Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj
6 April 1944
|Other names||The Bikini Killer, The Splitting Killer, The Serpent|
|Parent(s)||Hatchand Sobhraj (father)|
Tran Loan Phung (mother)
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
Span of crimes
Charles Sobhraj (born 6 April 1944), is a French thief, fraudster and serial killer of Vietnamese and Indian origin who preyed on Western tourists, primarily beatniks, throughout the Hippie Trail of Southeast Asia during the 1970s. He was best known as the Bikini Killer due to the attire of his victims, as well as the Splitting Killer and the Serpent, due to his skill at deception and evasion. Sobhraj allegedly committed at least a dozen murders and was convicted and jailed in India from 1976 to 1997. After his release, he retired as a celebrity in Paris. Sobhraj later returned to Nepal in 2003, where he was arrested, tried, and received a life sentence.
Unlike most violent offenders, Charles Sobhraj did not seem to commit his murders out of uncontrollable, deep seated violent impulses which many serial killers experience, it was more perceived as a byproduct of his audacious and venturesome lifestyle, yet he is still widely believed to have an antisocial personality disorder which is also known as psychopathy. He had an intense hatred of hippies, and many of his murders reflected this. He was described as devilishly handsome, and did not refrain from using his attractiveness to his advantage in his criminal career. This, as well as his cunning and cultured personality, ensured his celebrity status long before his release from prison. He enjoyed his fame, charging large sums for interviews and film rights. He has been the subject of four biographies, three documentaries and a Bollywood movie titled Main Aur Charles. Sobhraj's return to Nepal, where he was still eagerly sought by authorities, is thought to be the result of his yearning for attention and overconfidence in his own intellect.
Charles Sobhraj was born as Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj to Vietnamese shop girl Tran Loan Phung, and Indian Sindhi businessman Sobhraj Hatchand Bhaonani, who was based in Saigon. His parents were divorced and his father deserted the family. Stateless at first, Sobhraj was adopted by his mother's new boyfriend, a French Army lieutenant stationed in French Indochina. There he was neglected in favour of the couple's later children. However, Sobhraj continued to move back and forth between Indochina and France with the family. As a teenager, he began to commit petty crimes and received his first jail sentence (for burglary) in 1963, serving time at Poissy prison near Paris. While imprisoned, Sobhraj eagerly manipulated prison officials into granting him special favours, such as being allowed to keep books in his cell. Around the same time, he met and endeared himself to Felix d'Escogne, a wealthy young man and prison volunteer.
After being paroled, Sobhraj moved in with d'Escogne and shared his time between moving between the high society of Paris and the criminal underworld. He began accumulating riches through a series of burglaries and scams. During this time, Sobhraj met and began a passionate relationship with Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian woman from a conservative family. Sobhraj proposed marriage to Compagnon, but was arrested later the same day for attempting to evade police while driving a stolen vehicle. He was sentenced to eight months in prison, yet Chantal remained supportive throughout the entirety of his sentence. Sobhraj and Chantal were wed upon his release.
Sobhraj, along with a pregnant Chantal, left France in 1970 for Asia to escape arrest. After traveling through Eastern Europe with fake documents, robbing tourists whom they befriended along the way, Sobhraj arrived in Mumbai later the same year. Here, Chantal gave birth to a baby girl, Usha. In the meantime, Sobhraj resumed his criminal lifestyle, running a car theft and smuggling operation. Sobhraj's growing profits went towards his budding gambling addiction.
In 1973, Sobhraj was arrested and imprisoned after an unsuccessful armed robbery attempt on a jewellery store at Hotel Ashoka. Sobhraj was able to escape, with Chantal's help, due to faking illness, but was re-captured shortly thereafter. Sobhraj borrowed money for bail from his father, and soon after fled to Kabul. There, the couple begun to rob tourists on the Hippie Trail, only to be arrested once again. Again, Sobhraj escaped in the same way he had in India; feigning illness and drugging the hospital guard. Sobhraj then fled to Iran, leaving his family behind. Chantal, although still loyal to Sobhraj, but wishing to leave their criminal past behind, returned to France and vowed never to see him again.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, using as many as ten stolen passports. He passed through various countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Sobhraj was joined by his younger half-brother, André, in Istanbul. Sobhraj and André quickly became partners in crime, participating in various criminal activities in both Turkey and Greece. The duo were eventually arrested in Athens. After an identity-switch hoax went awry, Sobhraj managed to escape, but his half-brother was left behind. André was turned over to the Turkish police by Greek authorities and served an 18-year sentence.
On the run again, Sobhraj financed his lifestyle by posing as either a gem salesman or drug dealer to impress and befriend tourists, whom he then defrauded. In Thailand, Sobhraj met Marie-Andrée Leclerc (1945–1984) from Lévis, Quebec, Canada, a tourist looking for adventure. Dominated by Sobhraj, she quickly became his most devoted follower, turning a blind eye to his crimes and his philandering with local women.
