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Charles Sobhraj: The Serpent

Crime Files
Charles Sobhraj: The Serpent

Early life

He was born Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj in Saigon, Vietnam, which was under French rule at the time, and later claimed French nationality. His unmarried mother was Vietnamese and his father was a Sindhi Indian from Mumbai and deserted the family soon after Sobhraj’s birth.

Sobhraj was adopted by his mother’s new boyfriend, a French lieutenant stationed in Saigon. The couple married and the family moved to Marseille, France. He had an unsettled childhood, as the family moved constantly between France and Indochina, never feeling quite at home in either place. At a fairly young age, Sobhraj began to display personality problems and discipline became an issue. In his teens, he turned to petty crime, which soon began to escalate out of control.

The Arrest

Charles Sobhraj was in and out of prison since 1963 for a variety of crimes, including armed robbery, car theft and burglary. He served time in France, India and Afghanistan.

His first major arrest came in July 1976 after he tried to drug a group of French tourists in New Delhi. When the pills affected some of the group faster than the others, three of his victims had time to attack him and alert the authorities. Sobhraj was sentenced to 12 years in prison and really embraced his life inside. He bribed lots of the guards and proceeded to live a life of luxury.

However, he was due to be extradited and almost certainly executed for committing murder in Thailand after his release. So in 1986, he threw a massive party for all the guards and fellow inmates in the Indian prison. He took the opportunity to drug them all and simply walked out unopposed.

Sobhraj's plan worked perfectly. He was recaptured and had his sentence extended by 10 years to ensure he was free from the 20-year Thai statute of limitations.

He was released from prison in 1997 and returned to France where he lived comfortably. He then chose to move to Nepal in 2003 and promptly re-arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment the following year for the murders of Laurent Carrière and Connie Jo Bronzich.


The Victims

1975: Thailand - Teresa Knowlton, Jennie Bollivar, Vitali Hakim, Henk Bintanja, Cornelia Hemker and Charmayne Carrou (plus at least eight more).

1975: Nepal - Laurent Ormond Carriere and Connie Bronzich.

1975: India - Avoni Jacob and Jean-Luc Solomon.

The Trial

During the 1976 trial in New Delhi, Sobhraj was chiefly represented by criminal lawyer VK Ohri, who had seen him through previous court cases. However, Sobhraj also rather imperiously hired and fired lawyers and eventually brought in his recently paroled brother, André, to help.

He went on a hunger strike but to no avail. Sobhraj was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. He was spared India’s death penalty, even although the prosecution fought for it and some sources believed Sobhraj bribed court officials to avoid it. He was sentenced a further five years on other criminal charges, making a total of twelve years imprisonment.

The Aftermath

Despite the severe conditions at Tihar, Sobhraj managed to lead a leisurely prison life, bribing, threatening and blackmailing officials to get whatever he wanted. He enjoyed good wine, gourmet food, had access to a television, a typewriter, a fridge, a large library and even drugs, with fellow inmates apparently nicknaming him ‘Sir Sobhraj’.

Sobhraj kept prison officials in fear of him by threatening to file a petition against them in the Delhi High Court for even the smallest of issues. He banded together with fellow criminals, Vipin Jaggi and Sunil Batra, arrested for Delhi’s first big bank robbery in 1973. The group intimidated other inmates and often encouraged them to file petitions against prison officials. Sobhraj behaved as if he owned the place and had the entire run of Tihar prison. It is alleged that he could even be found on occasion having tea with prison superintendent.

In 1977 Thailand issued a 20-year arrest warrant for Sobhraj, for crimes committed on Thai soil. Leclerc maintained her innocence but was found guilty of drugging the French post-graduate students. She was later paroled and returned to Canada where she developed ovarian cancer. Vehemently declaring her innocence and loyal to Sobhraj until the end, she died in April 1984.

Sobhraj began to worry about the fact that he had been given a 12-year sentence in India, but upon his release, he still faced the 20-year Thai arrest warrant. As this would involve extradition to Thailand and almost certainly execution, Sobhraj formed new plans to escape from Tihar jail. He did this in order to be caught and sent back to jail in India, to wait for the warrant to fall under the Thailand statue of limitations and expire.

In 1986, Sobhraj’s tenth year in Tihar prison, he hatched his escape plan and had a number of people helping him. Among the 23 conspirators relating to Sobhraj‘s jailbreak were Rajinder Sethia, an infamous charlatan and Raju Bhatnagar, facing a number of charges for murder and kidnap for ransom.

