For anyone who hasn’t seen the recent BBC drama series The Serpent, (now available on Netflix), let me tell you it is absolutely worth the watch. Burrowing into the dark side of hippie culture, it chronicles the life of Charles Sobhraj, who drugged and murdered over a dozen people between 1975 and 1976. The casting is exquisite. The 70’s fashion is stunning. The suspenseful atmosphere is utterly compelling through the thick haze of cigarette smoke constantly wafting through the air. Tahir Rahim, who plays Sobhraj, introduces us to a man obsessed with his image and how he is perceived. A man who appears quiet and calm, yet has a brutal anger simmering beneath the surface. The story of Charles Sobhraj is an astonishing one. But who was the man behind the smooth exterior? This blog hopes to find out.
Who was Charles Sobhraj?
Born in Saigon to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother in 1944, Sobhraj was the product of an unhappy marriage. His parents soon divorced, and Sobhraj ended up being adopted by his mother’s new boyfriend, a French lieutenant stationed in French Indochina. His childhood was spent travelling between France and Indochina, and he found himself shunted to the side in favour of his new siblings. He began to commit petty crimes in his early teens, getting arrested for the first time in 1963 for burglary. He was sent to Poissy prison outside of Paris. Charles quickly learnt to use his charismatic skills to manipulate prison officials into granting him special favours.
During his time in prison, Charles met a wealthy prison volunteer named Felix d’Escogne. They became friends and upon his parole, Sobhraj moved in with him. This new-found friendship gave Charles an exclusive ticket into the upper echelon of Parisian society. He soon became adept at maneuvering between the murky waters of the criminal underworld and the high society of Paris. This skill, the ability to fit in with any crowd, would become the foundation of his success as a criminal. He could draw anyone in and beguile everyone.
Charles and Chantal
During this time, Sobhraj met a young Parisian woman named Chantal Compagnon. She was from a religious and conservative family. They began to date and Charles proposed to Chantal, but he was arrested on the same day for driving a stolen vehicle and resisting arrest. He was sentenced to eight months in prison, yet Chantal remained loyal and supportive. They were wed upon his release. In 1970, Sobhraj and a now pregnant Chantal left for Asia, committing petty crimes along the way. They robbed tourists of cash and travelled using their stolen passports to avoid detection.
Sobhraj in India
In late 1970, Sobhraj and Chantal arrived in Mumbai, India. It was here that Chantal gave birth to a baby girl, who they named Usha. Charles’ criminal activities here increased in size and nature. He began to run a smuggling and car theft operation. Any profits that were made went towards funding his flourishing gambling addiction. However, his luck in India was about to run out. In 1973, Sobhraj was arrested after attempting to rob a jewelry store at the Ashoka Hotel in New Dehli. He attempted the burglary by drilling into the store from a room directly above it. The occupier of the room, a Spanish cabaret singer named Gloria Mandelik, later testified that Sobhraj had conned her.
She believed that he was the owner of a large chain of hotels who had offered her a profitable deal. She gave him the keys to her room while she left for work. When she returned, Sobhraj was still there with the remains of his now broken drill. He then convinced her to pose as a prospective buyer and request a private viewing of some expensive jewels from the jewellery store below. When they arrived, Sobhraj pulled out a gun and drugged both Mandelik and the jeweller. He then tied them up and took the keys to the store. He let himself into the jewellery store and calmly filled a bag with diamonds and gems estimated around $20,000 USD before leaving the hotel through the front door.
A Twist of Fate
After the robbery, it took three hours for the drugs to wear off and the alarm to be raised. Suspected of fleeing the country, police squads hurried to the airport in search of Charles. Their hunch was correct, but Sobhraj noticed them first and quickly vanished. He told a nearby customs official that he needed to use the restroom and disappeared. Hope quickly began to fade for the police as the search for Sobhraj continued in vain. However, two weeks later, a young foreign tourist in Bombay contacted the police claiming to be the victim of a mugging. Bombay police arrested the suspect who was in possession of an unlicenced revolver. It was Charles Sobhraj. He was soon connected with the Ashoka robbery and was sent back to New Dehli to await trial.