Sobhraj gathered followers by gaining their loyalty: a typical scam was to help his target out of difficult situations. In one case, he helped two former French policemen, Yannick and Jacques, recover missing passports that Sobhraj himself had actually stolen. In another scheme, Sobhraj provided shelter to a Frenchman, Dominique Rennelleau, who appeared to be suffering from dysentery; Sobhraj had actually poisoned Rennelleau. He was finally joined by a young Indian man, Ajay Chowdhury, a fellow criminal who became Sobhraj's second-in-command.
Sobhraj and Chowdhury committed their first (known) murders in 1975. Most of the victims had spent some time with the duo before their deaths and were, according to investigators, recruited by Sobhraj and Chowdhury to join the pair in their crimes. Sobhraj claimed that most of his murders were really accidental drug overdoses, but investigators state that the victims had threatened to expose Sobhraj, which was his motive for murder. The first victim was a young woman from Seattle. Teresa Knowlton (named Jennie Bollivar in the book Serpentine) was found drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a flowered bikini. It was only months later that Knowlton's autopsy, as well as forensic evidence, proved that her drowning, originally believed to be a swimming accident, was murder.
The next victim was a young nomadic Sephardic Jew, Vitali Hakim, whose burnt body was found on the road to the Pattaya resort, where Sobhraj and his growing clan were staying. Dutch students Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25, were invited to Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong. They, like many others, were poisoned by Sobhraj, who then nurtured them back to health in order to gain their obedience. As they recovered, Sobhraj was visited by his previous victim Hakim's French girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou, who had come to investigate her boyfriend's disappearance. Fearing exposure, Sobhraj and Chowdhury quickly hustled the couple out. Their bodies were found strangled and burned on 16 December 1975. Soon after, Carrou was found drowned and wearing a similar-styled swimsuit to that of Sobhraj's earlier victim, Teresa Knowlton. Although the murders of both women were not connected by investigations at the time, they would later earn Sobhraj the nickname "The Bikini Killer."
On 18 December, the day the bodies of Bintanja and Hemker were identified, Sobhraj and Leclerc entered Nepal using the deceased pair's passports. They met in Nepal and, on 21–22 December, murdered Laurent Carrière, 26 (from Canada), and Connie Bronzich, 29 (from the U.S.); the two victims were incorrectly identified in some sources as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont. Sobhraj and Leclerc returned to Thailand, using their latest victims' passports before their bodies could be identified. Upon his return to Thailand, Sobhraj discovered that his three French companions had started to suspect him of serial murder, having found documents belonging to the murder victims. Sobhraj's former companions then fled to Paris after notifying local authorities.
Sobhraj's next destination was either Varanasi or Calcutta, where he murdered Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob simply to obtain Jacob's passport. Sobhraj used the passport to travel with Leclerc and Chowdhury – first to Singapore, then to India, and, in March 1976, returning to Bangkok, despite knowing that the authorities there sought him. The clan was interrogated by Thai policemen in connection with the murders, but released because authorities feared that the negative publicity accompanying a murder trial would harm the country's tourist industry.
Meanwhile, Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg was investigating the murders of Bintanja and Hemker. Knippenberg had some knowledge of, and had possibly even met, Sobhraj, although the latter's true identity was still unknown to the diplomat, who continued gathering evidence. With the help of a neighbour of Sobhraj, Knippenberg built a case against him. He was eventually given police permission to search Sobhraj's apartment, a full month after the suspect had left the country. Knippenberg found evidence, including victims' documents and passports, as well as poisons and syringes. The trio's next stop was Malaysia, where Chowdhury was sent to steal gems. Chowdhury was observed delivering the gems to Sobhraj. This was the last time he was ever seen, and neither Chowdhury nor his remains were ever found. It is believed that Sobhraj murdered his former accomplice before leaving Malaysia to continue his and Leclerc's roles as gem salesmen in Geneva. A source later claimed to have sighted Chowdhury in West Germany, but the claim appeared unsubstantiated. The search for Chowdhury continues.
Soon back in Asia, Sobhraj started to build a new criminal "family," starting with two lost Western women, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather, in Bombay. Sobhraj's next victim was a Frenchman, Jean-Luc Solomon, whose poisoning during a robbery, simply intended to incapacitate him, left him dead.
In July 1976 in New Delhi, Sobhraj, joined by his three-woman criminal clan, tricked a tour group of French post-graduate students into accepting them as tour guides. Sobhraj then drugged them by giving them poisoned pills, which he told them were anti-dysentery medicine. When the drugs took effect more quickly than Sobhraj had anticipated, the students began to fall unconscious. Three of the students realized what Sobhraj had done. They overpowered him and contacted the police, leading to his capture. During interrogation, Sobhraj's accomplices, Smith and Eather, quickly buckled and confessed. Sobhraj was charged with the murder of Solomon, and all four were sent to Tihar prison, New Delhi while awaiting formal trial.