The 16th March 1986 was a carefully chosen date for Sobhraj’s escape. It was a Sunday, with only a skeleton staff on duty between one and three in the afternoon. In celebration of his impending birthday, Sobhraj ordered sweets for the prison staff that guarded the gates. He had drugged the sweets and when the guards collapsed, he simply took their keys and let himself out. Superintendent B L Vij, deputy superintendent V D Pushkarna and a number of other prison officials in charge of Jail 3, Tihar, were suspended for dereliction of duty. Sobhraj had even worked his charm on a lady advocate, who agreed to join him in Goa after his escape from prison. However, the police arrested her before she could do so.

Three weeks after his escape, Sobhraj was tracked down and arrested by inspector Madhukar Zende, of the Bombay police, in Goa on 6 April 1986 and taken back to New Delhi. Jailbreak, with a potential 10-year maximum sentence, was added to the charges against Sobhraj, just as he had hoped. Maximum security was finally imposed and Sobhraj was kept handcuffed and fettered at Tihar, in an isolated cell and not allowed to mix with other inmates.

As the years passed, this tight security was somewhat lessened and Sobhraj was allowed to fraternise with others. He began befriending Western journalists who were desperate to get his story and who would visit him in jail. Sobhraj was selling his interviews to the media for as much as £2,500 and spoke openly of the murders, whilst never actually admitting to them. He maintained that his actions were purely in protest against Western imperialism in Asia.

Richard Neville from OZ magazine reported Sobhraj as saying, “If I have ever killed, or have ordered killings, then it is purely for reasons of business, just a job, like a general in the army.”

More than 20 years after he was first jailed for murder, Sobhraj was released on bail from Tihar prison on 17th February 1997, at age 52, pending a court hearing to decide what to do with him. The New Delhi chief metropolitan magistrate ordered Sobhraj’s bail conditions require him to provide two personal bonds and sureties, worth Rs20,000 and Rs10,000 respectively. He turned for help to an old cellmate, Ranbir Singh Rathore, who, along with his wife, Swaran, provided the bail.

The 20-year extradition warrant from Thailand had expired and Sobhraj was not in possession of legal travel and identity documents. This issue had to be resolved at a court hearing before he could be deported anywhere. Fearing he may go on the run again, authorities kept Sobhraj in custody at a police station during this time.

Sobhraj was represented by lawyer, Jacques Verges at the court hearing. The Indian government decided to deport Sobhraj to France, as he had always claimed French nationality, having been born in Vietnam when it was under French rule. The government also withdraw all pending cases against him, taking this decision, as they believed his further stay in India might have created law and order problems.

New Delhi additional sessions Judge Y S Jonwal finally allowed the public prosecutor to withdraw the remaining 1986 jailbreak case against Sobhraj, as he had already served more than twice the maximum 10-year sentence. The French Embassy in New Delhi issued Sobhraj with a travel permit and Indian authorities received the order of his expulsion from the country.

On 8 April 1997, two days after his 53rd birthday, Sobhraj was deported to France accompanied by two officials of the Foreigners Regional Registration Office. Sobhraj had become quite a media celebrity and the press crowded into Charles De Gaulle airport, awaiting his arrival. Sobhraj was detained at the airport for a number of hours, waiting for the media mob to leave.

Keeping in telephonic contact with his lawyer, Sobhraj settled in the suburbs of Paris to enjoy his retirement. Loving the attention and behaving like a celebrity, he hired an agent and began charging thousands for personal interviews and photographs. He entered a £7 million deal for an Indian film based on his life.

In 2003, Sobhraj surprisingly returned to Nepal, where he had committed crimes for which he had not yet been acquitted. This journey was to be his downfall, as a journalist saw him in the streets of Kathmandu on 17 September and reported it to local police. Sobhraj was arrested on 19 September 2003 at the Royal Casino in Kathmandu’s five-star Yak and Yeti Hotel.

On 20 August 2004, in the Kathmandu District Court, Sobhraj was found guilty of the 1975 murders of Laurent Carriere and Connie Bronzich and sentenced to life imprisonment. A substantial portion of the evidence in this case was provided by Interpol and Dutch investigator, Knippenberg, who had been collecting documentary evidence against Sobhraj for almost 30 years.

In late September 2004, Sobhraj’s long-suffering wife, Chantal, filed a case against the French government before the European Court of Human Rights for refusing to provide Sobhraj with any assistance. In 2005, Kathmandu’s Court of Appeals confirmed Sobhraj’s conviction. It is entirely unclear as to why Sobhraj would choose to return to Nepal when he had settled quite comfortably in France but there are some who claim it was ultimate arrogance combined with his constant need for attention that drove him to it.

