The Serpent's tale

Charles Sobhraj is charismatic, brilliant... and utterly ruthless. In the 1970s, he allegedly killed at least 20 young people on the south-Asia hippie trail. Yet he has always kept one step ahead of the law. Is his luck finally about to change? Jan McGirk follows his grisly career
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The Independent Online

Until Charles Sobhraj was charged with murder on Monday, I had been expecting the worst. Sobhraj has a habit of walking away unscathed from his tangles with the forces of law and order.

Though he is considered by many to be the living embodiment of evil, and has been blamed for the deaths of at least 20 young men and women whom he befriended on the south Asia hippie trail between 1970 and 1976, his many arrests have had remarkably little impact on his liberty. Two homicide verdicts against him in India were overturned on appeal, while he has escaped from jails in Bombay, Greece (twice) and Kabul. He did serve 21 years in New Delhi's high-security Tihar jail (for robbery and manslaughter), but he lived like a pasha while he was there. He also escaped from Tihar, eventually, but allowed the police to recapture him; the object of this exercise was to extend his sentence in India, thus allowing him to wait out an extradition order from Thailand, where he would have faced the death sentence for five killings. Although Sobhraj stars on a bestselling set of "mass murderer" playing cards (thought to have inspired President Bush's Iraqi pack), he has yet to serve time for murder.

His latest arrest, in Nepal, after six years on the run, was initially only for passport fraud. Last week, a Kathmandu court granted him bail; Sobhraj (it rhymes with "cobra") seemed certain to vanish again. Then, the police took him back into custody before they had even undone his handcuffs. Their pretext this time was a reinvestigation of the deaths of two Western tourists, initially named as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont, a Canadian and a Californian respectively, whose burnt bodies were found dumped near some rice paddies 28 years ago in Kathmandu, just before Sobhraj - widely known as "Le Serpent" because of his skill in assuming false identities - slithered off to spend one night in Bangkok, borrowing the dead boy's passport. By Monday, the names in the charges had been modified, confusingly, to Laurent Carrière and Connie Jo Bronzich - thought to be the same people.

Sobhraj has described - in an out-of-print biography - how he brutally dispatched the pair in 1975. Yet apparently he is confident that there is not enough physical evidence to merit a trial. (He wasn't under oath for the incriminating interviews in the book.)

I have met Sobhraj only once, at the time of his release and deportation from India in 1997, but I have never forgotten our brief encounter. Shouldering his way through a scrum of photographers, he caught my eye and winked conspiratorially. Drawing closer, he whispered his mobile number into my ear, promising an exclusive interview about how he'd outwitted the Indian legal system. "I will marry my love and become a famous writer," he told me. His unctuous, French-accented lisp made my flesh crawl. "I regret the past," he added, sensing my distaste. "But don't ask me which part."

There's plenty to regret. Con man, jewel thief, poisoner, gambler, seducer, murderer: Sobhraj can have few rivals for the title of most notorious man on the planet.

Born in 1944 in colonial Saigon, the son of an Indian tailor and a Vietnamese shop girl who later remarried a French officer, Sobhraj was schooled in Paris from the age of 14, but showed little sign of becoming the respectable young Frenchman his family would have liked. A quick, cunning, wiry boy, he was soon forging cheques and picking pockets, as well as fleecing anyone who had a few francs to spare. After serving time for burglary and car theft, in 1970 he ran away to Bombay, where he supported himself by dealing drugs. He was eventually picked up for stealing jewels. It was just a minor hitch in a criminal career of such staggering audacity and ruthlessness that it has supported a mini-industry in movies and books, including two biographies (The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, and Serpentine by Thomas Thompson); a play (a Canadian work called Serpent Kills that was staged at the 1992 Edinburgh Fringe festival); a six-hour English language mini-series (The Shadow of the Cobra); a French film production (which was eventually dropped); and Bottomline, a digital Bollywood biopic which is cast, but yet to commence shooting.

Snake-hipped and charismatic, with intense black eyes and a seductive baritone, Sobhraj has a preternatural ability to charm and deceive. One of his early coups, in Delhi, involved wooing a dancing-girl and returning with her to her conveniently placed hotel room - where he drugged her, tied her to the bed, sawed through the floor and looted sacks of gems from a jewellery store directly underneath.

