By Mark Gribben
Crime Does Pay
Imagine that you could earn nearly a million dollars for every year you spent in prison with the understanding that you would likely get out in the prime of your life. Would you take that deal?
More specifically, suppose you could live like royalty behind bars, in almost total control, with guests free to come and go as they pleased, cellphones, TV, gourmet food and fine wine to eat and drink. Would that make the deal worth 20 years of your life?
For serial murderer Charles Sobhraj, the idea of retiring to Paris and making $15 million for a movie deal based on his life made spending more than two decades in a notoriously corrupt Indian prison worthwhile. Sobhraj, a Vietnamese-Indian by birth and French national by adoption, turned a sentence for homicide in India into almost a life of leisure while at the same time evading prosecution for a dozen murders in jurisdictions that should have brought a death sentence.
He was a con man, jewel thief, drug dealer and murderer, but one who lived a life of adventure and intrigue that made him a media celebrity. He amassed enough money to bribe his captors who provided him with amenities to make life in an Indian prison more bearable. For most of his incarceration he had access to typewriters, a television, refrigerator and a large library. That's in addition to the drugs and food that he used to entertain and control his fellow inmates in the prison that was supposed to be the harshest in India.
Even more vexing was the idea that, at 52 years old, Sobhraj could walk out of Delhi's Tihar prison, sign a $15 million deal for his life story and then charge the media upwards of $5,000 an interview once he returned to Paris.
Not bad for a man who was convicted of one homicide and accused of committing at least 10 more. Some authorities believe Sobhraj killed more than 20 unsuspecting European and American tourists and pilgrims who journeyed to the Far East and the subcontinent. Some came east in search of drugs and others came in search of spiritual growth. Instead, they found Charles Sobhraj and his gang of killers.
Sobhraj wanted to create a family-like cult of sorts with himself as the father figure, says Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who spent years trying to bring Sobhraj to justice. Knippenberg said Sobhraj wanted to create "his own family of Charles Manson-like characters, with himself as the father. The ones he killed were the people who saw through his mask and who tried to get away."
Today, you may be able to find Charles Sobhraj idling away his days in a Paris bistro and for a fee he may even sit down and talk about his life.
He has slipped easily into the life of a celebrity, with mainstream publications willing to pay for posed pictures of the murderer enjoying the good life. In the words of his agent: "No money, no meeting."
The friends and relatives of his victims only hope that karma -- the concept that says the collective force of a man's actions dictates his destiny -- isn't done yet with Charles Sobhraj.
Early childhood abuse, injury to the brain -- usually the frontal lobes -- and extremely indifferent or cruel parenting are often found in the backgrounds of serial killers. But what made Charles Sobhraj evolve into a psychopath? Could the constant travel back and forth between his natural parents and the ensuing rejection be enough to drive a man to serial homicide? Recent scientific research into the minds of psychopaths provides a different theory.
"Until the psychopath came into focus, it was possible to believe that bad people were just good people with bad parents or childhood trauma and that, with care, you could talk them back into being good," writes journalist Robert Hercz. “(Noted criminologist Bob Hare's research suggested that some people behaved badly even when there had been no early trauma.")
A professor at the University of British Columbia, Hare has spent years studying psychopaths to try to address what has turned out to be a common malady. Through decades of research, interviewing and conducting experiments on some of society's most notorious criminals, Hare developed a commonly used measurement scale to determine a subject's level of "psychopathy." What he has learned is troubling.
"Hundreds of thousands of psychopaths live and work and prey among us. Your boss, your boyfriend, your mother could be what Hare calls a 'subclinical' psychopath, someone who leaves a path of destruction and pain without a single pang of conscience," Hercz writes. "Even more worrisome is the fact that, at this stage, no one -- not even Bob Hare -- is quite sure what to do about it."
Hare's research helps explain the behavior of men like Charles Sobhraj. Unlike many serial killers, Sobhraj killed for economic and personal gain. He only wanted the passports and identity papers of his victims because that made it easier for his jewel and drug smuggling operations. Sobhraj wasn't driven to kill by perverse sexual desire, nor did he get any particular satisfaction out of homicide. The people he murdered were merely in the way. They had something that Sobhraj wanted and so he took it.
“If I have ever killed, or have ordered killings, then it was purely for reasons of business, just a job, like a general in the army,” Sobhraj told journalist Richard Neville during his trial in India.
Psychopaths like Sobhraj are incapable of feeling remorse. To them, the phrases "I want to kill you" and "I want to kiss you" carry the same emotional punch. The concept of fear is almost unknown to them, so threat of punishment will never be a deterrent.
Within the psychopath diagnosis is a subdivision of behavior that analysts call "the puppet master." This class is made up of men like Charles Sobhraj, although killers like Charles make up only a small portion of the puppet masters out there.
"The puppet master would manipulate somebody to get at someone else. This type is more powerful because they're hidden," Hare said.
