‘The Serpent’ is a mini-series co-produced by BBC One and Netflix that follows Charles Sobhraj’s crime spree across Asia’s hippy trail in the 1970s. Starring French actor Tahar Rahim, known for his role in ‘A Prophet,’ as the suave and deadly Sobhraj, the show depicts how he would befriend and then rob young, unsuspecting western backpackers. If his victims did not comply with his wishes or threatened to expose him, he would lash out and murder them in violent ways that would often make the victims’ bodies unrecognizable.
Multiple films and movies, both fictional and true, have been inspired by Sobhraj. ‘The Serpent’ portrays his life from 1974 onwards when he made an apartment complex called Kanit House his base in Bangkok and proceeded to abduct and murder multiple travelers whilst there. As the show depicts his heinous crimes and his proficiency at escaping prisons (which is apparently partly responsible for him being nicknamed “The Serpent”), the audience is left wondering whether he ever gets brought to justice for everything he has done. We are here to help clear up the mysteries behind Charles Sobhraj, his accomplices, and what eventually happened to them all. SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Serpent Recap
‘The Serpent’ starts off with Charles Sobhraj, traveling under the guise of a French gem dealer named Alain Gautier, befriending a young Dutch couple in Hong Kong. Since they are backpacking across Asia and plan to visit Thailand, he invites them to stay with him in Bangkok. In Bangkok, he drugs the couple, keeping them in his apartment and regularly giving them chemicals disguised as medicine that keeps them weak. Once Sobhraj and his accomplices realize that the couple has a significant amount of money, they murder them by stabbing and then setting them alight.
A junior attaché at the Dutch embassy, Herman Knippenberg, is told about the 2 missing Dutch travelers and starts investigating their disappearances. He slowly discovers that there are more missing travelers and eventually finds that they are all associated with a mysterious French gem dealer. However, getting no assistance from other diplomats or Thai authorities, he struggles to piece together Sobhraj’s modus operandi.
His big break comes when he finds a French couple, Remi and Nicole, who lives in a neighboring flat and have pieced together what Sobhraj is doing. Nadine bravely volunteers to collect more evidence and take photographs of Sobhraj and his accomplices. Meanwhile, Sobhraj and his associates, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (a French Canadian traveler) and Ajay Chowdhury (an Indian criminal), continue to prey on travelers.
The trio’s crimes follow a pattern involving drugging and robbing victims and killing them if they don’t go along or threaten to expose the trio. Sobhraj also manages to stay ahead of Knippenberg and the Thai authorities and, despite being arrested, is released the next day. This, however, sufficiently spooks him, and the trio heads to Karachi, where they plan to regroup and then head to France disguised as gem dealers. In desperation, Knippenberg leaks Sobhraj’s story to the media and is happy to see it printed on the front page.
Soon enough, he is contacted by Thai Interpol, who asks to see all the evidence he has collected and subsequently puts out an international arrest warrant for Charles Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc. The news of the murderous duo spreads like wildfire and reaches France soon after Sobhraj and Leclerc do. Just as they are able to sell their gems in Paris, they find that their faces are plastered all over the city on wanted posters. Panicking, they hurriedly pack and start driving back to India.
The Serpent Ending: Why Does Charles Return to Nepal?
Sobhraj and Leclerc arrive in India with not much left and have to restart from scratch. They recruit a group of young westerners to help them find victims. However, after the death of a victim, one of the accomplices runs away, taking the money Leclerc encashed from the victim’s traveler’s cheques. A desperate Sobhraj goes to Agra and finds a group of 30 German students who he plans to fleece.
As he drugs the students, telling them that the tablets help with stomach problems, the effects come on too fast, and some of the students realize what Sobhraj is trying to do. He tries to escape with the bag that contains all their passports but is apprehended by the police, who have also arrested Leclerc and the members of the gang from Delhi.
Already wanted in India after his previous escape from a Delhi prison, Sobhraj gets sentenced to 12 years in prison, after which it is thought that he will be extradited to Thailand, where he will be charged with the murders he has committed. However, just as his sentence is about to finish, Sobhraj escapes from prison. But he is caught again, adding another 10 years to his sentence. So, by the time he is released, the statute of limitations for the cases in Thailand has already been reached, and he cannot be tried for them.
