The real history of The Serpent: the true story of Charles Sobhraj
From Bangkok to Bombay, Charles Sobhraj left a trail of destruction wherever he ventured. With BBC drama The Serpent now streaming on Netflix in the US, Nige Tassell reveals the story of the brazen career criminal who graduated from petty theft to cold-blooded murder
Charles Sobhraj was once asked what makes someone a murderer. “Either they have too much feeling and cannot control themselves,” he answered, “or they have no feelings. It is one of the two.”
Sobhraj definitely falls into the latter camp. Born in Saigon in 1944 to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother (and brought up at a young age by his mother and her subsequent partner, a French Army adjutant sergeant stationed in French Indochina), he attracted notoriety due to a string of murders during the mid-1970s along the well-trodden ‘hippie trail’ that took western backpackers across southern Asia.
The dozen or so murders attributed to Sobhraj (some estimates put the number of his victims at more than double that figure) weren’t the result of an out-of-control bloodlust. His worldview was such that murder was a way of maintaining his transcontinental lifestyle. Boasting both good looks and ineffable charm, Sobhraj would befriend those he encountered on his travels before disposing of them, usually after having drugged them. He would then steal his victims’ identities, travelling on their passports to move from country to country undetected.
Sobhraj appears not to have derived particular pleasure from the act of murder. Nor did there seem to be any internal moral conflict around it. To use his earlier words, he had “no feelings”.
Who was Charles Sobraj?
Sobhraj’s early life, spent shuttling between Indochina and France, was pockmarked by petty crime and he found himself in jail for the first time in 1963, having been convicted of burglary. While incarcerated, he made the acquaintance of a wealthy prison volunteer named Felix d’Escogne, with whom he moved in upon his release. Just as he had shifted between continents, Sobhraj found himself able to shift effortlessly between the streetwise criminal fraternity of Paris and the city’s high society. Becoming such a social-class chameleon formed the bedrock of his criminal success. He could charm anyone and everyone.
In 1970, Sobhraj married Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian from a devoutly conservative family. He and a pregnant Compagnon travelled to Asia, indulging in petty crime to grease their way; robbing tourists and travelling on the stolen passports. Once there, his criminal activity increased, encompassing everything from car smuggling to armed robbery. Accordingly, he was no stranger to the inside of a jail cell, but he was also familiar with devising plans to get back out again.
On more than one occasion he feigned illness in order to be taken to hospital, whether claiming to be suffering from appendicitis or vomiting fake blood.
In Kabul, Sobhraj once drugged the guard minding his room and simply walked out of the hospital. Sobhraj developed a capacity to misuse the trust of those close to him. After his most recent jailbreak he fled to Iran, deserting Compagnon, who was forced to return to her family in Paris. He then spent a couple of years on the run across Eastern Europe and the Middle East, aided by his half-brother. But when the pair were arrested in Athens, Sobhraj switched identities to escape. His younger sibling was eventually sentenced to two years and ten months in jail.
By the time he carried out his first murder, Sobhraj had teamed up with a young Indian man, Ajay Chowdhury. Their first victim was Teresa Knowlton, a backpacker from Seattle who was found drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand in 1975. Knowlton was wearing a bikini; when a future victim was found similarly attired, Sobhraj gained one of his nicknames: the Bikini Killer.
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In Thailand, where he alternated between posing as a drug dealer and a jewel salesman, Sobhraj hooked up with a French-Canadian traveller called Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who became his most devoted accomplice. The next victim was a traveller named Vitali Hakim, whose burnt body was found near the resort where Sobhraj and Leclerc were living. Two Dutch students followed, their bodies found strangled and, again, burnt. Then came the discovery of the corpse of Charmayne Carrou, Hakim’s girlfriend, who had travelled to Thailand to investigate his disappearance.
This was how Sobhraj recruited his accomplices: charming and flattering them to the point that they seemingly became devoted to him
Sobhraj and Leclerc then absconded to Nepal where they met and murdered a pair of North American backpackers and travelled into India before returning to Thailand, all using their victims’ passports. By now, a handful of Sobhraj and Leclerc’s associates in Thailand suspected them of carrying out the murders and, before fleeing back to France, notified the authorities.