Arrested later in a Bombay hotel lobby with stolen travellers' cheques and forged passports, he gave his captors the slip and bolted back to Europe, where he lived as a drifter and gambler. He financed his lifestyle through jewel thefts, and, increasingly, by prowling guesthouses in France, Turkey and Greece, stalking hippies, drugging them and rifling through their backpacks. Various arrests followed, but he was always able to talk his way out of trouble, or, failing that, to escape. He broke out of jails by leaping walls, by feigning illness, by beguiling prison staff or by setting fires. His second getaway from a Greek jail was plotted with an Australian nurse whom he had charmed in the sickbay.

It was she who helped him to devise the jewellery scam at the centre of his most terrible crimes. First in Thailand, and later in Nepal, the urbane "gem dealer" duped naive travellers by suggesting that they were clever enough to go into illicit partnership with him; easy profits were to be had by reselling his sapphires and amethysts, which he would supply at a cut rate. The catch lay not in the jewels but in the helpful tip he supplied to go with them: that bouts of Delhi belly were to be expected on the road, and that the sensible traveller would take pills to guard against it. Sobhraj kindly provided these pills, which were in fact powerful sedatives. By the time his victims recovered, he would be far away with their passports, moving drugs, jewels, illicit weapons... The full catalogue of his crimes may never be completed. (In another variant of the scam, accomplices would lace his victims' drinks with laxatives, before doling out Quaaludes as a "cure" and tucking the hapless victims into bed. Many awoke groggy, with their valuables missing and Sobhraj nowhere to be seen. Some never woke up at all.)

Finally, in October 1975, a series of grisly deaths that became known as the "bikini murders" began to hit the headlines in Thailand. First, the body of Jennifer Bolliver, a Californian, washed up on Pattaya beach, south of the capital. Soon, more young tourists turned up dead: Vitali Hakim, a Turkish hippie; Charmayne Carrou, his French girlfriend; and Teresa Knowlton, another Californian. The corpses wore swimsuits. Then, in December, two more Westerners were found in a ditch. Cornelia Hemker, and her Dutch fiancé, Henricus Beintaja, had been strangled and set alight. Before Interpol could link Sobhraj to these deaths, he strolled out of the apartment where he was being questioned, taking advantage of his interrogators' momentary distraction.

At least 20 murders have been linked to him, many of them confessed to in print - although he now denies any homicide. From Turkey to Thailand, Sobhraj conned gullible travellers in eight languages, drugged and robbed others, and allegedly killed the ones who found him out. Victims were stabbed, strangled or, sometimes, burned alive. Women were especially vulnerable to his charms. Even today, Embassy warnings against trusting gem dealers can be found in many of Asia's backpacker hostels - haunting reminders of a spectre that has never wholly disappeared.

He bungled badly in 1976 by distributing a quick-acting poison to an entire coachload of French tourists in New Delhi. When the 60 students collapsed with cramps in the Vikram Hotel lobby, rather than in their rooms, this led to Sobhraj's arrest and, ultimately, to his conviction on charges of administering drugs with intent to rob, using bodily harm to commit robbery, and the culpable homicide of one of the students.

For two decades, Sobhraj served his consecutive sentences in some comfort, while showing little sign of remorse. Instead, he studied the intricacies of international extradition law, or amused himself by practising karate and beating other inmates at chess. He also dominated the wardens with the same overwhelming intelligence and charm with which he had seduced his victims, quoting Nietzsche and Jung and presenting himself as a misunderstood superman. No one seems to have been able to guess what motivated him. Asked once why anyone would commit murder, he replied: "Either they have too much feeling and cannot control themselves, or they have no feelings. It is one of the two."

The bulk of his alleged crimes remained untried. Following his release, he was deported to France, where he successfully claimed citizenship. Since then, after a brief period of peddling his life story, he has been avoiding the attentions of any further would-be prosecutors by keeping a low profile. It now seems, however, that for much of the past half-dozen years he has been shuttling between the Chinese quarter of Paris and central London.

The French director Yves Rénier recently told Agence France Presse that, after a £10m movie deal with him fell through three years ago, "Le Serpent" shifted to London. Cultural figures with whom he made contact there confirm this.

"He was always ringing up from Paris on a new number, because he kept stealing people's mobiles," says Giles Gordon, a literary agent who met Sobhraj four times after he was deported from India. "He stayed in London with various friends, and kept his address a big mystery. No publisher on either side of the Atlantic would deal with him," he adds. "We dreaded his visits. It was scary being in the same room with him. He was a mental bully, relentless about getting money out of you."