While in prison, he is visited by Leclerc, who has been diagnosed with cancer and is being released early so she can go to her home in Quebec, Canada. Sobhraj is released from prison in India in 1997 and returns to France a free man. He is seen giving an interview for television and then walking out with his wife, who earlier said that she wanted nothing to do with him. Then, in 2003, we see Sobhraj coming back to Nepal.
He confidently has a picture of himself taken in front of the airport and is unperturbed when the police arrest him, saying that he has never been to Nepal and that they do not have any evidence to hold him. However, Knippenberg pulls out a copy of Leclerc’s detailed confession, which implicates Sobhraj. He is arrested for the murder of Connie Jo, an American traveler, and given a life sentence to be served in prison in Kathmandu.
One of the most bewildering aspects of Charles Sobhraj’s case is his return to Nepal after being free for more than 6 years. He was known to gamble in Nepal and was also shown doing so in the series, but it is unlikely that he went back to Nepal only to gamble, considering it was one of the few countries in the world where he could be arrested.
Furthermore, we see Sobhraj make a show of being in Kathmandu, getting his picture taken, and though in reality he was just spotted on the street by a reporter in Kathmandu, in the show (and ostensibly in real life), he seemed confident of his wellbeing in Nepal. This is also seen when he informs the officer arresting him that they have no evidence to keep him detained, and the officer has to grudgingly agree.
Despite this, the question remains as to why Sobhraj would risk reincarceration. It has been noted by experts who are familiar with the case that Sobhraj exhibited signs of psychopathy and had talked himself out of getting arrested in the past. They suggested that it was his overconfidence that caused him to go back to Nepal 6 years after being released from prison.
The fact that he had escaped from prison multiple times in the past only bolstered his confidence further. However, what he did not count on was Knippenberg still keeping ready access to all the material pertaining to his case and the crucial piece that he found right in the nick of time, which led to Sobhraj’s conviction for the murder of Connie Jo.
What Happened to Ajay?
In ‘The Serpent,’ we see Sobhraj abandon Ajay in Karachi, saying to him scornfully that he was not a brother but an errand boy and throwing a wad of cash at Ajay. Sobhraj initially leaves Ajay the car but is then seen driving the car back. Knowing Sobhraj, it is quite clear that he has most likely murdered Ajay, but it is not made clear. Furthermore, Ajay’s body is never found either.
In reality, after being detained by the Thai police in 1976, the trio flew to Malaysia, where Ajay was tasked with stealing some gemstones. He was seen delivering the gems to Sobhraj but was never seen again. It is widely believed that Sobhraj murdered his long-time accomplice while in Malaysia and disposed of the body there before fleeing to Europe with Leclerc, posing as a gem dealer. Sobhraj, however, denied these claims. Later reports of Ajay being sighted in Western Germany were never substantiated, and his whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
Is Charles Sobhraj Still Alive and Imprisoned?
At the end of ‘The Serpent,’ we see Sobhraj imprisoned in Kathmandu, Nepal, with a life sentence for the murder of Connie Jo Bronzich. With his history with prisons, however, it would be quite plausible to hear of him pulling off another escape. This is not the case, and Sobhraj continues to be in prison. He has not, however, been idle whilst in prison and has launched multiple appeals stating that he was not given a fair trial.
In 2007, his lawyer even appealed to the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the case. In 2008, Sobhraj announced his engagement to Nepali citizen Nihita Biswas. She and her mother, a lawyer, publicly supported Sobhraj’s claims of not having received a fair trial. However, in 2010, the Supreme Court of Nepal upheld Sobhraj’s conviction.
They added a year and a fine of Rs. 2000 for illegally entering Nepal. Sobhraj was, in 2014, also convicted of the murder of Laurent Carrière, Connie Jo’s Canadian partner. A few years later, the infamous killer’s health was in a precarious condition due to issues with his heart. Having undergone multiple open-heart surgeries, Sobhraj is still in prison in Nepal as he awaits further surgeries.
Read More: Is The Serpent Based on a True Story?