Industrial psychologist Paul Babiak attributes a trio of motivations to psychopaths: thrill-seeking, an almost insatiable desire to win, and the propensity to injure others. "They'll jump on any opportunity that allows them to do those things," he says. "If something better comes along, they'll drop you and move on."
In one of Charles Sobhraj's earliest encounters with crime, he once explained to his mother that he could "always find an idiot to do what I wanted." The comment came when 10-year-old Charles was accused of inducing a stepbrother to rob a shopkeeper.
Hare talks about how imprisoned psychopaths learn "the words but not the music" that parole boards and society want to hear. "They can repeat all the psychiatric jargon -- 'I feel remorse,' they talk about the offense cycle -- but these are words, hollow words."
The constants in Charles Sobhraj's formative years were abandonment and second-class status. Born Gurhmuk Sobhraj to an unwed Vietnamese woman, Sobhraj grew up feeling his parents' indifference to his existence. His mother, Song, was abandoned by the Indian tailor soon after her first son was born and she blamed him for her lover's dismissal.
His father wanted little to do with Gurhmuk during the boy's childhood, but the youngster twisted it around in his head to believe that his father was a mythic, heroic figure.
Eventually Song met up with a French officer stationed in French Indochina and they were wed. The soldier, Lieutenant Alphonse Darreau, was willing to adopt Song's son, but not to give the boy his name. Darreau was kind to Sobhraj, but as other children were born to Darreau and Song, Gurhmuk began to feel more and more an outsider in his own home. For his part, Darreau, who had suffered shell shock during a battle and for the rest of his life was in and out of hospitals for post-traumatic stress disorder, looked at Sobhraj as a drain on scarce family resources.
A child shunned in such a way will eventually do things to gain attention. For neglected children, even negative attention is considered better than no attention at all, and Charles (he took the name as a teenager after being baptized a Catholic) was no different. From an early age he was disobedient and delinquent. He was a smart, charismatic youngster, but his grades suffered and he was often absent from school.. When he did show up Charles was a discipline problem for his schoolmasters.
Living in Marseilles, Charles had access to ships heading east to Indochina and he began stowing away on them in an effort to reach his natural father. The affection Charles held for his father was not returned, however. Several times the boy managed to make it out of Marseilles only to be discovered while at sea and returned to port -- at no small cost to his mother or father, depending on who could be convinced to pay the boy's fare.
Charles bounced back and forth between the Orient and Europe, at home in neither place. The geographic cure his parents hoped for never occurred, because wherever Charles went he took his psychopathic personality. He was uncontrollable and as he reached his late teens his family became unwilling to bail him out of trouble.
When he was arrested for burglary in Paris and sentenced to three years behind bars, he went to prison, estranged from his family. Alone, without anyone who cared whether he lived or died, Sobhraj was determined to make his family and all society pay for throwing him away.
Some consider this need for vengeance a pretense.
“His claims that his life was a protest against the French legal system or that his love for Vietnam and Asia motivated his criminal career are absurd, but as tools of psychological manipulation they were very effective,” Neville wrote.
The year 1963 would be the first of many behind bars for Sobhraj, and he quickly adjusted to life in prison. It was brutal and cruel, and a small half-Asian teen like Charles should have been fresh meat for predators in jail. However, Charles knew karate and he used it to defend himself.
Poissy Prison near Paris was a terrible place. It was built in the 16th century as a convent and converted into a prison by the agnostics of the French Revolution. High stone walls separated prisoners from the outside world, and the individual cells were so small they were used only for sleeping -- during the day the prisoners were lumped together in pens sorted into groups based on their ferocity, sanity and nationality.
"It is a horror," Sobhraj biographer Thomas Thompson quotes a visitor as saying. "One enters the place and chills pass through the bones like stepping into a cellar. Each moment I am inside, I am repelled."
Sobhraj's behavior in jail was indicative of things to come. Prisoners were forbidden to keep books in their cells, but not Charles. Infractions that would have brought harsh punishments were not enforced around Sobhraj, and he portrayed himself as so pathetic he attracted the special attention of one of the volunteers who visited prisoners. The man, Felix d'Escogne, was a wealthy young man who came to Poissy each week to help prisoners with letters, resolve simple legal issues and to provide companionship. Charles quickly latched on to Felix, whom he treated as a savior and role model.
The men struck up a friendship during the time Charles was imprisoned and Felix even tried to reconcile father and son, as well as Charles with his mother, with limited success. He provided Charles with reading material, emotional stability and encouragement as the young man idled away his days in Poissy.
After he was paroled, he moved in with his friend Felix and resumed his criminal lifestyle, but he was much more adept and cautious. He straddled two very different worlds. In one, the bright world of Felix d'Escogne, was filled with work and service, and interaction with some of the best Parisian families. The other world was the darker, more sinister place where Charles Sobhraj felt at home -- the Parisian underworld.
