In 1960, at age 16, Sobhraj began stealing and in 1963, age 19 he received his first jail sentence for burglary and 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 Mumbai, 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 ‘family members’, 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, 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.