Charles Sobhraj - The Notorious Anti-Hero In Netflix's The Serpent

The astonishing criminality of a Vietnamese-Indian Frenchman, known as The Bikini Killer.

The Bikini Killer, the Splitting Killer, Serpent, Cobra - these are some of nicknames given to the notorious Indian-Vietnamese-born French serial killer, conman and fraudster Charles Sobhraj, who is the focus of Netflix's eight-episode limited mini-series, The Serpent.

The show, starring French actor Tahar Rahim, showcases the larger-than-life escapades of a notorious conman and robber, who soon starts murdering his victims with a complete lack of scruples.

His personality - a dangerous melange of seduction, charm and cunning - stands out throughout the show, and is seen as one of his biggest strengths in not only entrapping his victims, but also escaping authorities around the world.

As mind-boggling and astounding the events in the show may seem, it all falls pale in front of Sobhraj's real life.

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Unusual Childhood To Life Of Crime

Sobhraj was born as Hotchand Bhawnani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj in 1944 in Saigon - the result of an affair between a Sindhi tailor and businessman, and one of his Vietnamese shop assistants. He reportedly became stateless after being deserted by his biological father, who left for India to marry an Indian woman.

In a letter to his biological father, as mentioned in Richard Neville's book 'The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj', he wrote, "It is really unfortunate that you are my father. Why so? Because a father has a duty to help his son build a future. You pray to God at the temple, but your conscience is heavy. You bore a son, but you ignore him. You abandon him worse than a dog, worse than for the lowest beast!!! From you, I will carry only the name you gave me... You are no more my father. I disown you."

Sobhraj had spent a short time in Pune as a boy, where he is said to have started off his criminal career with petty thefts.

After attempts to run away to Saigon, he was soon sent to the southern French city of Marseille to his mother, after which he was adopted by his mother's new husband - a French occupation soldier fighting in the first Indochina War. This earned him the country's citizenship, and he spent his later childhood between Vietnam (then-Indochina) and France - living a neglected life, mostly in boarding schools. In such conditions, his appetite for crime grew.

In 1963, at the age of 19, Sobhraj did his first stint in prison in the suburban neighbourhood of Poissy near Paris for burglary.

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A Penchant For Committing Crime

Sobhraj met wealthy-Frenchman Felix d'Escogne while in prison, who introduced him to the high-society of Paris. Living a double life between socialising with the rich, and robbing and burglary, he eventually met a Parisian woman named Chantal Compangon, with whom he fell in love.

Despite that, Sobhraj soon got into trouble with the French police for a car theft, and was sent to prison for eight months. But Compagnon was smitten, and she was ready to follow him anywhere, like many others who were to later come under his charm.

They were soon wed, and the couple fled to India, where Sobhraj continued with his criminal escapades, despite now having a newborn baby. In 1973, he was caught while trying to rob a jewellery store in Delhi's Hotel Ashoka, and sent to Tihar jail. While in Tihar, he quickly befriended guards and inmates alike, and eventually drugged the guards and made an escape.

However, he got caught and was back in Tihar soon. Sobhraj then reportedly borrowed money from his biological father to pay for his bail. Once out, the couple quickly ran away to Afghanistan with their child.

In Kabul, the duo started duping and robbing tourists - mostly hippies and young backpackers - between Europe and Asia. Such activities drew attention from the authorities, and Sobhraj was arrested yet another time. Like in Tihar, Sobhraj drugged the guards and made a run for it to Iran, this time leaving Compagnon and their child behind in Kabul.

Compagnon is said to have left for Paris with their daughter, severing ties with Sobhraj.

Murders In The Hippie-Trail

After being on a crime spree between Middle-East and Europe, and causing at least one death by poisoning of a taxi driver in Pakistan, Sobhraj eventually moved to Thailand. Here, he set up as a drug dealer and started to dig deeper into his criminal mind.

In Bangkok, he was soon joined by one of his first followers - a medical secretary from Quebec named Marie-Andreé Leclerc, played by actor Jenna Coleman in the Netflix series. Sobhraj then started using the alias of Alain Gautier, posing as a French gem-dealer, while Leclerc took the role of his wife Monique.

The two then started defrauding and scamming backpackers - by secretly causing them trouble, and then coming to their rescue - thus gaining their trust. In Thailand, he was joined by another ardent follower from India named Ajay Chowdhury, who became an accomplice in his crimes.

The two went on a killing spree in 1975 - with most of the murders being carried out to avoid leaving witnesses to their crimes, or to stop people from going to authorities.