Charles' own self-destructive behavior sent him back to jail on the very night he proposed to his fiancee. He had stolen a car and taken the woman, Chantal, to a glamorous casino. Crazed, almost frenzied wagering caused him to lose thousands of borrowed francs for which he blamed Chantal, who had put off his requests to marry him. Later, with Chantal white with fear beside him, he sped home at breakneck speed until Chantal agreed to be his bride.
It was at that time he noticed les flics in the patrol car behind them, siren wailing and lights flashing. He tried to evade the police but lost control on a rain-soaked curve and crashed the car. He was arrested and sent back to Poissy for eight months for evading police in a stolen car.
At the time of his sentencing, Felix wrote a warning to the judge, advising that mandatory psychological counseling be part of any sentence. He explained his request by listing some of Sobhraj's behaviors.
"He exploits 100 percent the weaknesses of those around him," Thompson reports that Felix wrote the judge. "He has a small conscience, if any ... is capable of politeness, but calculatedly so. Impulsive and aggressive."
Chantal was a beautiful young Parisian woman living at home with her parents when she met Charles Sobhraj at a party. Instantly she was taken with the erudite, well-heeled young man who told her of his adventures in the Orient and Dakar and his fictitious wealthy family back in Saigon.
He spoke like a poet and courted young Chantal, despite her parents' initial disapproval of their daughter's new beau. There was no way her father, a traditional French Catholic, would allow his daughter to marry a Vietnamese half-breed, no matter how rich he said his family in Vietnam was. But Chantal was smitten and when Sobhraj was sent back to prison for an additional eight months, she stood by him, pledging chastity and telling her friends and co-workers that her boyfriend had been called up by the military.
Constitutionally unable to see fault with himself, Charles blamed the world for his latest run-in with the law. He did his time quietly, but in a series of letters to Felix, he denied responsibility for his actions.
By the time he was released eight months later, Sobhraj had built up a rather nice nest egg through a series of scams. The money made Chantal's parents a little more amenable to their daughter marrying Charles and they were wed in a simple civil ceremony attended by representatives of both families.
Shortly afterward, Chantal revealed she was pregnant. At the same time Charles decided to leave Europe and head to the Orient before the life of scams and cons he was living caught up with him. He was passing bad checks all over France and it was only a matter of time before the police realized that the common link to a rash of burglaries in wealthy homes was that Charles Sobhraj had recently been on the premises.
Asking Felix, who had re-entered his life, if he could borrow a car for a day or two, Charles loaded his worldly possessions and his pregnant wife and left France. The couple worked their way across Eastern Europe passing bad paper, robbing people who befriended them and leaving a trail of crimes and victims in their wake. By the time they reached Istanbul in Felix's stolen MG, authorities had been visiting their friends in Paris, looking for the couple. In Bombay, Chantal gave birth to a baby girl.
Charles and Chantal integrated into expatriate French society on the subcontinent. Charles, the highly personable and intelligent psychopath, was quickly accepted by some of the highest-ranking French citizens in India and Chantal, an attractive and personable young woman with an adorable baby was just as welcome at the women's teas and parties.
This early in their marriage, Chantal was still blissfully unaware of her husband's thieving ways. He would talk to her about his "business," and on more than one occasion she would act as unwitting accomplice to his schemes, but for a stretch of several months he operated successfully without police interference.
During much of 1970, Sobhraj operated a stolen car brokerage operation, obtaining hard-to-find American and European autos for homesick Frenchmen and wealthy Indians with a passion for Western cars.
Charles would either steal the cars or fence stolen cars in Pakistan or Iran then bring them over the border to India, greasing the palms of greedy Indian border guards who were willing to overlook the lack of import paperwork. He would gain legitimate title to the vehicles by turning them in as stolen and buying them back at auction. Then he would sell them to grateful friends at great profit.
His business put him on the road much of 1970 and 1971, leaving a lonely and homesick Chantal in Bombay often wondering where Charles had gone. To appease her, he brought her back beautiful jewelry from God knows where..
Charles' only weakness seemed to be compulsive gambling, and this disease would result in his second serious run-in with the law and ultimately his downfall.
Charles lost lots of money at the Macao casino, prompting a liquidation of the jewels he gave to Chantal. Pawning the jewelry was insufficient to pay his gambling debts, literally putting his life at risk from casino collectors who are much more ruthless than their American and European counterparts.
Luckily, Charles was introduced to a Frenchman who had a plan to obtain enough money for Charles to pay off his debts, but also to live quite comfortably for some time.
The jewel store robbery was doomed from the start. Breaking into a hotel room above a store in the swank Hotel Ashoka in Delhi, India, Charles and his crew intended to drill through the hotel floor and drop down into the store during the night. But after three days of drilling with little progress it was clear the plan would fail.
The criminals then lured the owner of the store, blissfully unaware of the drilling going on above his head, up to the room on the premise of meeting a rich client. Sobhraj obtained the keys to the store at gunpoint and proceeded to empty the cases.
