Charles' own self-destructive
behavior sent him back to jail on the very night he proposed to his
fiancee. He had stolen a car and taken the woman, Chantal, to a
glamorous casino. Crazed, almost frenzied wagering caused him to lose
thousands of borrowed francs for which he blamed Chantal, who had put
off his requests to marry him. Later, with Chantal white with fear
beside him, he sped home at breakneck speed until Chantal agreed to be
It was at that time he
noticed les flics in the patrol car behind them, siren wailing
and lights flashing. He tried to evade the police but lost control on a
rain-soaked curve and crashed the car. He was arrested and sent back to
Poissy for eight months for evading police in a stolen car.
At the time of his
sentencing, Felix wrote a warning to the judge, advising that mandatory
psychological counseling be part of any sentence. He explained his
request by listing some of Sobhraj's behaviors.
"He exploits 100
percent the weaknesses of those around him," Thompson reports that Felix
wrote the judge. "He has a small conscience, if any ... is capable of
politeness, but calculatedly so. Impulsive and aggressive."
Chantal was a
beautiful young Parisian woman living at home with her parents when she
met Charles Sobhraj at a party. Instantly she was taken with the erudite,
well-heeled young man who told her of his adventures in the Orient and
Dakar and his fictitious wealthy family back in Saigon.
He spoke like a poet
and courted young Chantal, despite her parents' initial disapproval of
their daughter's new beau. There was no way her father, a traditional
French Catholic, would allow his daughter to marry a Vietnamese half-breed,
no matter how rich he said his family in Vietnam was. But Chantal was
smitten and when Sobhraj was sent back to prison for an additional eight
months, she stood by him, pledging chastity and telling her friends and
co-workers that her boyfriend had been called up by the military.
unable to see fault with himself, Charles blamed the world for his
latest run-in with the law. He did his time quietly, but in a series of
letters to Felix, he denied responsibility for his actions.
By the time he was
released eight months later, Sobhraj had built up a rather nice nest egg
through a series of scams. The money made Chantal's parents a little
more amenable to their daughter marrying Charles and they were wed in a
simple civil ceremony attended by representatives of both families.
Chantal revealed she was pregnant. At the same time Charles decided to
leave Europe and head to the Orient before the life of scams and cons he
was living caught up with him. He was passing bad checks all over France
and it was only a matter of time before the police realized that the
common link to a rash of burglaries in wealthy homes was that Charles
Sobhraj had recently been on the premises.
Asking Felix, who had
re-entered his life, if he could borrow a car for a day or two, Charles
loaded his worldly possessions and his pregnant wife and left France.
The couple worked their way across Eastern Europe passing bad paper,
robbing people who befriended them and leaving a trail of crimes and
victims in their wake. By the time they reached Istanbul in Felix's
stolen MG, authorities had been visiting their friends in Paris, looking
for the couple. In Bombay, Chantal gave birth to a baby girl.
Charles and Chantal
integrated into expatriate French society on the subcontinent. Charles,
the highly personable and intelligent psychopath, was quickly accepted
by some of the highest-ranking French citizens in India and Chantal, an
attractive and personable young woman with an adorable baby was just as
welcome at the women's teas and parties.
This early in their
marriage, Chantal was still blissfully unaware of her husband's thieving
ways. He would talk to her about his "business," and on more than one
occasion she would act as unwitting accomplice to his schemes, but for a
stretch of several months he operated successfully without police
During much of 1970,
Sobhraj operated a stolen car brokerage operation, obtaining hard-to-find
American and European autos for homesick Frenchmen and wealthy Indians
with a passion for Western cars.
Charles would either
steal the cars or fence stolen cars in Pakistan or Iran then bring them
over the border to India, greasing the palms of greedy Indian border
guards who were willing to overlook the lack of import paperwork. He
would gain legitimate title to the vehicles by turning them in as stolen
and buying them back at auction. Then he would sell them to grateful
friends at great profit.
His business put him
on the road much of 1970 and 1971, leaving a lonely and homesick Chantal
in Bombay often wondering where Charles had gone. To appease her, he
brought her back beautiful jewelry from God knows where..
Charles' only weakness
seemed to be compulsive gambling, and this disease would result in his
second serious run-in with the law and ultimately his downfall.
