True Crime
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Charles Sobhraj- The Master Criminal

The Netflix movie ‘The Serpent’ and the recent BBC television show by the same title is based on the life of the notorious master of crime Charles Sobhraj. 

Born on April 6th, 1944 as Hotchand Bhawnani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj, he was French-Vietnamese, fathered by an Indian man who had married a Vietnamese woman in Saigon.

Monster of Depravity

He was popularly known as the ‘Bikini Killer’ due to his preying on victims attired in bikinis. However, the nickname ‘The Serpent’ was more popular because of his ability to evade the law and slip out of prison.

How many crimes did Sobhraj commit is anybody’s guess. His criminal activities were mainly centered around hippies who traveled the south-east Asia "Hippie Trail". 

His criminal activity began when he committed petty crimes as a teenager. He befriended Felix d'Escogne, a young man of wealth, and got introduced to French high society. But that was not enough. Sobhraj also got acquainted with the criminal underworld. He married Chantal Compagnon and in 1970 left France for Asia. 

He sired a daughter, Usha, in Mumbai and continued his life of crime engaging in theft, gambling, and smuggling. Arrested in 1973, he feigned illness and escaped jail, and landed in Kabul. He continued his criminal activities of attacking hippie tourists on the hippie trail in Asia. 

Sobhraj traveled to Iran and various Middle East countries, Turkey and Greece, continuing a life of crime. He managed his survival and financed his style of living posing as a gems dealer, and lured his victims with offers of obtaining drugs, partying, and places to crash out.

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Scenes of Crime

One of Sobhraj’s tactics was earning the trust of tourists by helping those who were in difficulty. But this offer of assistance was his ploy to target them. In India he met Marie-Andre Leclerc from Quebec, Canada, who became his girlfriend, blindly followed him and was an accomplice in his crimes.

Of the many victims who fell prey to Sobhraj, Teresa Knowlton was the first. What was made to look like a case of drowning in Thailand was later found out to be murder after a forensic and autopsy investigation. 

Then there was Dominique Renelleau, a Frenchman who was made to look as if he suffered from dysentery. He was actually poisoned. Next was Vitali Hakim, a Sephardic Jew, who was burnt to death on the way to the resort in Pattaya. 

Henk Bitanja and his fiancée Cornellia Hemker, ages 29 and 25 respectively, were poisoned. They had met Sobhraj in Hong Kong and accepted his offer to visit Thailand. He did not allow them to die but nurtured them back to health. 

When his former victim Hakim’s girlfriend, Charmayne Carou, came to Thailand to investigate his disappearance. Sobhraj got Bitanja and Hemker out of the way by strangling them and burning their bodies in order not to be exposed. This took place in December 1975. 

Not long after, Carou was found drowned. She was wearing a bikini like his previous victim Teresa Knowlton. The connection between the two drownings was established much later.

Other instances of Sobhraj’s criminal activity include the murders of Canadian Laurent Carrière, and American Connie Jo Bronzich, both of whom were just 26 and 29 years of age. He had killed them in Nepal after he had fled there from Thailand. Later in India, (perhaps in Varanasi), he killed an Israeli,  Avoni Jacob, so that he could get his passport. 

He went to Singapore then back again to India and then to Bangkok. In Bangkok, he was questioned by the police regarding his activities but released as the authorities feared negative publicity against their tourist industry.

Arrest and Escape

In Mumbai he formed a new criminal group, initially with two women from the West. His next victim was Jean-Luc Solomon, a Frenchman whom he poisoned. The victim died, though Sobhraj did not intend to kill him. In July 1976, he was in Delhi. 

With his criminal team of women, he managed to drug a group of French university students. However, the botched attempt led to his arrest by the police who were contacted by the students who did not fall unconscious under the drug he had given them. 

He was sent to Tihar jail with his accomplices and given a 12-year sentence. His sentence concerning the cases against him in Thailand were ended before the 20-year period of the statute of limitations. He lived a luxurious life while in Tihar jail. 

After he escaped from jail by drugging the guards and fellow inmates when he arranged a big party for them, he was nabbed in a restaurant in Goa and given another 10 years in prison. This ploy helped him to evade extradition to Thailand. With no country to extradite him to, he was allowed to return to France in February 1997, with evidence and witnesses against him unavailable after so long a period.

 

Sobhraj lived a comfortable life in France. In 2003 he returned to Nepal and in September was apprehended by the police who saw reports about him in the local newspaper The Himalayan Times. In August 2004 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of Bronzich and Carrière.

What is known about the murders committed by Charles Sobhraj is from what has been told by him. How much of it is truth and what is lies can’t be determined, as he is a compulsive liar

Will we ever come to know how many crimes he has committed? At 77 years of age in April 2021, he is in poor health and has undergone many heart surgeries.

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