Q ENTERTAINMENT – In the 1970s, a wave of murders perpetrated by Frenchman Charles Sobhraj shocked Asia. Known as “the Serpent” or “the bikini killer”, Sobhraj acted with determination and was noted for his ruses to elude the authorities using the passports of his victims, who used to be Western tourists who walked the so-called hippie trail of the Indian subcontinent.
The dramatic life of the infamous serial killer, now 77, has inspired literary, film and most recently a television series co-produced by the BBC and Netflix.
But who really was “the Serpent” and how does he spend his days today?
Born in Saigon in 1944, the son of an Indian merchant who denied him paternity and one of his Vietnamese employees, Sobhraj obtained French nationality when, after the separation of his parents, his mother married a French military man and settled in Marseille, in the south of France.
The rejection of his father marked him and caused him resentment and hatred: “I will make you regret having failed in your duty as a father,” Sobhraj wrote in his diary.
A terrible prediction that may have come true.
During his adolescence he never quite fit in in Europe. He was dedicated to street assault and car theft in Paris. He was in and out of reformatories, and when he came of age he fell into prison.
His first love
But when he left he got a job thanks to the intervention of a benevolent, who also introduced him to Chantal Compagnon, a member of the Parisian bourgeoisie, with whom he fell in love to the point of obsession.
For a short time, Sobhraj tried to abandon the criminal path and got a job in a restaurant, but his unbridled taste for luxury and money quickly pushed him back to crime.
Shortly after, he was arrested again for carjacking, but Compagnon, blinded by his charms, waited for him to get out of jail and married him. Together they undertook a trip to the Asian continent, in which they had a daughter.
At age 30, “the Serpent” had already made Thailand his new center of operations.
Many people who knew him agree that he was a charismatic individual.
“Charles Sobhraj’s specialty was murdering hippies who came to discover Asia,” he explains in a VICE article by Gary Indiana, who met “the Serpent” in the 1980s.
The author suggests that because of its “provincial” and “non-European” appearance, white tourists on the hippie trail found it interesting and “harmless.”
“Sobhraj had no qualms about scamming these spiritually thirsty backpackers. He despised these people, considered them cowards and immoral,” he adds.
Why he murdered “hippies” is still a mystery, but some who followed closely in his footsteps hint that the answer may lie in childhood trauma.
Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch diplomat who, after the death of a Dutch couple in Thailand that the local police did not bother to investigate, began to connect the dots and uncover the crimes, believes that he killed them because they did not obey him easily.
“By resisting Sobhraj’s proposals, he revived the concern he had during his childhood of being rejected,” he explained in a conversation with British journalist Andrew Anthony.
Arrest and escape
By the 1970s the hippie trail had become a popular destination for many young Europeans and Americans traveling from Western Europe to the Far East, via the Middle East and India.
At that time the border controls were not so strict and “the Serpent” took advantage of it.
The romance with Chantal Compagnon ended when both were arrested in Afghanistan, he managed to escape by drugging a guard; she remained in prison, but upon leaving her decided to start a new life away from her troublesome husband.
Nonetheless, Sobhraj told journalist Andrew Anthony – who interviewed him in Paris in the 1990s and then in 2014 in a prison in Nepal – that Compagnon continued to support him financially and they remained in contact long after their separation.
Two years after her arrest in Kabul, Sobhraj met Quebecer Marie-Andrée Leclerc in Srinagar, India, and convinced her to spend the summer together in Thailand.
“As long as I can talk to people, I can manipulate them.”Charles Sobhraj, the Serpent
Leclerc also did not resist the charms of this man of whom she knew little at the time, but who would change her life forever.
Little by little she was being dragged, she began to participate in the crimes and ended up becoming her accomplice.
The modus operandi of the “bikini killer” was to drug his victims, before taking their belongings.
He earned that nickname after being linked to the deaths of several bikini-clad Western women at the Pattaya resort in Thailand.
He took advantage of the naivety of many Western tourists, gaining their trust by inviting them or having a drink: then the victims often woke up in bed with no recollection of the night before.
“He was a man of multiple identities: he was an Israeli intellectual one day and the other a Lebanese cloth seller, and he would travel around Asia looking for his prey,” Gary Indiana recalls in his article published by Vice.
At times, Leclerc and Sobhraj abducted their victims for days, even weeks. The Canadian gave them a “medicine” that caused confusion and nausea.
They also stole their passports to travel and operate in other countries in the region, thus confusing the authorities.
This form of sneaking catapulted the Frenchman as “the serpent.”
Charles Sobhraj was reportedly fluent in several languages, which was helpful to him when he assumed the identities of his numerous victims.
His ability to commit crimes was only matched by his ability to escape from prison: he is believed to have escaped from prisons in Afghanistan, Greece, Iran and India.
The amazing party that helped him escape from jail
In 1971, he escaped from a jail in India – where he was serving a 20-year sentence for poisoning French tourists riding a bus – feigning appendicitis and fleeing from the hospital.
He was arrested again in 1976, but ten years later he was able to escape in an even more surprising way: by throwing a birthday party to which he invited both guards and prisoners.
The grapes and cookies handed out to the guests were injected with sleeping pills, knocking all but Sobhraj and four other fugitives unconscious.
According to the local press, the group was so proud of his escape that they photographed themselves walking through the prison gates into the streets of New Delhi.
US$15 million for his image
As a fugitive, Sobhraj did not go to great lengths to hide from justice and frequently went out to enjoy the nightlife. That’s why it wasn’t long before he was arrested again.
Some estimate that he decided to escape towards the end of his ten-year sentence in India to be captured again and thus face new charges. That way he could avoid extradition to Thailand, where he was wanted for five murders and almost certainly face the death penalty.
When he was released in 1997, the 20-year term for him to be tried in Bangkok had expired.
Sobhraj returned to France, started a new life in Paris’s Chinatown, hired an agent, and negotiated interviews and photos.
He managed to sell rights to a movie and a book for US$15 million.
Victim of his own ego
But in September 2003 he made a mistake: he traveled to Nepal and was immediately recognized.
Many say that he was a victim of his own ego.
They tried him for having traveled with a false passport and for the murders of two American citizens that he would have carried out 28 years earlier.
Despite being accused of the deaths of 20 people who were drugged, strangled, beaten or burned in India, Thailand, Nepal, Turkey and Iran between 1972 and 1982, it was not until August 2004 that “the Serpent” was convicted of murder for the first time.
As was customary, Sobhraj denied the charges, but the police said that this time they had a “suitcase full” of evidence against him and the court sentenced him to life imprisonment.
He is currently still detained in Nepal and in September 2014 he was convicted of a second murder, that of a tourist from Quebec.
Interviewed by biographer Richard Neville, author of Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, the serial killer confessed: “As long as I can talk to people, I can manipulate them.”
Prison has not prevented him from continuing with his life.
For more than 10 years he has been in a loving relationship with Nihita Biswas, the daughter of one of his Nepalese lawyers. According to local media, he married her in 2010.
And according to the British newspaper the Sunday Mirror, which managed to speak to him in March, “the Serpent” still pleads not guilty.