Charles lost lots of
money at the Macao casino, prompting a liquidation of the jewels he gave
to Chantal. Pawning the jewelry was insufficient to pay his gambling
debts, literally putting his life at risk from casino collectors who are
much more ruthless than their American and European counterparts.
Luckily, Charles was
introduced to a Frenchman who had a plan to obtain enough money for
Charles to pay off his debts, but also to live quite comfortably for
The jewel store
robbery was doomed from the start. Breaking into a hotel room above a
store in the swank Hotel Ashoka in Delhi, India, Charles and his crew
intended to drill through the hotel floor and drop down into the store
during the night. But after three days of drilling with little progress
it was clear the plan would fail.
The criminals then
lured the owner of the store, blissfully unaware of the drilling going
on above his head, up to the room on the premise of meeting a rich
client. Sobhraj obtained the keys to the store at gunpoint and proceeded
to empty the cases.
Fleeing to the Delhi
airport with a bagful of stolen gems, Charles was forced to abandon his
loot at customs when the store owner escaped his bonds and notified
police, who sealed off the airport. Charles left $10,000 in cash and
even more in jewels as he returned empty-handed to Bombay.
Bombay was too
appealing to a thief like Charles. Besides, Chantal and the baby were
still there so he again took up his car theft scam. Shortly after
returning to Bombay he was pulled over by police in a stolen vehicle and
based on eyewitness identification, he was arrested for the attempted
jewel robbery at the hotel. He was taken to Bombay's prison, Tihar, and
from there he staged the first of his dramatic prison escapes.
Pretending to have a
bleeding ulcer, Charles was taken to a local hospital where he was
diagnosed as having appendicitis, even though there was nothing wrong
with him. Recovering from a needless surgery, Charles convinced Chantal
to help him escape from the hospital by drugging his guard. Chantal
crawled under the covers in Charles' bed and took a dose of chloroform
herself to allay suspicions that she had conspired to help her husband
He was recaptured
shortly after, and both Chantal, whose unconsciousness had failed to
convince police of her "innocence," and Charles were taken into custody.
Chantal was released shortly after on bail. Eventually Charles was able
to post bail with money borrowed from his father in Saigon and they fled
Arrests and Escapes
In Kabul, Afghanistan,
Charles supported his wife and child by running cons and robbing hippies
who had come east following the hashish trail from Europe. The Sobhrajs
lived comfortably in Kabul, but soon wanderlust struck Charles and he
took his family to the airport. He had neglected, however, to pay the
hotel for two months of rent and was arrested by Afghan police.
Again he plotted an
escape. In Afghan prisons, inmates are responsible for obtaining their
own food by employing runners, often young beggars. If an inmate has no
money, he starves. Charles had his runner purchased a syringe with which
he drew his own blood and drank it, making it look like he had an ulcer.
Taken to the hospital, he managed to drug his guard once again and flee
For the next year he
flew around the Eastern Hemisphere in a scattered manner, never settling
anywhere long enough to arouse the suspicions of the police, although he
continued to support himself by theft.
He often traveled with
as many as 10 passports, some bought, some stolen, and none with the
name Charles Sobhraj. Charles no longer used his given name, instead he
changed identity at the drop of a hat depending on the passport he held.
He would later tell police that during 1972-1973 he traveled to Karachi,
Pakistan, Rome, Teheran, Kabul, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and as far north
Abandoning his family
in Kabul, Charles saw his marriage end. The loyal Chantal, now with a
dossier of her own in the massive Interpol database, had had enough of
her criminal husband and left for France. Once there, she prayed she
would never see Charles Sobhraj again.
By the time Chantal
fled to Paris, the places Charles Sobhraj could travel to were quickly
becoming limited. He was joined in Istanbul by his younger brother Andre
-- the same person he had called "an idiot willing to do his bidding" as
a 10-year-old -- who became an active participant in Charles' scams.
Andre pledged obeisance to his older brother when Charles told him he
could never return to France because of his criminal record, but the
younger man suggested they find other countries in Europe to plunder.