Whilst latterly believed to be a psychopath, Sobhraj’s motives for murder were dissimilar from most other serial killers. He seemed not to be driven by any deep-seated violent impulses or twisted sexual fantasies, but rather by the need to find a ready source of finance for his outlandish lifestyle. In some people’s eyes, this only served to make him all the more chilling.

The Crimes

In 1960, at age 16, Sobhraj began stealing and received his first jail sentence for burglary in 1963. He was sentenced to three years at Poissy prison near Paris. In this harsh prison, Sobhraj began to hone his skills of manipulation in order to endear himself to prison officials to gain favours, such as keeping books in his cell.

In 1969, when Sobhraj was paroled, he moved in with Felix d’Escogne, a man he had met whilst in jail. He simultaneously lived the high society life in Paris, whilst also dabbling in the criminal underworld with various scams and burglaries. Women would fall for him, as he could be particularly charming. It was during this time that Sobhraj met a young lady, Chantal, from a conservative Parisian family, and they fell in love.

On the night that Sobhraj proposed to Chantal, he was arrested for evading police in a stolen car and sent back to Poissy prison for a further eight months, charged with car theft. Chantal waited for him and upon his release, they married. She soon fell pregnant but the couple began to worry about the fact that the French authorities had Sobhraj in their sights and the threat of arrest was ever-present. They decided to leave France for Asia and, using false travel documents, began travelling through Eastern Europe. They would befriend fellow travellers and then rob them of their valuables, beating a hasty retreat to the next victim.

In 1970, the couple arrived in Bombay, India, where Chantal gave birth to their daughter. Here they settled, in an attempt to provide a stable environment for their child. On the surface they made a good impression, endearing themselves to the Indian ex-pat community. However, Sobhraj had turned to crime once more and was running a car theft and smuggling enterprise. Instead of using the profits for something positive for his family, he ploughed them into his newfound hobby of gambling.

In December 1971, the couple fled to Kabul, Afghanistan, where they stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel for quite a while, apparently departing without paying the bill. It was here that Sobhraj made contacts for illegal gun smuggling, moving the weapons from Afghanistan by land route to sell in India. Sobhraj moved on to Pakistan, where in Rawalpindi he stole a car by drugging the driver, who died from poisoning. Around this time, he is alleged to have also been running a curio shop in Bangkok, in order to lure his favourite victims, foreign tourists. He would drug them, sometimes to death, and steal their belongings.

In 1973, Sobhraj committed an armed robbery at a jewellery shop in Hotel Ashoka, Delhi but was arrested and sent to prison. At the time of Sobhraj’s arrest, police confiscated a number of revolvers, rifles and other weapons from him. After a fortnight in prison, Sobhraj faked appendicitis and managed to escape during a blackout, as it was the time of the India-Bangladesh war. Sobhraj and Chantal went on the run but Sobhraj was soon caught and put back in prison. He managed to borrow money for bail and the couple fled India for Afghanistan.

They settled in Kabul, where they immediately began robbing tourists following the ‘hippie trail’ between Europe and Eastern Asia. Arrested again, Sobhraj escaped once more pretending illness and drugging the hospital guard. This time he left his family behind and fled to Iran.

Weary of the constant disruption to their lives that Sobhraj’s criminal activity brought, Chantal returned to France with her daughter, declaring that she never wanted to see Sobhraj again. For the next two years Sobhraj was on the run from authorities and travelled around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, always using stolen passports. His younger brother, André, joined him in Istanbul and the two of them went on a crime spree in Greece and Turkey. The brothers were arrested and imprisoned in Athens but Sobhraj managed to escape once more, leaving André to serve his sentence.

In 1975, Sobhraj moved to Thailand, becoming a drug dealer to finance his lifestyle. He had also hatched a new plan and that was to create a kind of criminal family, with him at the helm. His first devotee was Marie-Andreé Leclerc from Quebec, Canada. She fell for his charm and was content to ignore both his dalliances with other women and his criminal activity. To gather more members into his clan, Sobhraj formed a new con. He would select his victims, create a troublesome situation for them and then pose as the knight in shining armour who would solve the problem. Having no idea Sobhraj was the cause of their misery in the first place; they would feel indebted to him for his aid.

Using his fluency in French, he homed in on French tourists. Sobhraj stole former French policemen, Yannick and Jacques’ passports, and then helped the men retrieve them. Dominique Rennelleau from France thought he had dysentery when in fact Sobhraj had given him poisoned dysentery medication and then nursed him back to health.

Sobhraj and his "family" were staying at a resort in the beach town of Pattaya, where Sobhraj met a fellow criminal, Ajay Chowdhury. The young Indian man became Sobhraj’s second-in-command and the two embarked on a killing spree in 1975. Many of their victims had been part of the "family" and it is possible that they were killed to prevent them going to the authorities.

