Hotchand Bhawnani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj aka Charles Sobhraj was a prolific criminal who loved fame, money, gambling and women. And Netflix’s new series, The Serpent gives us a sneak peak into his drama-filled life.
For those who don’t know, Sobhraj was known to prey on Western tourists, throughout the Hippie Trail of Southeast Asia during the 1970s.
Reportedly, he committed at least 12 murders in his lifetime. But, before we look into the crimes he committed, lets take a look at his life. So, here’s the story of the sinister & charming conman.
Sobhraj was born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian Sindhi father in Vietnam. After he and his mother were abandoned by his father, Sobhraj was adopted by his mother’s new boyfriend who was a French army lieutenant.
He had a pretty rough childhood. And as he turned into a teenager, he began to commit petty crimes. He got his first jail sentence when he was only 19-years-old.
During his time in prison, Sobhraj used his manipulating skills to get close to a wealthy prison volunteer named Felix d’Escogne. And with time, their bond and friendship grew stronger.
In fact, after Sobhraj was granted parole, they became roommates. And it was during this time that Sobhraj used Felix’s stature to enter the high society of Paris and to make his way into the criminal underworld.
He began committing petty scams and burglaries throughout his early 20s and it was during that time that he met Chantal Compagnon, the love of his life and his first wife.
The couple got married and fled to Mumbai from France during the 1970s. Along the way, they scammed other tourists and travelled through Eastern Europe using fake documents.
This was just the beginning of his criminal activities. For a while, he also ran a car theft and smuggling syndicate. He was also captured by the cops for trying to rob a jewellery store but, he managed to escape, all thanks to his loyal wife who faked her illness.
Sobhraj borrowed bail money from his father and fled to Kabul along with his wife. The couple continued their scams but they were arrested again. But he again escaped and fled to Iran after using the fake illness card again.
His wife on the other hand, had enough of the criminal life so she decided to return to France. During that time, Sobhraj spent 2 years on the run and used as many as 10 stolen passports for traveling through Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
While he was on the run, Sobhraj met his younger brother André who became his partner in crime. Though the duo didn’t last for long.
They were caught in Athens after pulling off scams in Istanbul. However, as luck would have it, Charles managed to escape but unfortunately, his brother couldn’t. His brother had to serve an 18-year-jail sentence.
While in Thailand, Sobhraj began to gather a following, through his charming personality. That’s how he met with Marie Leclerc, his girlfriend who was devoted to him.
Both of them pulled off scams by pretending to help people out of difficult situations that were actually premeditated by them itself. The entire point of this was to make his victims feel indebted to him for helping out and it worked.
Sobhraj would win his victim’s confidence and would strike when they would least expect it. For example, he once gave shelter to a French tourist who was suffering from dysentery but, it was Sobhraj who was the one who poisoned the tourist in the first place.
And, over the years, his crimes started to get more serious. In 1975, Sobhraj committed his first murder. Though he wasn’t the only one to be blamed for it. He was accompanied by an Indian named Ajay Chowdhury. The victim was Teresa Knowlton from Seattle and she was found dead in a pool, wearing a bikini.
His next victim was named Vitaji Hakim. His body was found in Pattaya, burnt and discarded. Hakim’s girlfriend was also found dead in a pool, wearing a bikini. Apparently, he also murdered a Dutch couple whose bodies were found burnt and discarded.
By now, Sobhraj was known as the Bikini Killer. After committing the murders, Sobhraj and Ajay fled to Nepal where they killed another couple.
The news of these murders spread like wildfire and Sobhraj’s French aides in Thailand suspected him of being the mastermind behind the murders so they informed the authorities about him.
But unfortunately, the Thai authorities didn’t take any action. They thought that if the news of the serial killings came to light, it would affect their tourism.
Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch diplomat found evidence against Charles but, he couldn’t be arrested as he was in Malaysia with Leclerc & Chowdhury, stealing gems.
It is believed that Chowdhury stole some gems in Malaysia and gave them to Charles. Though, Ajay was never seen after that and nor was his body found. It is said that Leclerc & Charles killed him.
After this, Charles made his way back to India where he added two more women, Barbara & Mery Ellen, into his clan.
Charles and the three ladies tried tricking a few French tourists but they were caught in the act and were arrested.
Finally, Charles and the three women were arrested and sent to Tihar jail. Though, during the arrest, he managed to sneak in a few gems that he used to bribe the guards for a comfortable life inside the jail.
Barbara and Mary Ellen, on the other hand, ended up killing themselves. Sobhraj was sentenced to 12 years in prison and Leclerc returned to Canada. She died of cancer in 1984.
But for Charles, the story was far from over. In jail he realised that after his 12-year sentence, he would still have to evade the police in Thailand as there was an arrest warrant against him. That’s when he planned his grand escape from jail.
He simply threw a party during his 10th year in prison and drugged the guards & his inmates. Charles Sobhraj walked out of jail like a free bird.
And just as he wanted, he was captured in Goa and sentenced to another 10 years in prison. Which meant, no country could extradite him after 20 years.
Upon his release, he returned to France on 17th February 1997. By that time, all evidence against him was lost. So he hired an agent and gave interviews and charged huge sums of money for it.
He was arrested in Nepal in 2003 after a journalist spotted him. He was sentenced to life in prison. Evidence and eye witnesses regarding the Dutch couple’s murder, he had committed in 1975, surfaced again and evidence from Knippenberg led to his conviction in 2005.
While he was in jail, in 2008, he announced his engagement to Bigg Boss 5 contestant, Nihita Biswas. Reports suggest that they married in prison. However, the Nepalese authorities deny the claims.
In July 2010, he was held responsible for the murder of an American tourist in 1975 and the court also ordered seizure of all his properties. In 2014, he was convicted of another murder. At the age of 76, he still has cases pending against him.
Had he stayed in France, he wouldn’t have been arrested. His over confidence led to his downfall. Now, he continues to serve a life sentence in a prison in Nepal.