Looking East, Charles
told Andre he saw a world where he could blend into the crowd -- his
Indian-Vietnamese heritage allowed him to portray any nationality he
wanted -- and where police were more "accommodating" if the price was
right. Rejecting Andre's suggestion that they return to Europe, Charles
decided to return to the Orient.
would pay dearly for his foolish desire to follow his brother. They
pulled a couple of minor heists in Turkey, then fled to Greece when
things got too hot and robbed a few tourists in Athens before they were
arrested following a minor jewel robbery. Charles banked on the hope
that the Greeks and Turks, historic enemies, would never share
information about the two brothers who preyed on tourists.
Andre that it would be easy to make authorities think Charles was Andre
and Andre Charles. Sobhraj was a wanted man, and if he pretended to be
Andre -- whose crimes were minor in the eyes of Greek justice -- he
could walk out of prison in a few weeks. Later, when he was safely
across the frontier, Andre could tell the Greeks that he was the real
Andre Darreau and that they had released the wrong man. They would then
let him free.
The plan nearly worked,
but when the Greeks decided to throw the book at the two men, Charles
was forced to fall back on another plan. Once again feigning illness, he
managed to escape from a police van taking him from a hospital to prison
and he disappeared.
In a few days, Andre
went to the warden and revealed that they had let Charles Sobrhaj, not
Andre Darreau, escape. Sadly for him, the angry Greeks opted to turn
Andre over to their Turkish enemies, who were not prepared to be lenient.
After a trial, Andre was convicted of theft and sentenced to 18 years at
With his brother
languishing in a Turkish prison, Charles fled eastward. He flitted
around India, Kashmir, Iran and the Near East operating small-time scams
and frauds. His typical modus operandi was to find a French or English-speaking
tourist couple, befriend them and impress them as a mysterious, wealthy
dealmaker and either use them as jewel couriers or steal their bankrolls,
passports and travel tickets.
As he was perfecting
this scheme he met the woman who would become his closest confidant and
accomplice. She was Marie LeClerc, and she had come to the East looking
for adventure. She found it with Charles Sobhraj.
Charles met Marie, a
French Canadian, while she was sightseeing, and managed to convince her
to return to Bangkok after her vacation ended. When Marie returned to
the Orient with a satchel full of love letters Charles had written her
during their months apart, she was shocked to find that he had linked up
with a Thai woman named May, whom he had described as his “secretary.”
Marie's love for
Charles was pathological. She was unable to see any evil in him and was
even willing to put up with his dalliances. Years later, as she
languished in Tihar Prison awaiting trial, she wrote to Charles (who had
found a new lover): "Roong is twelve years younger than I, and fresher.
You need a woman who can live under any conditions, any climate. As for
me, I'm old, tired, rarely dynamic or smiling, with a bitter character
that can't adapt due to my advanced age ... Roong must remain with you.
The important thing is that you don't find yourself alone, that you have
someone who loves you."
believed there was enough of him to share between two women. Somehow,
Charles convinced Marie to become his partner in crime and they met up
with an Australian professor and his wife who were vacationing in
Thailand. Inserting himself into their lives, Charles skillfully won
over the Australians who thought they had discovered a real friend.
Charles and Marie served the Aussies coconut milk laced with powerful
sedatives. When the couple was asleep, Charles ransacked their hotel
room, stealing several thousand dollars in cash, as well as their
passports, wedding rings and plane tickets.
Just as another man
named Charles had done half a world away a few years before at the Spahn
Ranch in California, Sobhraj began building a "family" of sorts, with
himself as the head. As May floated around the periphery, Charles and
Marie took in a wandering French boy named Dominique. Over a period of
days Charles subtly administered enough poison to make Dominique ill
with what appeared to be dysentery. Charles graciously offered the use
of his home while the boy recovered. Normally, dysentery resolves itself
quickly (or kills its host through dehydration), but Dominique had a
hard time recovering. In reality, Sobhraj was keeping Dominique off
balance to make him dependent.
Once it was made clear
that Dominique was in Charles' debt, and the boy accepted his position,
his recovery accelerated. As the youth grew healthy, Charles added two
more young men, Yannick and Jacques, former police officers in the
French colonies. Rather than poison them, he wooed them with wine and
song, and while they were enjoying a night out on the town with Marie,
Charles slipped away and stole their passports and savings.