Their first known victim was American citizen Teresa Knowlton. A young woman from Seattle, Knowlton was in Bangkok on her way to Kathmandu to study Tibetan Buddhism at the Kopan Monastery. Knowlton's drowned body - wearing a flower-patterned bikini - was found at a shallow beach in Pattaya, after a night-out with Sobhraj and Chowdhury.

Vitali Hakim, a Sephardic Jew from Turkey, was said to be another one of their victims, with his burnt body found not too far from their residence - The Kanit House.

Then came the two Dutch students - Henk Bintanja and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker (shown in the series as Willem Bloem and Helena Dekker). The duo had met Sobhraj in Hong Kong, where he invited them to join him and Leclerc at The Kanit House in Bangkok. Just ahead of Christmas of 1975, Bintanja and Hemker's bodies were found strangled and burnt.

Around this time, Charmayne Carrou - the girlfriend of Vitali Hakim, one of Sobhraj's earlier victims, showed up at his residency in search for her boyfriend. Her body was soon found drowned, just days after Bintanja and Hemker's bodies were discovered - she was wearing a floral bikini, similar to Sobhraj's first known victim Teresa Knowlton. After the two murders were eventually connected to him, it earned him the nickname 'The Bikini Killer'.

A few days later, Sobhraj and Leclerc used Bitanja and Hemker's passports to travel to Nepal, where they met Canadian traveller Laurent Ormond Carriere, and American traveller Connie Bronzich.

After befriending the two, they were quickly murdered - their burnt bodies were found near Kathmandu airport on December 22, 1975.

Ganesh K.C, a young boy from Kathmandu, who eventually became a policeman and Sobhraj's captor in Nepal decades later, told writer Tom Vater that he had actually come across one of the corpses.

"I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I was playing near the airport. In 1975 there were only fields in that area. The morning fog was dense. It was quiet as a grave. I was running and suddenly, I saw the police in front of me, gathered around a body - the naked, burned corpse of a young white woman. The body was completely charred, except for the head. That moment has stayed with me all my life," he said.

By then, a Dutch embassy diplomat Herman Knippenberg - who was investigating the murders of Bintanja and Hemker - had connected their murders and a few more to Sobhraj.

After being initially charged with the 'Bikini Murders' in Thailand, Sobhraj fled from the authorities with Leclerc and Chowdhury to Malaysia. Chowdhury was never heard off after this - with allegations of him being killed off by Sobhraj.

Leclerc and Sobhraj then left for India, where they continued their criminal endeavours. They befriended and poisoned a French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon, who then died of poisoning.

The duo, along with two fresh recruits, then poisoned a bus full of French students. However, the plan backfired when they got sick and called the police.

In July 1976, Sobhraj and Leclerc were arrested by Delhi Police and sent to Tihar jail, while awaiting trial. Leclerc - who attempted suicide in Tihar - was convicted of drugging the French students, but was later led out on parole and sent back to Canada.

Sobhraj, who dodged a murder conviction, got 12 years of jail time. Meanwhile, there was a 20-year warrant in Thailand in his name for the murders there - after his prison time in India, he was to be extradited back to Thailand, where he awaited the death penalty for the Bikini murders and more.

After spending 10 years in Tihar, Sobhraj reportedly threw a party, where he drugged the guards and escaped. He was later found by Madhukar Zende of Mumbai police in Goa, after which his prison sentence was extended by 10 years.

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Freedom And Recapture

By the time he got out of prison - on February 17, 1997, the Thai arrest warrant had already expired. According to rumours from Tihar, his escape and recapture were planned by him to escape certain death at the hands of the Thai authorities.

He was then let free - after which he returned to France and was living as a free man. During this time he used his past to attain a celebrity status and did interviews with the media, demanding money in return.

In 2003, Sobhraj travelled back to Nepal - one of the few countries where he was still wanted for the murders of Carriere and Bronzich from 1975, who were earlier misidentified by Kathmandu police as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont. After spending some time gambling in Kathmandu, Sobhraj was recognised by a journalist from The Himalayan Times, who ended up writing an article on him. According to the article, Sobhraj spoke of his plans to "export pashmina shawls and set up a school for destitute children".

Following the Himalayan Times story, Kathmandu police soon caught him and reopened the nearly 30-year-old double-murder case. The next year, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Currently, at the age of 77, he is still in prison in Nepal, and is said to be in critical health condition, having already received multiple heart surgeries.

While there are around 20-24 murder allegations against Sobhraj, past interviews and books about him suggest that the number could be a lot higher.

Updated On: 2021-04-08T12:30:28+05:30
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