Fleeing to the Delhi airport with a bagful of stolen gems, Charles was forced to abandon his loot at customs when the store owner escaped his bonds and notified police, who sealed off the airport. Charles left $10,000 in cash and even more in jewels as he returned empty-handed to Bombay.
Bombay was too appealing to a thief like Charles. Besides, Chantal and the baby were still there so he again took up his car theft scam. Shortly after returning to Bombay he was pulled over by police in a stolen vehicle and based on eyewitness identification, he was arrested for the attempted jewel robbery at the hotel. He was taken to Bombay's prison, Tihar, and from there he staged the first of his dramatic prison escapes.
Pretending to have a bleeding ulcer, Charles was taken to a local hospital where he was diagnosed as having appendicitis, even though there was nothing wrong with him. Recovering from a needless surgery, Charles convinced Chantal to help him escape from the hospital by drugging his guard. Chantal crawled under the covers in Charles' bed and took a dose of chloroform herself to allay suspicions that she had conspired to help her husband escape.
He was recaptured shortly after, and both Chantal, whose unconsciousness had failed to convince police of her "innocence," and Charles were taken into custody. Chantal was released shortly after on bail. Eventually Charles was able to post bail with money borrowed from his father in Saigon and they fled India.
Arrests and Escapes
In Kabul, Afghanistan, Charles supported his wife and child by running cons and robbing hippies who had come east following the hashish trail from Europe. The Sobhrajs lived comfortably in Kabul, but soon wanderlust struck Charles and he took his family to the airport. He had neglected, however, to pay the hotel for two months of rent and was arrested by Afghan police.
Again he plotted an escape. In Afghan prisons, inmates are responsible for obtaining their own food by employing runners, often young beggars. If an inmate has no money, he starves. Charles had his runner purchased a syringe with which he drew his own blood and drank it, making it look like he had an ulcer. Taken to the hospital, he managed to drug his guard once again and flee to Iran.
For the next year he flew around the Eastern Hemisphere in a scattered manner, never settling anywhere long enough to arouse the suspicions of the police, although he continued to support himself by theft.
He often traveled with as many as 10 passports, some bought, some stolen, and none with the name Charles Sobhraj. Charles no longer used his given name, instead he changed identity at the drop of a hat depending on the passport he held. He would later tell police that during 1972-1973 he traveled to Karachi, Pakistan, Rome, Teheran, Kabul, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and as far north as Copenhagen.
Abandoning his family in Kabul, Charles saw his marriage end. The loyal Chantal, now with a dossier of her own in the massive Interpol database, had had enough of her criminal husband and left for France. Once there, she prayed she would never see Charles Sobhraj again.
By the time Chantal fled to Paris, the places Charles Sobhraj could travel to were quickly becoming limited. He was joined in Istanbul by his younger brother Andre -- the same person he had called "an idiot willing to do his bidding" as a 10-year-old -- who became an active participant in Charles' scams. Andre pledged obeisance to his older brother when Charles told him he could never return to France because of his criminal record, but the younger man suggested they find other countries in Europe to plunder.
Looking East, Charles told Andre he saw a world where he could blend into the crowd -- his Indian-Vietnamese heritage allowed him to portray any nationality he wanted -- and where police were more "accommodating" if the price was right. Rejecting Andre's suggestion that they return to Europe, Charles decided to return to the Orient.
Ultimately, Andre would pay dearly for his foolish desire to follow his brother. They pulled a couple of minor heists in Turkey, then fled to Greece when things got too hot and robbed a few tourists in Athens before they were arrested following a minor jewel robbery. Charles banked on the hope that the Greeks and Turks, historic enemies, would never share information about the two brothers who preyed on tourists.
Charles convinced Andre that it would be easy to make authorities think Charles was Andre and Andre Charles. Sobhraj was a wanted man, and if he pretended to be Andre -- whose crimes were minor in the eyes of Greek justice -- he could walk out of prison in a few weeks. Later, when he was safely across the frontier, Andre could tell the Greeks that he was the real Andre Darreau and that they had released the wrong man. They would then let him free.
The plan nearly worked, but when the Greeks decided to throw the book at the two men, Charles was forced to fall back on another plan. Once again feigning illness, he managed to escape from a police van taking him from a hospital to prison and he disappeared.
In a few days, Andre went to the warden and revealed that they had let Charles Sobrhaj, not Andre Darreau, escape. Sadly for him, the angry Greeks opted to turn Andre over to their Turkish enemies, who were not prepared to be lenient. After a trial, Andre was convicted of theft and sentenced to 18 years at hard labor.
With his brother languishing in a Turkish prison, Charles fled eastward. He flitted around India, Kashmir, Iran and the Near East operating small-time scams and frauds. His typical modus operandi was to find a French or English-speaking tourist couple, befriend them and impress them as a mysterious, wealthy dealmaker and either use them as jewel couriers or steal their bankrolls, passports and travel tickets.