Do not worry, he
assured the two frantic young men, they could stay with him while new
passports were procured in Bangkok. Any remuneration would be worked out
The final addition to
Charles' circle was a young Indian named Ajay Chowdhury. As cold as
Charles, Ajay quickly became his lieutenant and accompanied him
everywhere. Ajay was a confidant, accomplice and co-conspirator for
Charles who could be counted on to come through in even the most
The Bikini Murders
After assembling his
coterie, Charles Sobhraj began to kill. There were rumors that he had
killed before but for the first time Charles began leaving a trail.
His first victim was
an American pilgrim named Jennie Bollivar who had come east to find
herself through meditation and immersion into a Buddhist lifestyle.
Instead, she made the mistake of falling in with Charles and his crowd
for a few days. Why Charles murdered Jennie isn't clear, but the Dutch
diplomat Herman Knippenberg believes Sobhraj killed her after she
refused to join his entourage and become a smuggler.
Jennie was found dead
in a tide pool in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a
simple flowered bikini. At first it appeared the beautiful young woman
had drowned after a night of hashish and beer, but months later when an
autopsy was performed, the forensic evidence made it clear someone had
held her head under water until she drowned.
The next victim was a
young nomadic Sephardic Jew, Vitali Hakim, who like Jennie, had come
east looking for life's meaning, but instead fell into Charles' trap and
found death. Vitali moved in with the entourage and stayed for several
days. He accompanied Ajay and Charles on a trip to a nearby resort town
on the Gulf of Thailand and, according to Charles, opted to stay with
friends he had met there. Yannick and Jacques were puzzled by this,
because Vitali had left his clothes in a closet in the apartment and had
turned over his passport and traveler's checks to Charles for
Several days later, a
horribly burned body was found on the road to Pattaya -- the resort
destination of Charles, Vitali and Ajay. The male body showed signs of
having been beaten, but it was clear to police that the poor man had
been alive when he was doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Police
assumed the man had been set upon by Thai bandits and slain. They did
not connect this murder with the death of Jennie Bolliver.
In December 1975,
Vitali Hakim's friend came east looking for him. His hotel noted that
Hakim had checked out several weeks earlier and never returned. Vitali
had left a message for his girlfriend, however, and unwittingly drew
another victim into Charles's murderous web. Charmayne Carrou, a French
citizen, turned up dead in circumstances almost identical to Jennie's
death. Apparently she traced Vitali's whereabouts to Charles Sobhraj and
started asking too many questions. Months later when an autopsy was
performed, officials discovered that Charmayne had been strangled, not
drowned, and that she had been suffocated with such force that bones in
her neck shattered.
Love and Death
Two couples were
Charles' next victims. Although they were separated by time and space,
they would share the same horrible fate at the hands of the man who had
become known to police as the Serpent.
Henk Bintanja and his
fiancée, Cornelia "Cocky" Hemker, were Dutch students traveling around
Southeast Asia when they met Charles Sobhraj in Hong Kong. He introduced
himself as Alain Dupuis, a gem dealer, and quickly ingratiated himself
with the two frugal Dutch. As a special favor, Charles sold Cocky a
sapphire ring for $1,600 and invited them to his "luxurious villa" in
Bangkok. He had to leave before them, he said, but would send a car and
driver to meet them at the airport.
Henk and Cocky quickly
met the same fate as so many others, mysteriously falling ill, and began
recuperating at Charles' apartment. Charles took special care of the
Dutch couple, locking up their valuables in his safe, along with their
The night Charmayne
Carrou appeared at Charles' apartment, Henk and Cocky were quickly
hustled out of the building despite their illness. No one questioned
Charles and Ajay when they returned a short time later smelling of
gasoline and covered in dirt. Charles offered no explanation, but
Dominique and the two former flics were becoming suspicious.
The Bangkok papers
trumpeted the news about two tourists who had been bushwhacked by
bandits and murdered. The man and woman had been strangled before their
bodies were set ablaze. No identification had been found. The papers
speculated about how the two doomed lovers met their fate for a few days
until the discovery of a second drowned Western woman pushed the story
off the front page.
Entering Nepal using
Henk's passport, he met a pair of wandering Westerners in Katmandu.
Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont met in Nepal and quickly became
friends. Laddie had come from Canada to climb Mount Everest and
Annabella was a restless California girl looking for meaning in her life.