The first known victim was Teresa Knowlton, a young woman from Seattle who had travelled from Bangkok and was en route to Kathmandu, where she was to study Tibetan Buddhism at Kopan Monastery. She met Sobhraj, who allegedly offered to be her guide and to take her to Pattaya Beach, where her body was later found burned.

Jennie Bollivar, a young woman from America, had travelled to Thailand to meditate and to experience the Buddhist lifestyle. When she met Sobhraj, he tried to convince her to join his "family" but she refused. Bollivar was found drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand, near the town of Pattaya, wearing a flower-patterned bikini. A number of months passed before the autopsy results, combined with forensic evidence, proved the drowning in fact to be a murder.

The killers’ next victim was a young nomadic Sephardic Jew, Vitali Hakim. His body was found burned on the road to the Pattaya resort where the "family" were staying.

Henk Bintanja, 29 and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25 were Dutch students who had met Sobhraj in Hong Kong. He had invited them to Thailand and they took him up on his offer. When they arrived, Sobhraj poisoned them then nursed them back to health.

During this time, Charmayne Carrou, the girlfriend of Sobhraj’s previous victim, Hakim, came to investigate his disappearance. Anxious that she may discover what they had done, Sobhraj and Chowdhury swiftly dealt with the problem. Bintanja and Hemker’s bodies were found strangled and burned on 16th December 1975. Later that same month, Carrou was found drowned in similar circumstances to Bollivar, wearing a similar flower-patterned bikini. At first, police investigators did not connect the two cases but when they did, Sobhraj became known as ‘The Bikini Killer’.

Sobhraj decided it was time to move again and on 18th December 1975, he and Leclerc used Bintanja and Hemker’s Dutch passports to enter Nepal. It was here they met two travellers, Laurent Ormond Carriere, 26, from Canada and Connie Bronzich, 29, from California, whom they befriended. Carriere and Bronzich were murdered and their burned bodies found on 22nd December 1975. Some sources claim these victims were Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont. Sobhraj was questioned and then released by police in Kathmandu.

Sobhraj and Leclerc used Carriere and Bronzich’s passports to return to Thailand before their victims were identified. Once there, Sobhraj discovered his French friends, Yannick, Jacques and Rennelleau, had begun to suspect him of being involved in the Pattaya murders. In Sobhraj’s absence, they had discovered documents belonging to the victims in the resort at which they stayed.

Sobhraj fled to Calcutta, India, where he murdered an Israeli student, Avoni Jacob, for his passport. He used this to travel to Singapore and Malaysia with Leclerc and Chowdhury, then on to India and back to Bangkok, Thailand in March 1976. Sobhraj was questioned by Thai police in connection with the ‘Bikini Murders’ but was not charged. Some sources claim the reason for this was their fear of the potential negative publicity, adversely affecting the country’s tourist trade, such an action could create. Sobhraj immediately left Thailand for Malaysia.

Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch embassy diplomat, was investigating the murders of Bintanja and Hemker and Sobhraj was his prime suspect. Knippenberg began building a case against him and a month after Sobhraj had left Thailand, Knippenberg was given police permission to search Sobhraj’s apartment. He uncovered evidence including documents belonging to the murder victims and poisoned medicines. Encouraged, he continued to collect evidence in the case against Sobhraj, which eventually ran into decades.

In Malaysia, Sobhraj and Chowdhury stole thousands of pounds worth of precious gems. Shortly after this, Chowdhury disappeared and he was never found. It is alleged that Sobhraj murdered him before leaving Malaysia with Leclerc. The couple travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to sell their stolen jewels before returning to India to rebuild the ‘criminal family’.

Sobhraj’s new recruits were two lost tourists, Barbara Sheryl Smith and Mary Ellen Eather, whom he met in Mumbai. Sobhraj then befriended French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon whom he poisoned in a south Delhi hotel, with the intention to rob him, but Solomon died of the poison. It was Solomon’s death that would finally result in Sobhraj being imprisoned for 21 years in India.

In July 1976, New Delhi, Sobhraj, Leclerc, Smith and Eather managed to trick a group of post-graduate French students into accepting them as travel guides. Once again, Sobhraj used his poisoned dysentery medicine on the group however, this time it backfired because the poison began working a lot faster than he expected. When the first few students began falling where they stood, the others became alarmed and called the police. Sobhraj and his group of three women were arrested and interrogated. Sobhraj was charged with the murder of Jean-Luc Solomon and sent with Leclerc, Smith and Eather to the infamous Tihar prison outside New Delhi to await trial. Conditions at Tihar were extremely harsh and both Smith and Eather attempted suicide during the wait for their trial.