The hippy trail of Asia in the 1970s stretched across South Asian countries like India and Nepal all the way to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Singapore. Marked by hordes of young travelers from western countries, the porous borders and lax regulations in these countries made them a haven for young intrepids and “flower children” alike.
Amidst the jovial freedom and chaos of travelers lurked the mysterious character of Charles Sobhraj, who is suspected of killing at least 12 young travelers between 1974 and 1976, and up to almost 30 people in total. Known as one of the most notorious fraudsters and serial killers in the world, he has inspired multiple books and scripts, including that of ‘The Serpent,’ a mini-series co-produced by BBC One and Netflix. We decided to dig around and find out just who the suave and allegedly psychopathic Sobhraj really is and where he is now. Here’s all we found out.
Who is Charles Sobhraj?
Charles Sobhraj was born Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj in Saigon in 1944 to an Indian Sindhi businessman (Sobhraj Hatchand Bhaonani) and a Vietnamese shop worker (Tran Loan Phung). Sobhraj was adopted by his mother’s French boyfriend and taken to France, along with his younger sister Nicole. Charles grew up unruly and refused to accept Jacques Roussel, his mother’s new French husband, as his father.
Accounts of Charles’ childhood describe him as resourceful and scrappy, as he grew up hustling on the streets of war-torn Saigon. Multiple times as a child, he survived bomb blasts while seeing others around him perish, which, it is conjectured, gave him a feeling of being special and less prone to fallibility than those around him.
Charles spent his adolescence between Vietnam and France and started committing petty crimes from a young age. He was able to enter into French high society and, during his 20s, began accumulating wealth through scams and robberies. He also met his future wife, Chantal Compagnon, in Paris but was arrested for car theft on the night they were engaged. Chantal, however, stayed true to him, and the two were married upon Sobhraj’s release.
Eventually leaving France to avoid getting imprisoned again, Sobhraj and Chantal embarked on a crime spree across Eastern Europe, where Sobhraj was able to hone his skills at duping tourists and forging passports, something that became his trademark in later years. The two finally arrived in India, where Chantal gave birth to their baby daughter, and Sobhraj was eventually arrested for his infamous heist at the Ashoka hotel in Delhi.
Soon after, he escaped from prison in Delhi, only to be arrested again in Afghanistan, where he escaped from prison again by feigning illness and drugging the guard at the prison hospital. Chantal, tired of a life of crime, subsequently left Sobhraj, and he spent 2 years on the run scamming tourists, before landing up in Bangkok.
In Bangkok, Sobhraj was joined by his two infamous associates: Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a traveler from Quebec, and Ajay Chowdhury, an Indian man. The trio’s scams usually involved helping tourists in need, gaining their trust, and then drugging them to steal their valuables. It is here that Charles and Ajay started murdering tourists at an alarming rate. To avoid detection, the bodies were often burnt to make them unrecognizable. To further throw the police off their trail, they would use the passports of the murdered travelers when they traveled to surrounding countries in search of more victims.
Some of the tourists he killed and the passports they subsequently used belonged to an American tourist named Teresa Knowlton, a young girl from Seattle, a Turkish traveler Vitali Hakim, his girlfriend who came looking for him, and the Dutch couple, Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker, whose burnt bodies were later discovered. The bikinis that Teresa and later Vitali’s girlfriend were found dead in made Sobhraj infamously known as the “Bikini Killer.” The trio went on to commit murders in Nepal and India, and it is suspected that Sobhraj even killed his accomplice Ajay in Malaysia.
Following the eventual discovery of Sobhraj’s multiple murders, he and Leclerc became globally wanted figures on Interpol’s list. Leclerc and Sobhraj were eventually arrested in Delhi whilst he was trying to steal from a group of French students. By being imprisoned in India, Sobhraj was able to avoid being tried for the murders he committed in Thailand and was released as a free French citizen in 1997 after serving 22 years in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
Newly acquitted, Sobhraj received global fame upon his release and charged heavily for interviews. He is said to have sold the rights for a movie about his life for more than $15 Million. However, for an unknown reason, Sobhraj went back to Nepal in 2003, where he was arrested from a casino and charged for the murder of an American traveler Connie Bronzich, receiving life in prison. His subsequent appeals for allegedly not having received a fair trial were denied by the Supreme Court of Nepal, and he was later convicted for the murder of Connie’s partner, Laurent Carrière, as well.
Where is Charles Sobhraj Now?
As per the latest reports, Charles Sobhraj is currently in Nepal’s Central Prison in Kathmandu, where he has been since his arrest in 2003, spending many years in solitary confinement. Apart from his appeals to higher courts, Chantal filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights against the French government, stating that Sobhraj had not received legal assistance. This was to no avail.
Sobhraj, for all intents and purposes, married his lawyer’s daughter, Nihita Biswas, in 2008 in a ceremony held inside the prison. However, prison officials denied it and attributed the celebration in prison to a local festival. In 2014, after being convicted of Connie’s partner Laurent’s murder, Sobhraj received a second life sentence in prison.
Currently said to be in failing health, the notorious killer suffered a heart attack and has undergone open-heart surgery multiple times. Doctors in Nepal said that he is also diabetic and suffers from nerve disorders. He was further scheduled for more operations. It was also reported that he had been feverishly working on writing film scripts and his autobiography, which he hopes to sell for large amounts of money.
The exact number of people that Charles Sobhraj murdered remains unknown, and though he has been linked to 12 murders, some believe it to be closer to 30. However, in a call with his lawyer and Nihita’s mother Shakuntala Thapa in 2017, he stated, “I did not commit any murders, I am being convicted on the basis of some strange suspicion. I need help.” Apart from his wife and his lawyer mother-in-law, who say that Sobhraj is notorious only for his perceived skill at escaping prisons, he has few sympathizers, and authorities say there is conclusive proof of the murders he is convicted for, It seems as though he won’t be getting out of prison any time soon.
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