Smith and Eather attempted suicide in prison during the two years before their trial. Sobhraj had entered with precious gems concealed in his body and was experienced in bribing captors and living comfortably in jail. He turned his trial into a spectacle, hiring and firing lawyers at whim, bringing in his recently paroled brother André to assist, and eventually going on a hunger strike. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison. Leclerc was found guilty of drugging the French students, but was later paroled and returned to Canada when she developed ovarian cancer. She was still claiming her innocence and was reportedly still loyal to Sobhraj when she died at her home in April 1984.
Sobhraj's systematic bribery of prison guards at Tihar reached outrageous levels. He led a life of luxury inside the jail, with television and gourmet food, having befriended both guards and prisoners. 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.
When Sobhraj's sentence was to end, the twenty-year Thai arrest warrant against him would still have been valid, thereby affecting his extradition and almost certain execution. So in March 1986, in his tenth year in prison, Sobhraj threw a big party for his guards and fellow inmates, drugged them with sleeping pills and walked out of the jail. Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai police apprehended Sobhraj in O'Coquero Restaurant in Goa; his prison term was prolonged by ten years, just as he had hoped. On 17 February 1997, 52-year-old Sobhraj was released with most warrants, evidence and even witnesses against him long lost. Without any country to extradite him to, Indian authorities let him return to France.
Celebrity and re-capture
Sobhraj retired to a comfortable life in suburban Paris. He hired a publicity agent and charged large sums of money for interviews and photographs. He is said to have charged over $US15 million (according to advocate and former police inspector Bishwa Lal Shrestha, who investigated the case, framed the charge sheet and registered the case in court) for the rights to a movie based on his life.
On 17 September 2003, Sobhraj was seen in a street of Kathmandu by a journalist. The journalist quickly reported this to the Nepalese authorities, who arrested him two days later in the casino of the Yak and Yeti hotel. Sobhraj's motives for returning to Nepal remain unknown. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kathmandu district court on 20 August 2004 for the murders of Bronzich and Carrière in 1975. Most of the photocopy evidence used against him in this case was from that gathered by Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat, and Interpol. He appealed against the conviction, claiming that he was sentenced without trial. His lawyer also announced that Chantal, Sobhraj's wife in France, was filing a case before the European Court of Human Rights against the French government for refusing to provide him with any assistance. Sobhraj's conviction was confirmed by the Patan Court of Appeals in 2005.
In late 2007, news media reported that Sobhraj's lawyer had appealed to the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for intervention with Nepal. In 2008, Sobhraj announced his engagement to a Nepali woman Nihita Biswas (who later participated in the reality show Bigg Boss). 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.
It was claimed that Sobhraj married his fiancée on 9 October 2008 in jail on Bada Dashami, a Nepalese festival. 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 30 July 2010 the Supreme Court upheld the verdict issued by the district court in Kathmandu of a life sentence for the murder of Connie Jo Bronzich and another year, plus a Rs 2,000 fine for entering Nepal illegally. The seizure of all Sobhraj's properties was also ordered by the court. Sobhraj’s “wife” Nihita and “mother-in-law” Shakuntala Thapa, a lawyer, expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict, with Thapa claiming that Sobhraj had been "denied" justice and that the "judiciary is corrupt." They were charged and sent to judicial custody for contempt of court because of these remarks.
On 18 September 2014, Sobhraj was convicted in Bhaktapur district court of the murder of Canadian tourist Laurent Carrière.
In popular culture
- Sobhraj has been the subject of three nonfiction books, Serpentine (1979) by Thomas Thompson,The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobrhaj (1980) by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke. and the section titled "The Bikini Murders" by Noel Barber in the Reader's Digest collection Great Case of Interpol (1982). Neville and Clarke's book was the basis for a 1989 made-for-TV movie, Shadow of the Cobra.
- The 2015 Bollywood film Main Aur Charles, directed by Prawaal Raman and Cyznoure Network, is reportedly based on Charles Sobhraj's escape from Tihar Jail, New Delhi. The film was initially produced by Pooja Bhatt but due to differences midway into the shoot, Pooja left the film.
- On the TV series Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the character of Nicole Wallace, portrayed by Olivia d'Abo, is loosely based on Marie-Andrée Leclerc. In the episode "Slither" (which was originally to be titled "Serpentine"), Michael York appears as Bernard Fremont, Wallace's mentor and former partner-in-crime, who is based on Sobhraj.
- In 2019, Netflix and BBC announced the production of an eight-part series called The Serpent focusing on Sobhraj's capture and trial.
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