As he was perfecting this scheme he met the woman who would become his closest confidant and accomplice. She was Marie LeClerc, and she had come to the East looking for adventure. She found it with Charles Sobhraj.
Charles met Marie, a French Canadian, while she was sightseeing, and managed to convince her to return to Bangkok after her vacation ended. When Marie returned to the Orient with a satchel full of love letters Charles had written her during their months apart, she was shocked to find that he had linked up with a Thai woman named May, whom he had described as his “secretary.”
Marie's love for Charles was pathological. She was unable to see any evil in him and was even willing to put up with his dalliances. Years later, as she languished in Tihar Prison awaiting trial, she wrote to Charles (who had found a new lover): "Roong is twelve years younger than I, and fresher. You need a woman who can live under any conditions, any climate. As for me, I'm old, tired, rarely dynamic or smiling, with a bitter character that can't adapt due to my advanced age ... Roong must remain with you. The important thing is that you don't find yourself alone, that you have someone who loves you."
Undoubtedly, Sobhraj believed there was enough of him to share between two women. Somehow, Charles convinced Marie to become his partner in crime and they met up with an Australian professor and his wife who were vacationing in Thailand. Inserting himself into their lives, Charles skillfully won over the Australians who thought they had discovered a real friend. Charles and Marie served the Aussies coconut milk laced with powerful sedatives. When the couple was asleep, Charles ransacked their hotel room, stealing several thousand dollars in cash, as well as their passports, wedding rings and plane tickets.
Just as another man named Charles had done half a world away a few years before at the Spahn Ranch in California, Sobhraj began building a "family" of sorts, with himself as the head. As May floated around the periphery, Charles and Marie took in a wandering French boy named Dominique. Over a period of days Charles subtly administered enough poison to make Dominique ill with what appeared to be dysentery. Charles graciously offered the use of his home while the boy recovered. Normally, dysentery resolves itself quickly (or kills its host through dehydration), but Dominique had a hard time recovering. In reality, Sobhraj was keeping Dominique off balance to make him dependent.
Once it was made clear that Dominique was in Charles' debt, and the boy accepted his position, his recovery accelerated. As the youth grew healthy, Charles added two more young men, Yannick and Jacques, former police officers in the French colonies. Rather than poison them, he wooed them with wine and song, and while they were enjoying a night out on the town with Marie, Charles slipped away and stole their passports and savings.
Do not worry, he assured the two frantic young men, they could stay with him while new passports were procured in Bangkok. Any remuneration would be worked out later.
The final addition to Charles' circle was a young Indian named Ajay Chowdhury. As cold as Charles, Ajay quickly became his lieutenant and accompanied him everywhere. Ajay was a confidant, accomplice and co-conspirator for Charles who could be counted on to come through in even the most delicate circumstances.
The Bikini Murders
After assembling his coterie, Charles Sobhraj began to kill. There were rumors that he had killed before but for the first time Charles began leaving a trail.
His first victim was an American pilgrim named Jennie Bollivar who had come east to find herself through meditation and immersion into a Buddhist lifestyle. Instead, she made the mistake of falling in with Charles and his crowd for a few days. Why Charles murdered Jennie isn't clear, but the Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg believes Sobhraj killed her after she refused to join his entourage and become a smuggler.
Jennie was found dead in a tide pool in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a simple flowered bikini. At first it appeared the beautiful young woman had drowned after a night of hashish and beer, but months later when an autopsy was performed, the forensic evidence made it clear someone had held her head under water until she drowned.
The next victim was a young nomadic Sephardic Jew, Vitali Hakim, who like Jennie, had come east looking for life's meaning, but instead fell into Charles' trap and found death. Vitali moved in with the entourage and stayed for several days. He accompanied Ajay and Charles on a trip to a nearby resort town on the Gulf of Thailand and, according to Charles, opted to stay with friends he had met there. Yannick and Jacques were puzzled by this, because Vitali had left his clothes in a closet in the apartment and had turned over his passport and traveler's checks to Charles for safekeeping.
Several days later, a horribly burned body was found on the road to Pattaya -- the resort destination of Charles, Vitali and Ajay. The male body showed signs of having been beaten, but it was clear to police that the poor man had been alive when he was doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Police assumed the man had been set upon by Thai bandits and slain. They did not connect this murder with the death of Jennie Bolliver.
In December 1975, Vitali Hakim's friend came east looking for him. His hotel noted that Hakim had checked out several weeks earlier and never returned. Vitali had left a message for his girlfriend, however, and unwittingly drew another victim into Charles's murderous web. Charmayne Carrou, a French citizen, turned up dead in circumstances almost identical to Jennie's death. Apparently she traced Vitali's whereabouts to Charles Sobhraj and started asking too many questions. Months later when an autopsy was performed, officials discovered that Charmayne had been strangled, not drowned, and that she had been suffocated with such force that bones in her neck shattered.
