Charles Sobhraj: Difference between revisions

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Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, using as many as 10 [[identity theft|stolen passports]] and visiting several countries in East Europe and the [[Middle East]]. He was joined in [[Istanbul]] by André, his younger brother. Sobhraj and André quickly became partners in many crimes in both [[Turkey]] and [[Greece]]. Both were eventually arrested in [[Athens]]. After an identity-switch plan gone wrong, Sobhraj escaped in his usual manner. But he left his brother behind. André was turned over to the Turkish police by Greek authorities. He had to serve an 18-year sentence{{Fact|date=July 2008}}.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, using as many as 10 [[identity theft|stolen passports]] and visiting several countries in East Europe and the [[Middle East]]. He was joined in [[Istanbul]] by André, his younger brother. Sobhraj and André quickly became partners in many crimes in both [[Turkey]] and [[Greece]]. Both were eventually arrested in [[Athens]]. After an identity-switch plan gone wrong, Sobhraj escaped in his usual manner. But he left his brother behind. André was turned over to the Turkish police by Greek authorities. He had to serve an 18-year sentence{{Fact|date=July 2008}}.
On the run again, Sobhraj financed his lifestyle by posing as a mysterious drug dealer to impress tourists and [[fraud|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 his 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 science|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.
[[Netherlands|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 [[strangulation|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 be identified.
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 authorities.
Sobhraj then went to [[Calcutta]], where he murdered [[Israel]]i 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 law enforcement.
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 Jail|Tihar prison]] outside [[New Delhi]] while awaiting formal trial.
==Prison time==
==Prison time==

Revision as of 05:36, 16 July 2008

File:Charles Sobhraj in France.jpg
Charles Sobhraj in France.

Charles (Gurumukh) Sobhraj (born April 6, 1944 in Saigon, Vietnam) is a French 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 skills at deception and evasion, he allegedly committed at least 12 murders and was jailed in India from 1976 to 1997, but managed to live a life of leisure in prison. He retired as a celebrity in Paris, then unexpectedly returned to Nepal, where he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on August 12, 2004.

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.

Early years

Sobhraj was born Gurmukh Sobhraj to an unwed Vietnamese mother and an Indian father (Sindhi tailor) in Saigon. The father soon deserted the family. The mother blamed the child. Stateless at first,[1] he was adopted by his mother's new boyfriend, a French lieutenant stationed in Indochina. However he was neglected in favour of the couple's later children. Sobhraj continues to move back and forth between France and Indochina with this family, not feeling at home in either place[citation needed]. As a teenager he developed personality problems soon turned to petty crime.

Sobhraj received his first[citation needed] jail sentence (for burglary) in 1963 at Poissy prison near Paris. However, not only did he weather the harsh conditions of jail, he managed to manipulate the prison official into granting him special favours like being allowed to keep books in his cell, etc. At around the same time he met and endeared himself to Felix d'Escogne.

After being paroled, Sobhraj moved in with d'Escogne[citation needed] and shared his time between moving in the high society of Paris and the criminal underworld. He soon started accumulating riches through a series of scams and burglaries. During this time, he met and began a relationship with Chantal who was from a conservative Parisian family. On the night he proposed to her, Sobhraj was arrested for evading police while driving a stolen car. He was sentenced back to prison time in Poissy for eight months. Chantal remained supportive during his prison time. Sobhraj and Chantal were married upon his release[citation needed].

Soon after, facing mounting suspicions by French authorities, he and a now pregnant Chantal left France for Asia to escape arrest. After travelling through Eastern Europe on fake documents and robbing people who befriended them, they arrived around in Bombay in 1970. Here Chantal gave birth to a baby girl[citation needed].While in Bombay, the couple made a good impression on the expatriate community there. In the meantime, Sobhraj resumed his criminal lifestyle by running a car theft and smuggling operation. The profits from this operation of which were used towards his growing gambling addiction[citation needed].

In 1970, Sobhraj was arrested and imprisoned after a unsuccessful armed robbery attempt on a jewellery store in Hotel Ashoka. Sobhraj did manage to escape with Chantal's help and faking illness, but they were re-captured shortly afterwards. He borrowed money for bail from his father in Saigon and soon after fled to Kabul in Afghanistan[citation needed].

In Kabul, the couple continued robbing tourists on the "hippie trail" only to be arrested once again. But Sobhraj escaped, the same way he had in India, feigning illness and drugging the hospital guard. This time Sobhraj fled to Iran leaving his family behind. Chantal, although still loyal to him, wishing to leave their criminal past behind, returned to France and vowed never see him again[citation needed].

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 André, his younger brother. Sobhraj and André quickly became partners in many crimes in both Turkey and Greece. Both were eventually arrested in Athens. After an identity-switch plan gone wrong, Sobhraj escaped in his usual manner. But he left his brother behind. André was turned over to the Turkish police by Greek authorities. He had to serve an 18-year sentence[citation needed].

Prison time

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 1984.

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.[citation needed] 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.

Shobhraj 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 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 $15 million[citation needed] for the rights to a movie based on his life[citation needed].

In September 17, 2003 Sobhraj was unexpectedly spotted 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 in August 20, 2004 for the 1975 murders of Bronzich and Carrière. Most of the evidence used against him in this case was drawn from that painstakingly gathered by Knippenberg and Interpol.

Sobhraj 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 Kathmandu Court of Appeals in 2005.

Current status

In late 2007, news media reported[citation needed] that Sobhraj's lawyer had appealed to the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for intervention with Nepal. Sobhraj's lawyer claims that he has been the victim of racial prejudice[2]. In 2008, Sobhraj announced his engagement to Nihita Biswas (aged 20) from Nepal[3]. The couple have announced marriage in France if Sobhraj was released by the Nepalese supreme court. On 7 July, 2008, issuing a press release through his fiancee Nihita, he claimed that was never convicted of murder by any court and asked media not to refer to him as a serial killer bonis. [4].


  • Julie Clarke & Richard Neville (1980). The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj. Pan Macmillan. ISBN 0-330-27001-X. 
  • Thomas Thompson (1979). Serpentine. Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0-7867-0749-6. 
  • Julie Clarke & Richard Neville (1989). Shadow of the Cobra. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0140129373. 


  • The made for TV movie Shadow of the Cobra (1989) is based on Sobhraj[1]


External links