According to Farrukh Dhondy, a television producer who tried to coax an on-screen confession from Sobhraj for Channel 4, "Le Serpent" once rang him up after gambling away all his cash in London's Grosvenor Victoria Casino. He begged Dhondy for a loan to retrieve his car from the public car park. "I drove to the Edgware Road," Dhondy recalls. "By the time I got there, Charles had also remembered that he didn't have the money for petrol or for the Channel crossing, either."

And, only last summer, the Bollywood actor Jackie Shroff reportedly planned a London rendezvous with Sobhraj in order to prepare for the lead role in the proposed biopic, but he begged off when the shooting schedule stalled.

"The man is brilliant and evil, like something out of the 18th century," says Gordon, who was approached by Sobhraj about his memoirs, and who met him with Dhondy. "Very sinister. One wonders if Hitler and Stalin were like him. He brought a different girlfriend every time [I met him]; they all looked identical. 'Do you think he's murdered the previous one?' Farrukh would ask. He was dead serious.

"But even Farrukh gave up on Charles's life story, because the man insisted he didn't do it, the mass murder bit. I actually represent one murderer, Hugh Collins, who wrote a very interesting book. But Charles Sobhraj is in a class of his own. I had a terrible time with him."

Finally, last month, after six years as a free man, "Le Serpent" resurfaced in Nepal, registered under his own name for a fortnight at a cheap inn in Thamel, the tourist zone near the royal palace in Kathmandu. A freelance photographer recognised him - even today, aged 59 and with a receding hairline, his face is distinctive. He was subsequently arrested at the Yak and Yeti casino in Kathmandu, where police hauled him away from the baccarat table at 4am. He was initially put on trial in connection with immigration offences dating back to 1975, when he was alleged to have entered Nepal with his own photo affixed to the murdered Beintaja's passport. Sobhraj maintains that this is his first ever visit to the country - a business trip to scout out Pashmina shawls for export. Handwriting samples from ancient hotel registers will form an important part of the evidence. Since Monday, of course, the stakes have been upped to murder.

Nepal can revive murder cases again Sobhraj because no statute of limitations exists there. Files are normally shredded after 20 years, however. In his shared prison cell, Sobhraj remains "polite, calm and confident that nothing is going to happen to him," the Kathmandu police superintendent, Kuber Singh Rana, said. When a judge cited him only for a minor immigration infraction, Sobhraj crowed: "I am vindicated. The other [murder] case will also fail. The law here is very primitive. They don't even have a criminal court."

The man who once regaled his biographer with tales of sadistic murder and deception has now retracted his boasts that he did such "cleanings" for "fun". Neville, the former editor of the counterculture magazine Oz, still has these confessions on tape. Sobhraj's lawyers say their client is unbowed, and that the authorities in Nepal "have a very weak case" against him. But Bishwa Lal Shrestha, the policeman who logged the original evidence of the two gruesome Kathmandu murders, is eager to testify. Sobhraj eluded him 28 years ago simply by putting a "Do Not Disturb" sign on his hotel room door and sneaking off with a girlfriend.

A Western diplomat recently suggested that Sobhraj's photo and an article detailing his movements may have been planted in the local paper, The Himalayan Times, by Indian authorities, who were fed up with the ex-convict's public contempt for them. Another theory is that, since both of Sobhraj's accomplices are nowdead and can safely be blamed for the murders, "Le Serpent" may have decided to flaunt himself. By risking a few weeks in remand, knowing the Nepalese evidence was scarce, he could bask in the attention and parlay international publicity into financial gain.

The depressing thing is, he may well be right. After my close encounter with "Le Serpent" in 1997, a boy lama - a revered Tibetan rimpoche on his way to a Buddhist retreat in the Himalayas - asked me for a photograph of Sobhraj so that he might meditate on "a demonic embodiment of evil". Elsewhere, mass murder groupies lionise "Le Serpent" on websites and barter for his image on a "True Crime" playing card. Like Manson, Sobhraj has become a kind of ghoulish brand - and icon - of hippie-era evil.

Perhaps he will now be brought to account for his activities. Or perhaps, like a deadly snake, he will once again find a moment to slip away, to shed his old identity like an ill-fitting skin, and to seek fresh prey to mesmerise and poison.