Escaping Prison and Fleeing the Country
Once imprisoned in New Delhi, Charles began to formulate a plan. He faked the symptoms of appendicitis so precisely that he was sent to a nearby hospital to have surgery. Afterwards, with Chantal’s help, he drugged the guards outside his room and fled the hospital. The couple departed for Kabul, Afghanistan. Here, they returned to robbing tourists of their cash and passports. However, Sobhraj was arrested again. He escaped in the same way he had in New Delhi, and decided to flee to Iran alone, leaving Chantal and his daughter behind. Chantal, although still loyal and very much in love with Charles, returned to France. She was tired of the criminal lifestyle. Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, switching his identity between ten different passports.
Meeting Marie – Andrée
As a wanted man, Charles created a fake identity: Alain Gautier. He pretended to be a gemstone trader and salesman to impress and befriend tourists he met. In Kashmir, India in 1975, Sobhraj met Marie- Andrée Leclerc. She was a tourist looking for adventure from Quebec. He offered to show her around as an impromptu tour guide, and begged her to return to see him again after her trip. Over the next three months, the pair exchanged love letters back and forth. They arranged to meet up in Bangkok in October later that year. They moved into a flat near Bangkok’s infamous Patpong red light district, where they were joined by an old friend of Charles’, Ajay Chowdhury. Marie quickly became obsessed with Charles, and would go on to be his most devoted disciple.
From Petty Crimes to Meditated Murder
Sobhraj gathered followers through scams designed to gain their loyalty and trust. For example, he helped two former French policemen recover stolen passports that he had stolen himself. He also provided shelter and care for another Frenchman, Dominique Renelleau, who appeared to be suffering from dysentery, when in fact Sobhraj had poisoned him. Charles would then recruit these grateful acquaintances to join himself and Chowdhury in their crimes.The first murder that Sobhraj and Chowdhury ever committed was in 1975. Their first victim was a young woman named Teresa Knowlton from Seattle. She was found in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a flowered bikini.
The next victim was a young Turkish Sephardic Jew named Vitali Hakim. His burnt body was discovered on the road near the Pattaya resort. It was close to where Sobhraj and his group of followers were staying. Sobhraj later claimed that most of his murders were the result of accidental drug overdoses and were never meant to happen. However, investigators reiterated that the victims had threatened to expose Charles and his criminal operations, which led to their deaths. Two Dutch students, Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker, were invited to Thailand by Sobhraj after meeting him in Hong Kong on their travels. They, like others before them, were poisoned by Sobhraj and then nursed back to health to gain their trust. While they were recovering, Vitali Hakim’s girlfriend, Charmaine Carrou, appeared, investigating his disappearance.
Striving for Control
Worried about the two sick Dutch in his apartment, Sobhraj and Chowdhury hurriedly hauled them out of the building. Their bodies were later discovered strangled and burned on the 16th December, 1975. Not long after, Carrou was also found, drowned and wearing a similar style bikini to Sobhraj’s earlier victim, Teresa Knowlton. Although the two murders were unconnected at the time, they would later earn Charles the infamous moniker of ‘The Bikini Killer’. The deaths of the Dutch tourists would prove instrumental in the eventual capture of Sobhraj as they brought him to the attention of Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg.
An Unlikely Hero
Herman Knippenberg was a diplomat who received his first international posting to Bangkok from the Netherlands in the early 1970’s. He moved to Thailand to take up the position of third secretary with his wife at the time, Angela, by his side. In 1976, Knippenberg received concerned letters from the families of Henk and Cornelia. They had not been in touch for an unusually long period of time and their families were beginning to worry. Knippenberg could not let the situation go, despite being told to do so by his superiors. He believed that these families had the right to expect help from the Dutch Embassy in Thailand and vowed to do everything in his power to uncover the truth.
Knippenberg and Sobhraj
Weeks before Knippenberg received that fateful letter from the concerned Dutch families, two charred bodies had been discovered north of Bangkok. They were initially reported as two missing Australian backpackers, until the couple in question turned up a couple of weeks later. Following a hunch, Knippenberg decided to test the dental records of the missing Dutch couple against the unidentified bodies. The result was undeniable – it was a match. This revelation caused Knippenberg to remember a story he had been told by an administrative attache at the Belgian embassy. There was a circulating rumor that a French gem dealer called Alain Gautier was in possession of a large stash of passports, allegedly belonging to murder victims, and that two of the passports were Dutch.