They spent a good deal of time in the section of Katmandu called "Freak
Street" where anyone could buy anything from hashish to rubies. Laddie
was biding his time until the weather cleared and Everest was climbable
and Annabella was just biding her time.
Details are sketchy
about how they met Charles Sobhraj in Katmandu, but it wasn't long
before a man's body was found in a field, burned and slashed with a
knife. While authorities were trying to identify the body -- it was
clear it was a Westerner because of the size -- a second Westerner's
body, positively identified as Annabella, was found nearby. She had been
stabbed several times in the chest.
Police got their first
lead when Nepalese customs reported that Laddie DuParr had left the
country very shortly after the estimated time of Annabella's death. They
surmised that Laddie had killed his new girlfriend and fled the country
as soon as possible. They were confused, though, about the identity of
the Western male who had been found nearby.
On the Run
Of course, it was not
Laddie DuParr who fled Nepal after killing Annabella. Charles used
Laddie's passport to fly home to Bangkok where he sold some jewels
Laddie had purchased in Delhi. Then, using the passport of Henk Bintanja,
he returned to Katmandu the next day. Police managed to trace the last
few days of Laddie and Annabella and when they caught up with Charles,
Marie and Ajay, the trio managed to bluff their way through questioning.
While he was in
Bangkok, Charles had made a startling discovery. Dominique, Yannick and
Jacques had put the pieces together and realized they had been under the
care of a homicidal maniac. They broke into Charles' office and found
dozens of passports and identity papers belonging to unfortunate
tourists who had met up with Sobhraj. The three Frenchmen fled Sobhraj's
apartment and Thailand, heading home to Paris. Before they left they
told police what was going on in the apartment building.
On the run from
Nepalese authorities, Charles and company crossed the border into India
and made their way to Calcutta. They fit well in what is perhaps the
most poverty-stricken place on the planet. Charles had no money, knew he
was wanted by Nepalese police and could only guess what was waiting for
him back in Bangkok. But he believed he was superhuman and that no mere
mortal could bring him down. Charles had a plan. All he needed was a
clean passport and some money.
He found both in the
person of Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob who died in a run-down Calcutta
hotel room where he had been drugged and strangled. Jacob's passport and
traveler's checks -- about $300 in total -- were missing.
Using Jacob's passport,
Charles led Ajay and Marie to Singapore. The three were so down on their
luck that Marie was forced to use the passport of a Frenchman they had
rolled. Charles assured Marie that no Indian border guard would know
enough to question why she had been given a man's name, and he was right.
Charles was always right.
And so he returned to
Bangkok where he promptly drugged and robbed a rich American, stealing
his identity. Although Avoni Jacob's papers were still usable, Charles
had learned that it never hurt to have a spare passport. For some reason,
luck was on his side, because the police, armed with the information
from Yannick and friends, quickly brought the trio in for questioning
for the bikini murders. It was a laughable, half-hearted investigation.
The Thais were not interested in ruining their tourist trade by having a
highly publicized trial.
The Dutch embassy, led
by Herman Knippenberg, was adamant about having a full-scale
investigation. Knippenberg was particularly driven to prosecute Sobhraj
or Alain Gauthier, or Robert Grainer, or whoever this man pretended to
be. The diplomat was convinced the man police had questioned was
responsible for the deaths of at least two Dutch tourists.
It was not to be.
Years before, Charles had told his brother that the Far East was the
land of greased palms, where anything could be bought if the price was
right. He proved it in early 1976 when he paid $18,000 to have a Thai
police official look the other way while he and his cohorts fled the
They stopped briefly
in Malaysia where Charles sent Ajay to the mining towns to procure some
gems. Ajay returned with several hundred carats of jewels worth about
$40,000. Charles intended to sell the jewels in Geneva to raise capital.
But first he had to take care of one loose end.
No one knows exactly
what happened to Ajay Chowdhury in Malaysia, but when Charles met Marie
at the airport to catch their flight to Geneva, Ajay was not with him.