Love and Death
Two couples were Charles' next victims. Although they were separated by time and space, they would share the same horrible fate at the hands of the man who had become known to police as the Serpent.
Henk Bintanja and his fiancée, Cornelia "Cocky" Hemker, were Dutch students traveling around Southeast Asia when they met Charles Sobhraj in Hong Kong. He introduced himself as Alain Dupuis, a gem dealer, and quickly ingratiated himself with the two frugal Dutch. As a special favor, Charles sold Cocky a sapphire ring for $1,600 and invited them to his "luxurious villa" in Bangkok. He had to leave before them, he said, but would send a car and driver to meet them at the airport.
Henk and Cocky quickly met the same fate as so many others, mysteriously falling ill, and began recuperating at Charles' apartment. Charles took special care of the Dutch couple, locking up their valuables in his safe, along with their passports.
The night Charmayne Carrou appeared at Charles' apartment, Henk and Cocky were quickly hustled out of the building despite their illness. No one questioned Charles and Ajay when they returned a short time later smelling of gasoline and covered in dirt. Charles offered no explanation, but Dominique and the two former flics were becoming suspicious.
The Bangkok papers trumpeted the news about two tourists who had been bushwhacked by bandits and murdered. The man and woman had been strangled before their bodies were set ablaze. No identification had been found. The papers speculated about how the two doomed lovers met their fate for a few days until the discovery of a second drowned Western woman pushed the story off the front page.
Entering Nepal using Henk's passport, he met a pair of wandering Westerners in Katmandu. Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont met in Nepal and quickly became friends. Laddie had come from Canada to climb Mount Everest and Annabella was a restless California girl looking for meaning in her life. They spent a good deal of time in the section of Katmandu called "Freak Street" where anyone could buy anything from hashish to rubies. Laddie was biding his time until the weather cleared and Everest was climbable and Annabella was just biding her time.
Details are sketchy about how they met Charles Sobhraj in Katmandu, but it wasn't long before a man's body was found in a field, burned and slashed with a knife. While authorities were trying to identify the body -- it was clear it was a Westerner because of the size -- a second Westerner's body, positively identified as Annabella, was found nearby. She had been stabbed several times in the chest.
Police got their first lead when Nepalese customs reported that Laddie DuParr had left the country very shortly after the estimated time of Annabella's death. They surmised that Laddie had killed his new girlfriend and fled the country as soon as possible. They were confused, though, about the identity of the Western male who had been found nearby.
On the Run
Of course, it was not Laddie DuParr who fled Nepal after killing Annabella. Charles used Laddie's passport to fly home to Bangkok where he sold some jewels Laddie had purchased in Delhi. Then, using the passport of Henk Bintanja, he returned to Katmandu the next day. Police managed to trace the last few days of Laddie and Annabella and when they caught up with Charles, Marie and Ajay, the trio managed to bluff their way through questioning.
While he was in Bangkok, Charles had made a startling discovery. Dominique, Yannick and Jacques had put the pieces together and realized they had been under the care of a homicidal maniac. They broke into Charles' office and found dozens of passports and identity papers belonging to unfortunate tourists who had met up with Sobhraj. The three Frenchmen fled Sobhraj's apartment and Thailand, heading home to Paris. Before they left they told police what was going on in the apartment building.
On the run from Nepalese authorities, Charles and company crossed the border into India and made their way to Calcutta. They fit well in what is perhaps the most poverty-stricken place on the planet. Charles had no money, knew he was wanted by Nepalese police and could only guess what was waiting for him back in Bangkok. But he believed he was superhuman and that no mere mortal could bring him down. Charles had a plan. All he needed was a clean passport and some money.
He found both in the person of Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob who died in a run-down Calcutta hotel room where he had been drugged and strangled. Jacob's passport and traveler's checks -- about $300 in total -- were missing.
Using Jacob's passport, Charles led Ajay and Marie to Singapore. The three were so down on their luck that Marie was forced to use the passport of a Frenchman they had rolled. Charles assured Marie that no Indian border guard would know enough to question why she had been given a man's name, and he was right. Charles was always right.
And so he returned to Bangkok where he promptly drugged and robbed a rich American, stealing his identity. Although Avoni Jacob's papers were still usable, Charles had learned that it never hurt to have a spare passport. For some reason, luck was on his side, because the police, armed with the information from Yannick and friends, quickly brought the trio in for questioning for the bikini murders. It was a laughable, half-hearted investigation. The Thais were not interested in ruining their tourist trade by having a highly publicized trial.
The Dutch embassy, led by Herman Knippenberg, was adamant about having a full-scale investigation. Knippenberg was particularly driven to prosecute Sobhraj or Alain Gauthier, or Robert Grainer, or whoever this man pretended to be. The diplomat was convinced the man police had questioned was responsible for the deaths of at least two Dutch tourists.