The day after his trip to the morgue, Knippenberg contacted the Belgian attache and demanded to know where the information about the French gem trader had come from. After some persuasion, he was given a name, Nadine Gires. She was a Frenchwoman who lived in the same apartment block as Sobhraj and had worked for him by introducing him to new clients. Knippenberg arranged a meeting with her and learnt that other people working for Sobhraj had fled after the discovery of the passports, fearing that they had been murdered. She also mentioned that she had seen the Dutch couple, Henk and Cornelia, entering Sobhraj’s apartment. Upon receiving this information, Knippenberg alerted the Thai authorities, but continued to work the case against the wishes of the Dutch Embassy.
Hunting a Killer
In March, 1976, Gires rang Knippenberg to inform him that Sobhraj and Leclerc were planning a trip to Europe for an extended period of time. Knippenberg quickly reported this news to the police and Sobhraj’s apartment was raided within a few hours. Both Charles and Marie, now going by Monique, were taken into custody. However, Sobhraj had a stolen passport in his possession that he had inserted his own picture into. He claimed to be an American citizen with the passport as proof and was soon released. The following night, Gires was invited into Sobhraj’s apartment by one of his housemates and contacted Knippenberg in panic, worried about what to do. He tentatively asked her to go, worrying it might look suspicious otherwise. While there, Nadine managed to steal some passport pictures that were in the apartment, which provided new information on another victim.
Refusal to Give Up
Sobhraj’s escape from custody left Knippenberg frustrated and dispirited. He was receiving angry calls from officials back in the Netherlands who were discontent with the lack of action from the Thai police. A couple of weeks later, Gires contacted Knippenberg again, to let him know that Sobhraj’s landlord was planning on leasing out his apartment and disposing of his belongings. Knippenberg feared that essential evidence would be lost, and quickly gathered a team to go through the contents of the apartment. They found 5 kilos of medicine and three industrial-sized containers of a liquid drug that was described as both “a laxative and a chemical straightjacket” (CNN). They also unearthed the coat and handbag of Cornelia Hemker, the missing Dutch woman.
In May, 1976, the Dutch Ambassador advised Knippenberg to go public with his findings. The Bangkok Post printed an eruptive front page expose, entitled “Web of Death”. Following the release of the story in the media, the Thai authorities issued an Interpol notice and warrant for Sobhraj and Leclerc. Not for the first time, Sobhraj was now back on the run. At the time that the story went public, Sobhraj was back in France. But it wasn’t long before the headlines about his crimes back in Thailand hit international papers. He fled to India, along with Marie, and they arrived in New Dehli in early June 1976, having driven the whole way.
Capturing Charles Sobhraj
Sobhraj was finally apprehended in New Dehli in 1976. He had attempted to drug a group of French engineering students during a meal at the Hotel Vikram. He fooled them into taking the drugs by selling them as “anti-dysentery” medication, which many of the students swallowed on the spot. Alarmed by the sight of twenty people suddenly vomiting, the hotel clerk called the police. By a twist of fate, the officer that arrived on the scene was the only policeman in India that could accurately identify Sobhraj from his previous time in an Indian prison. Sobhraj was convicted for the attempted robbery of the French students and was sentenced to 12 years in New Dehli’s Tihar Prison.
Charles Sobhraj is thought to have murdered at least 20 tourists in total. He escaped from Tihar Prison in New Dehli in 1986, but was recaptured in Nepal in 2003 where he received a life sentence for murder. Charles is reportedly 77 years old today and remains in prison. Marie Andree Leclerc was also arrested in New Dehli. She was released, however, in 1983 and allowed to return home to Quebec, when she was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. She passed away a year later. Former Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, moved to Wellington, New Zealand, where he is living out his retirement with his wife. To date, the story of Sobhraj has been the subject of 4 biographies, 3 documentaries, a film and, of course, the eight-part series on Netflix, “The Serpent”.