She inquired as to his whereabouts but the look in Charles' eyes told
her never to ask that question again. To this day, authorities believe
Ajay Chowdhury, the partner-in-crime to so many of Charles' murders, had
outlived his usefulness and lies buried somewhere in the steaming
Nothing so fragile as
a life built on lies can stand for long, and it was just a matter of
time before Charles Sobhraj was caught. He overestimated his own
intelligence and underestimated law enforcement agencies in the Far East,
believing it did not matter that Thai police were looking for Alain
Galtier or even Laddie DuParr. He had outsmarted them before and he
But when news of a
serial killer in Thailand who was killing tourists emerged in the spring
of 1976, the Thais knew they had to find Charles Sobhraj. Tourism is
important to Thailand, and no 300,000 baht bribe could compete with the
millions that would be lost if the people were afraid to come.
So far, two American
women, two Canadians, a Turk, two Dutch citizens, a French woman, and an
Israeli scholar had died in Southeast Asia under mysterious and similar
circumstances. Calls for justice came from nearly every embassy.
Charles Sobhraj came
to the attention of Interpol first in 1973 when he was linked with the
aborted jewel robbery in the Hotel Ashoka. He was not linked to the
Bikini killings in Thailand by Interpol -- they were looking for Alain
Gautier -- but nonetheless Interpol's massive database contained quite a
detailed dossier on Charles. Sooner or later every criminal slips up and
even the most intelligent sociopath like Charles Sobhraj makes mistakes.
When he did, Interpol was there to see it and the long arm of the law
was there to make sure he did not escape again.
Catching the Serpent
In Bombay, Charles and
Marie began working their scam again. Charles rebuilt his family by
bringing in two lost Western women and made a quick score by drugging a
Frenchman named Jean-Luc Solomon. Jean-Luc succumbed to the poison he
had been given and died without regaining consciousness, turning a
simple robbery into murder.
Charles, Marie, Mary
Ellen and Barbara traveled to Delhi, where Charles wanted to run a scam.
He quickly latched on to a tour group of French post-graduate students
and became their unofficial guide around the city. The students
considered themselves lucky to have found a fellow Frenchman in such a
strange place, and when he offered them a pill that he said would ward
off dysentery, many took it with gratitude.
His plan was to wait
until the students became drowsy from his drug and then rob their rooms,
but Charles' reach exceeded his grasp. The pills worked too quickly, and
all around him in the lobby of the hotel, students were dropping like
flies. When someone realized that the only people who were ill were
those who took their new friend's "medicine," a trio of burly students
wrestled Charles to the ground and sent for the police.
It was the beginning
of the end for Charles Sobhraj.
Classic police work
quickly rounded up the rest of Charles Sobhraj's crew and Barbara and
Mary Ellen were the first to crack. They told everything they knew.
Charles held out
during two weeks of intense questioning without changing his story that
he was a French merchant and an important one at that. But even he grew
tired in the face of the mounting evidence that was coming in from all
corners of the globe.
The Thais had a
warrant, good for 20 years, out for Charles for his murders there. Nepal
was interested in speaking with him about some killings there. He had
escaped from a Greek jail and an Afghan prison, and the Turks had
imprisoned his brother for a crime they both committed. The French
wanted nothing to do with him, as he had been exiled many years before.
The Indians charged him with murder, for killing Jean-Luc Solomon.
The accused were taken
to Tihar Prison outside Delhi.
For Marie and the two
women, the deepest circle of Hell would have been better than Tihar
Prison. Classified as murderers awaiting trial, their food consisted of
bread and water with whatever else they could buy. The water came out of
a standpipe in their cells once a day and if they weren't ready for it,
they could wait for tomorrow's ration. Rats and insects knew no fear in
Tihar Prison, as the convicts were usually too weak to put up much of a
fight, so rodents ran brazenly through the bars of the cells. As for
toilet facilities, those consisted of a hole in the corner of the cell.
Marie's cellmate was a young Malaysian girl who had been arrested and
then forgotten and who was slowly going insane.
But Charles wasn't
bothered in the least. He knew how things worked in India and concealed
in his body were more than 70 carats of precious gems. While his new
home wasn't as comfortable as his apartment in Bangkok, it would do
until he decided it was time to move on. Charles had no fear of being
left to rot in Tihar; he knew eventually, he would buy his way out.
Times were tough in
India during the mid-1970s. Indira Gandhi ruled with an iron fist
through martial law, and conditions were harsh. The judicial system was
clogged with political prisoners and criminals alike. As a result,
nearly two years passed from the time that Charles Sobhraj and his clan
were arrested before he and Marie went on trial. In the intervening
months, Mary Ellen and Barbara had each tried to kill themselves out of
despair. Charles, of course, was fine.
trial is worthy of a story in itself. It featured the return of Andre
Darreau, who, having been granted early parole by the Turks,
unbelievably traveled to India at Charles' request to help him escape.