It was not to be. Years before, Charles had told his brother that the Far East was the land of greased palms, where anything could be bought if the price was right. He proved it in early 1976 when he paid $18,000 to have a Thai police official look the other way while he and his cohorts fled the country.
They stopped briefly in Malaysia where Charles sent Ajay to the mining towns to procure some gems. Ajay returned with several hundred carats of jewels worth about $40,000. Charles intended to sell the jewels in Geneva to raise capital. But first he had to take care of one loose end.
No one knows exactly what happened to Ajay Chowdhury in Malaysia, but when Charles met Marie at the airport to catch their flight to Geneva, Ajay was not with him. She inquired as to his whereabouts but the look in Charles' eyes told her never to ask that question again. To this day, authorities believe Ajay Chowdhury, the partner-in-crime to so many of Charles' murders, had outlived his usefulness and lies buried somewhere in the steaming Malaysian jungle.
Nothing so fragile as a life built on lies can stand for long, and it was just a matter of time before Charles Sobhraj was caught. He overestimated his own intelligence and underestimated law enforcement agencies in the Far East, believing it did not matter that Thai police were looking for Alain Galtier or even Laddie DuParr. He had outsmarted them before and he would again.
But when news of a serial killer in Thailand who was killing tourists emerged in the spring of 1976, the Thais knew they had to find Charles Sobhraj. Tourism is important to Thailand, and no 300,000 baht bribe could compete with the millions that would be lost if the people were afraid to come.
So far, two American women, two Canadians, a Turk, two Dutch citizens, a French woman, and an Israeli scholar had died in Southeast Asia under mysterious and similar circumstances. Calls for justice came from nearly every embassy.
Charles Sobhraj came to the attention of Interpol first in 1973 when he was linked with the aborted jewel robbery in the Hotel Ashoka. He was not linked to the Bikini killings in Thailand by Interpol -- they were looking for Alain Gautier -- but nonetheless Interpol's massive database contained quite a detailed dossier on Charles. Sooner or later every criminal slips up and even the most intelligent sociopath like Charles Sobhraj makes mistakes. When he did, Interpol was there to see it and the long arm of the law was there to make sure he did not escape again.
Catching the Serpent
In Bombay, Charles and Marie began working their scam again. Charles rebuilt his family by bringing in two lost Western women and made a quick score by drugging a Frenchman named Jean-Luc Solomon. Jean-Luc succumbed to the poison he had been given and died without regaining consciousness, turning a simple robbery into murder.
Charles, Marie, Mary Ellen and Barbara traveled to Delhi, where Charles wanted to run a scam. He quickly latched on to a tour group of French post-graduate students and became their unofficial guide around the city. The students considered themselves lucky to have found a fellow Frenchman in such a strange place, and when he offered them a pill that he said would ward off dysentery, many took it with gratitude.
His plan was to wait until the students became drowsy from his drug and then rob their rooms, but Charles' reach exceeded his grasp. The pills worked too quickly, and all around him in the lobby of the hotel, students were dropping like flies. When someone realized that the only people who were ill were those who took their new friend's "medicine," a trio of burly students wrestled Charles to the ground and sent for the police.
It was the beginning of the end for Charles Sobhraj.
Classic police work quickly rounded up the rest of Charles Sobhraj's crew and Barbara and Mary Ellen were the first to crack. They told everything they knew.
Charles held out during two weeks of intense questioning without changing his story that he was a French merchant and an important one at that. But even he grew tired in the face of the mounting evidence that was coming in from all corners of the globe.
The Thais had a warrant, good for 20 years, out for Charles for his murders there. Nepal was interested in speaking with him about some killings there. He had escaped from a Greek jail and an Afghan prison, and the Turks had imprisoned his brother for a crime they both committed. The French wanted nothing to do with him, as he had been exiled many years before. The Indians charged him with murder, for killing Jean-Luc Solomon.
The accused were taken to Tihar Prison outside Delhi.
For Marie and the two women, the deepest circle of Hell would have been better than Tihar Prison. Classified as murderers awaiting trial, their food consisted of bread and water with whatever else they could buy. The water came out of a standpipe in their cells once a day and if they weren't ready for it, they could wait for tomorrow's ration. Rats and insects knew no fear in Tihar Prison, as the convicts were usually too weak to put up much of a fight, so rodents ran brazenly through the bars of the cells. As for toilet facilities, those consisted of a hole in the corner of the cell. Marie's cellmate was a young Malaysian girl who had been arrested and then forgotten and who was slowly going insane.
But Charles wasn't bothered in the least. He knew how things worked in India and concealed in his body were more than 70 carats of precious gems. While his new home wasn't as comfortable as his apartment in Bangkok, it would do until he decided it was time to move on. Charles had no fear of being left to rot in Tihar; he knew eventually, he would buy his way out.
