The Serpent: The real-life story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj

The notorious murderer is being depicted in a new BBC series

Ellie Harrison
Friday 29 January 2021 10:19 GMT
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The French-Vietnamese serial killer Charles Sobhraj has many nicknames. One is The Bikini Killer, because of the attire his victims wore, and another is The Serpent due to his ability to deceive the authorities and slither out of the law’s clutches.

This second moniker is the title of a BBC One series (which is now on Netflix) about the crimes of Sobhraj, featuring Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as the murderer, and Victoria star Jenna Coleman as his accomplice and girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc. 

Billy Howle (On Chesil Beach) also appears as Herman Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat whose dogged investigation identified Sobhraj as the killer.

Sobhraj is believed to have killed at least 12 young backpackers on the hippie trail in south-east Asia in the 1970s. They were poisoned, strangled, drowned, stabbed and, in some cases, burned alive.  

He lured in his victims by introducing himself as a gem dealer and promising people shelter, drugs, connections and parties.

Sobhraj evaded capture for so long that he became Interpol’s most-wanted man, and he was eventually caught in 1976, months after his killing spree began. 

At a party in New Delhi, Sobhraj attempted to drug 22 members of a French tour party. Some of the group managed to stay awake and alerted the authorities. Sobhraj was jailed for 12 years, initially for the manslaughter of two tourists.  

A decade later, Sobhraj drugged the Indian prison guards and managed to escape for a month before being recaptured. He was jailed for another 10 years.

After he was released in 1997, he became a shameless media star, charging journalists for interviews. As recently as 2014, GQ magazine ran an interview with Sobhraj, calling the killer “funny, enigmatic, absurd and engaging”.

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In 2003, Sobhraj made the strange decision to travel to Nepal, one of the few countries where he could still be arrested. 

He was soon spotted and sentenced to life imprisonment in a Nepalese jail, where he now remains, aged 76 and in poor health.

Leclerc and Sobhraj

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Rahim said of playing the killer: “Usually I start building a character from the inside. I try to find bridges psychologically between me and him, but here there was nothing. Regular people, balanced people, we don’t know what it is to not have empathy. He’s a murderer, a manipulator. He’s what you don’t want to be.”  

The Serpent is on Netflix now.

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