BBC primetime drama has moved into the true-crime genre with the release of The Serpent, an eight-part thriller telling the real-life story of the mass murderer, Charles Sobhraj.
Sobhraj was behind a terrorising reign of killings of young backpackers in South-East Asia in the 1970’s, and at one point was Interpol’s most wanted man. But the true story behind the drama is almost stranger than fiction - he evaded escape for many years, and has never shown any explanation or remorse for the murders.
As Tahar Rahim prepares to play the psychopathic killer in the BBC series, who is Charles Sobhraj and how were his crimes eventually uncovered?
Sobhraj’s early life
Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj was born in 1940 in Saigon, but when his parents divorced, he moved to France with his mother and her new partner.
As a teenager, he became involved in petty crimes and was sent to Poissy prison, near Paris. When he was released, he ingratiated himself into both the heart of Parisian high society and in the murky criminal underworld. He began masterminding a series of burglaries and scams, and found himself in prison again for his illegal dealings.
Move to Asia
In 1970, he moved to Asia with his wife, Chantal Compagnon, who gave birth to their daughter in Usha in Mumbai. A few years later, he had escalated into armed robbery but managed to escape from prison and fled to Kabul, where he first began to rob backpackers on the hippie trail.
In an indication of just how duplicitous he had become - and what earned him The Serpent nickname - Sobhraj was arrested for theft, but feigned illness, drugged the hospital guard and escaped. By this point, his wife decided to finally leave him and he fled to Iran, Europe and the Middle East, where he committed further crimes, then blowing all the money on his increasing gambling addiction.
The Hippie Trail Murders
On the run in Thailand, Sobhraj met two of his future accomplaces: Marie-Andree Leclerc (played by Jenna Coleman in The Serpent) and Ajay Chowdhury, who fell into his crime sprees with him.
Things took an even darker twist when Sobhraj groomed young backpackers; drugged them, robbed them and killed them.
Over the course of a year in 1974 to 1975, Sobhraj was directly responsible for the murders of approximately 12 people, but the real toll could be more than 30 people.
The known victims
It’s a grim roll-call: Teresa Knowlton, from Seattle and on her way to join a Buddhist monastery, was drowned in a tidal pool. Vitali Hakim, a young Sephardic Jewish boy, was found burned near Pattaya. Dutch couple Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker (changed to Willem and Lena in The Serpent) who were drugged, strangled and burned. Charmayne Carrou was drowned.
In Nepal, using stolen passports from people they had previously killed, Sobhraj, Chowdhury and Leclerc then murdered the Canadian and American Laurent Carrière and Connie Bronzich. In India, he killed Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob.
Sobhraj - travelling on yet another stolen passport from one of his victims - returned to Bangkok in 1976, where three of his former French associates had gone to the Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, and the police about crimes. The authorities investigated them, but released them and Sobhraj escaped to Malaysia with his accomplices - and Chowdhury was never seen again, presumed another victim of Sobhraj.
In Bombay, Sobhraj recruited two women to start working for him, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather, and he then killed Jean-Luc Solomon.
But things fell apart in July 1976, when the trio drugged a tour group of French students, and they were sick in the foyer of a hotel in New Delhi. The police were called in, Smith and Eather confessed and Sobhraj was sent to Tihar prison for the murder of Solomon.
Unbelievably, Sobhraj was given just 12 years in prison, and here he lived a life of luxury as he bribed the guards and was given his own television and gourmet food.
Shortly before his sentence ended, he threw a big party for all the guards in the prison, drugged them and when they were asleep, he simply walked out of the prison. He was caught again, and given another 10 year sentence, then in 1997 he was released and he moved to France.
Back in France, Sobhraj became a millionaire because of his murders. In very morally dubious deals, he’s said to have sold the rights of his life for a film for $15 million, and was charging up to $6,000 an interview for other media publications.
In 2003, however, he returned to Kathmandu, and was swiftly arrested for the murders of Bronzich and Carrière, thanks to the tireless, 30-year work of Knippenberg. He told the Nepali Times in 2004: “I couldn't forget him, it was like having malaria. Every couple of years or so something would happen that would draw me back into the case again."
Sobhraj was sentenced without a trial and imprisoned for life. He still remains in a Nepalese prison, aged 76 and in poor health, to this day.
In 1984, Bangkok-based journalist, Alan Dawson interviewed him and surmised: "He gave a reason for doing it that white people had enslaved Asians with drugs and he was getting his own back without actually saying he did it."
In an interview with Vice in 2016, Sobhraj still denied any murders and said: "I never murdered anybody. You are speaking about drug addicts. They may have been... Uh, liquidated by a syndicate, for dealing heroin."
Rahim, who plays the killer in The Serpent, told The Guardian that he considered going to meet him in prison to prepare for the role: “I wanted to see how he would con me, then I thought, ‘I don’t want to meet this type of guy. I’ll find another way.’”
The Serpent airs on BBC One on January 1, 2021
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