Times were tough in India during the mid-1970s. Indira Gandhi ruled with an iron fist through martial law, and conditions were harsh. The judicial system was clogged with political prisoners and criminals alike. As a result, nearly two years passed from the time that Charles Sobhraj and his clan were arrested before he and Marie went on trial. In the intervening months, Mary Ellen and Barbara had each tried to kill themselves out of despair. Charles, of course, was fine.
Charles Sobhraj's trial is worthy of a story in itself. It featured the return of Andre Darreau, who, having been granted early parole by the Turks, unbelievably traveled to India at Charles' request to help him escape. There was a mid-trial appeal to the Indian Supreme Court and a witness (Mary Ellen) recanting her statement of seeing Charles drug Jean-Luc. Sobhraj hired and fired lawyers at will and toward the end of the trial went on a hunger strike to protest the inhuman conditions at Tihar. He ended up defending himself.
The judge, however, was unimpressed with the theatrics and found Charles guilty of administering drugs with intent to rob, causing hurt to commit robbery and the Indian equivalent to manslaughter -- culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Marie was found not guilty, but was returned to Tihar to await trial in the poisoning of the French graduate students. She would eventually serve some time for that crime and be released on mercy parole when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died at home in Canada, professing her love for the man who had ruined her life.
Charles faced the death penalty, and the prosecution argued strenuously for just that. It was well-known that he had killed many besides Jean-Luc Solomon, and that he undoubtedly would kill again. But Charles argued that time served in Tihar was punishment enough.
Did Charles manage to buy off the judge? That isn't known, but it is certainly a possibility. Around the world, law enforcement officials were astounded when the judge sentenced Charles Sobhraj to seven years in prison. The Serpent had emerged victorious once again.
Charles was also convicted in connection with the abortive attempt to rob the French tourists and that 5-year sentence added to his seven-year term. The sentence, while obviously better than death, presented a problem for Sobhraj. The warrant from Thailand was good for 20 years, which meant that as soon as he was done serving his hitch in Tihar, he would be deported and very likely executed.
Twelve years would be enough time for witnesses to disappear or prosecutors to lose interest. But escape from Tihar, an easy feat for a man like the Serpent, meant he would be an international criminal and a wanted man. He needed a plan and had a few years to come up with a good one.
Biding his time, Charles literally ran Tihar. He wanted for almost nothing and counted both guards and prisoners as his friends. In fact, as he was finishing his 10th year behind bars, he threw a party for his friends. This time, it didn't matter when the sleeping pills took effect, and in the middle of his party, as cons and guards alike passed out from the drugs, Charles Sobhraj walked out of the jail.
He later said it wasn't his plan to flee the subcontinent, he just wasn't ready to leave Tihar yet and wanted to stay a few more years. So he arranged to be caught and was sentenced for the drug assault and escape. His gamble paid off. Over time, authorities around the world forgot about Charles Sobhraj and the case against him in Bangkok eventually withered away as witnesses died or evidence was lost.
On February 17, 1997, the Serpent walked out of Tihar Prison. He was in the prime of life, 52 years old. There was little chance that Thai officials could make a case against him so many years later, but Charles was a man without a country. He was to be deported from India, so he was kept in custody until authorities found a country that would take him.
In the end, he returned to France where today he charges reporters for interviews. In March 2002 an Indian film company announced that it was making a film about his life. The project is not exactly a Sobhraj biography "because we have taken some creative liberties, and because it’s not an exact biography of his life," the assistant director told Nihar Online, an Indian Web-based newspaper. ”The film will in no way glorify a killer. It is instead a question of man, morality and redemption."
The idea of redemption remains questionable. Several years into his incarceration in India, Charles was interviewed by an Australian writer. Vowing never to repeat his past mistakes, he stopped short of saying he would never kill again.
"I have already taken from the past what is best for me, what helps me live in the present and prepare for the future," he told Richard Neville. "If I play back a murder, it will be to see what I have learned from the method. I won't even notice the body."
Hare, Robert D. February 1996. “Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder: A Case of Diagnostic Confusion” Psychiatric Times Vol. XIII Issue 2.
Hall, Angus, ed. 1974 “Interpol” Crimes and Punishment. London: Symphonette Press.
Hercz, Robert. Sept. 8, 2001. “Psychopaths Among Us.” Saturday Night Magazine.
Mazumdar, Sudip. Nov. 1981. “Prison Conditions Case Study: Tihar, Delhi” PUCL Bulletin. Delhi, India: People's Union for Civil Liberties.
McGirk, Tim. March 3, 1997. “His Greatest Escape.” Time.
Neville, Richard and Julie Clarke. 1979. The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj. Sydney, Australia: Jonathan Cape.
Sarin, Ritu. June 1, 1997. “Clandestine in Paris: New Life and Better Times of Sobhraj.” Indian Express Newspapers.
Thompson, Thomas. 1979 Serpentine. New York: Carroll & Graph.
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