Sobhraj, Leclerc and Chowdhury travelled together to Singapore and then India where they committed another murder, that of Israeli tourist Alan Aaron Jacobs, for apparently no other reason than to take his passport. They returned to Bangkok in spring 1976, unaware that Sobhraj was by then a wanted man. However, after being interrogated by the police, he was released, with the Thai authorities apparently keen to avoid the negative effect on tourism that a murder trial would create.
How did Sobhraj evade capture?
A 1994 profile in The Independent identified Sobhraj’s strengths, those that helped him evade capture. He was described as being “an expert in gems and psychology; like a diamond-cutter, he has a knack for spotting a flaw in a person’s character and reshaping that person to a design of his own evil brilliance”.
This was how Sobhraj recruited his accomplices: charming and flattering them to the point that they seemingly became devoted to him. He did likewise to those whose lives he cut short, preying on the wide-eyed and vulnerable. “Young idealists, trusting backpackers and hash-smoking stoners were looking to get lost,” wrote Andrew Anthony, “and Sobhraj made sure some of them were never found.”
The trio left Thailand for Malaysia, at which point Chowdhury was never seen again, the belief being that Sobhraj had dispatched him for fear of his crimes being exposed. Sobhraj and Leclerc continued their travels – to Switzerland, to India – posing as jewel traders. After notching up another victim in Bombay, Sobhraj finally came unstuck in New Delhi.
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The audacity of this latest sting was his undoing. Having tricked a 60-strong group of French postgraduate students into taking anti-dysentery medication (with the intention of robbing them all while they were unconscious), Sobhraj miscalculated the doses. When some of the students were quickly and violently sick, the group realised their new friend had ulterior motives and overpowered him before calling the police.
Sobhraj was detailed at Tihar prison in New Delhi, but went straight on the charm offensive. He had smuggled some gemstones into the jail and used these to bribe prison officers and ensure he lived in relative comfort. He also turned his trial into a spectacle, going on hunger strike as well as hiring and firing his legal team at will. He was given 12 years’ imprisonment for attempted robbery.
Sobhraj continued to live well in jail, having the luxury of his own television set and dining on fine food. His ability to gain the favour and confidence of others was undiminished. After 10 years inside, though, Sobhraj faced a dilemma. While he was in jail, the murders he’d committed in Thailand had been thoroughly investigated, in particular by a Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, who had originally been charged with uncovering what had happened to those two Dutch students. Having raided Sobhraj’s home, Knippenberg had found a pile of passports and driving licences, suggesting that Sobhraj’s victims numbered many more than those known.
Realising that he faced near-certain conviction – and thus execution – in Thailand, Sobhraj hatched a plan. With two years left on his sentence, he threw a party in his New Delhi jail for officers and inmates, at which he drugged all the partygoers with sleeping pills and simply walked out of prison.
He then ‘hid’ in clear sight, being apprehended in a restaurant in Goa shortly after. This escape saw his sentence extended by a further 10 years – exactly as he had intended. By the time of his release in 1997, the 20-year arrest warrant issued by the Thai authorities had expired. He now couldn’t be charged for all those murders in Thailand.
Where is Charles Sobbhraj today?
Upon release, Sobhraj returned to Paris where he enjoyed a certain strange celebrity. But this life appeared not exciting enough for him, and he chose to go back into the danger zone. In 2003, he travelled to Nepal where, on the streets of Kathmandu, he was recognised and arrested for the murders of the two North American backpackers in 1975. He was tried and received a life sentence; he is still incarcerated there today.
Even if he turned out not to be the untouchable figure he thought he was, Charles Sobhraj never once doubted himself or his motives. “I can justify the murders to myself,” he once claimed, looking back over the mayhem and destruction he left in his wake. “I never killed good people.”
Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history. The eight-part series The Serpent is now streaming on Netflix in the US, and is still available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
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This content first appeared in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed