Often referred to as ‘The Serpent’ or ‘The Bikini Killer’, Charles Sobhraj is one of the most famous serial killers and fraudsters of the 20th century.
Thought to have murdered at least 20 tourists in South East Asia, Sobhraj preyed upon victims along the region’s popular backpacking routes. Remarkably, despite the extent of his crimes, Sobhraj managed to evade capture for years. The cat-and-mouse chase between Sobhraj and law enforcers ultimately cemented his reputation as a ‘Serpent’ in the media.
Sobhraj’s crimes caught up with him, though, and he is currently serving a life sentence in Nepal after being convicted of murder.
Brought back to public attention by the 2021 BBC / Netflix series The Serpent, Sobhraj has earned notoriety as one of the most infamous serial killers of the 20th century. Curiosity and fascination with Sobhraj seems to know virtually no bounds.
Here are 10 facts about the infamous Serpent.
1. He had a turbulent childhood
Born to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother, Sobhraj’s parents were unmarried and his father subsequently denied paternity. His mother married a lieutenant in the French Army and although the young Charles was taken in by his mother’s new husband, he felt sidelined and unwelcome in their growing family.
The family moved back and forth between France and South East Asia for most of Sobhraj’s childhood. As a teenager, he began to commit petty crimes and eventually was imprisoned in France for burglary in 1963.
2. He was a con artist
Sobhraj began to make money through burglaries, scams and smuggling. He was extremely charismatic, sweet talking prison guards into giving him favours during any prison stints. On the outside, he made connections with some of the Parisian elites.
It was through his dealings with high society that he met his future wife, Chantal Compagnon. She remained loyal to him for a number of years, even giving him a daughter, Usha, before eventually deciding she could not raise a child whilst living the lifestyle of international criminals. She returned to Paris in 1973, vowing never to see Sobhraj again.
3. He spent at least two years on the run
Between 1973 and 1975, Sobhraj and his half-brother André were on the run. They travelled through Eastern Europe and the Middle East on a series of stolen passports, committing crimes in Turkey and Greece.
Eventually, André was caught by the Turkish police (Sobhraj escaped) and was sent to prison, serving an 18-year sentence for his actions.
4. He began scamming tourists in South East Asia
After André’s arrest, Sobhraj went solo. He concocted a scam he used on tourists again and again, posing as a gem dealer or drug dealer and gaining their trust and loyalty. Typically he poisoned tourists to give them symptoms resembling food poisoning or dysentery and then offered them a place to stay.
Recovering supposedly missing passports (which had in fact been stolen by him or one of his associates) was another of Sobhraj’s specialties. He worked closely with an associate called Ajay Chowdhury, who was a low-level criminal from India.
5. His first known murders were committed in 1975
It’s thought that Sobhraj first began his killing spree after victims of his fraud threatened to expose him. By the end of the year, he had killed at least 7 young travellers: Teresa Knowlton, Vitali Hakim, Henk Bintanja, Cocky Hemker, Charmayne Carrou, Laurent Carrière and Connie Jo Bronzich, all aided by his girlfriend, Marie-Andree Leclerc, and Chowdury.
The murders varied in style and type: the victims were not all connected, and their bodies were found in a variety of locations. As such, they were not associated by investigators or thought to be connected in any way. It’s unclear precisely how many murders Sobhraj committed in total, but it’s thought to be at least 12, and not more than 25.
6. He and his accomplices used their victims’ passports to travel
In order to escape Thailand unnoticed, Sobhraj and Leclerc left on the passports of their two most recent victims, arriving in Nepal, committing their final two murders of the year, and then leaving again before the bodies could be found and identified.
Sobhraj continued to use the passports of his victims to travel, evading the authorities several more times as he did so.
7. He was apprehended several times before being convicted
Thai authorities had captured and questioned Sobhraj and his accomplices in early 1976, but with little hard evidence and a great deal of pressure not to bring bad publicity or damage the booming tourist industry, they were released without charge. A Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, later discovered evidence that would have snared Sobhraj, including victims’ passports, documentation and poisons.
8. He was finally caught in New Delhi in 1976
By mid-1976, Sobhraj had started working with two women, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather. They offered their services as tour guides to a group of French students in New Delhi, who fell for the ruse.
Sobhraj offered them poison disguised as anti-dysentery medicine. It worked faster than expected, with some of the students falling unconscious. Others noticed, overpowering Sobhraj and handed him over to the police. He was eventually charged with murder, along with Smith and Eather, and the three were imprisoned in New Delhi awaiting trial.
9. Prison did little to stop him
Sobhraj was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he managed to smuggle precious gems in with him, ensuring he could bribe the guards and live comfortably in jail: reports say he had a television in his cell.
He was also allowed to give interviews to journalists during his incarceration. Notably, he sold the rights to his life story to Random House. After the book was published, following extensive interviews with Sobhraj, he denied the deal and denounced the book’s content as entirely fictional.
10. He was caught in Nepal in 2003 and sentenced for murder again
After serving time in Tihar, New Delhi’s jail, Sobhraj was released in 1997 and returned to France to great fanfare from the press. He conducted numerous interviews and reportedly sold the rights to a movie about his life.
In an inexplicably bold move, he returned to Nepal, where he was still wanted for murder, in 2003. He was apprehended after being recognised. Sobhraj claimed he had never visited the country before.
He was convicted for the double murder of Laurent Carrière and Connie Jo Bronzich, over 25 years after the crime. Despite numerous appeals, he remains in jail to this day. His infamous charisma remains as strong as ever, however, and in 2010 he married his 20-year-old interpreter whilst still in prison.