There was a mid-trial appeal to the Indian Supreme Court and a witness (Mary
Ellen) recanting her statement of seeing Charles drug Jean-Luc. Sobhraj
hired and fired lawyers at will and toward the end of the trial went on
a hunger strike to protest the inhuman conditions at Tihar. He ended up
The judge, however,
was unimpressed with the theatrics and found Charles guilty of
administering drugs with intent to rob, causing hurt to commit robbery
and the Indian equivalent to manslaughter -- culpable homicide not
amounting to murder.
Marie was found not
guilty, but was returned to Tihar to await trial in the poisoning of the
French graduate students. She would eventually serve some time for that
crime and be released on mercy parole when she was diagnosed with
ovarian cancer. She died at home in Canada, professing her love for the
man who had ruined her life.
Charles faced the
death penalty, and the prosecution argued strenuously for just that. It
was well-known that he had killed many besides Jean-Luc Solomon, and
that he undoubtedly would kill again. But Charles argued that time
served in Tihar was punishment enough.
Did Charles manage to
buy off the judge? That isn't known, but it is certainly a possibility.
Around the world, law enforcement officials were astounded when the
judge sentenced Charles Sobhraj to seven years in prison. The Serpent
had emerged victorious once again.
Charles was also
convicted in connection with the abortive attempt to rob the French
tourists and that 5-year sentence added to his seven-year term. The
sentence, while obviously better than death, presented a problem for
Sobhraj. The warrant from Thailand was good for 20 years, which meant
that as soon as he was done serving his hitch in Tihar, he would be
deported and very likely executed.
Twelve years would be
enough time for witnesses to disappear or prosecutors to lose interest.
But escape from Tihar, an easy feat for a man like the Serpent, meant he
would be an international criminal and a wanted man. He needed a plan
and had a few years to come up with a good one.
Biding his time,
Charles literally ran Tihar. He wanted for almost nothing and counted
both guards and prisoners as his friends. In fact, as he was finishing
his 10th year behind bars, he threw a party for his friends. This time,
it didn't matter when the sleeping pills took effect, and in the middle
of his party, as cons and guards alike passed out from the drugs,
Charles Sobhraj walked out of the jail.
He later said it
wasn't his plan to flee the subcontinent, he just wasn't ready to leave
Tihar yet and wanted to stay a few more years. So he arranged to be
caught and was sentenced for the drug assault and escape. His gamble
paid off. Over time, authorities around the world forgot about Charles
Sobhraj and the case against him in Bangkok eventually withered away as
witnesses died or evidence was lost.
On February 17, 1997,
the Serpent walked out of Tihar Prison. He was in the prime of life, 52
years old. There was little chance that Thai officials could make a case
against him so many years later, but Charles was a man without a
country. He was to be deported from India, so he was kept in custody
until authorities found a country that would take him.
In the end, he
returned to France where today he charges reporters for interviews. In
March 2002 an Indian film company announced that it was making a film
about his life. The project is not exactly a Sobhraj biography "because
we have taken some creative liberties, and because it’s not an exact
biography of his life," the assistant director told Nihar Online, an
Indian Web-based newspaper. ”The film will in no way glorify a killer.
It is instead a question of man, morality and redemption."
The idea of redemption
remains questionable. Several years into his incarceration in India,
Charles was interviewed by an Australian writer. Vowing never to repeat
his past mistakes, he stopped short of saying he would never kill again.
"I have already taken
from the past what is best for me, what helps me live in the present and
prepare for the future," he told Richard Neville. "If I play back a
murder, it will be to see what I have learned from the method. I won't
even notice the body."
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Hall, Angus, ed.
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Sept. 8, 2001. “Psychopaths Among Us.” Saturday Night Magazine.
Nov. 1981. “Prison Conditions Case Study: Tihar, Delhi” PUCL
Bulletin. Delhi, India: People's Union for Civil Liberties.
McGirk, Tim. March
3, 1997. “His Greatest Escape.” Time.
and Julie Clarke. 1979. The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.
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