The chilling return of the hippie serpent

The man alleged to have murdered 14 backpackers is selling the movie rights

Rian Malan
Saturday 07 June 1997 23:02 BST

This is a tale of two men, 14 unsolved murders and a lawsuit which might shed light on a string of crimes that defined, along with the killings at Altamont and Charlie Manson's psychopathic rampages, the dark side of the hippie era. One of the actors, Charles Sobhraj, 53, is coming to London this week to consult solicitors with regard to potential libel proceedings. The other, the counter-culture guru Richard Neville, has just left Britain for Australia to rejoin his worried wife at their remote mountain home, and yes, to avoid running into Sobhraj on the media party circuit of which he is determined to become a habitue.

Sobhraj is "The Serpent," the supernaturally charming con man who remains the chief suspect in a series of sensational 1970s murders. Imprisoned in India since 1977, Sobhraj resurfaced eight weeks ago in Paris, where he has been regaling the press, negotiating deals, and ducking questions arising from Neville's 1979 biography, The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, which names him as the perpetrator of at least seven killings.

The Serpent has never been convicted of murder, and all that stands between him and the literary respectability he seems to crave is a confession allegedly made to Neville in Delhi two decades ago. Since his release, Sobhraj has cast doubt on the Australian's credibility. Now Neville has revealed that he was carrying a recorder at the critical moments, and that what he claims are the tapes have turned up in his garden shed, miraculously still audible after 20 years of exposure to "hail, rain and bushfires". Their contents, if authentic, make uneasy listening for the accused serial killer.

The son of a Vietnamese shopgirl and an Indian businessman, Sobhraj was born in Saigon and raised in France by a mother described as neglectful and abusive. An incorrigible juvenile delinquent, he claimed to see crime as retribution for the suffering imperialists were inflicting on his war-torn homeland, a line that won the heart of his first wife, a Sorbonne student. They married and set off for India in 1970, a charmed young couple on what turned out to be a long crime spree.

AT THE time, throngs of long-hairs were moving down the hippie trail that led from India to Kathmandu and the Buddhist paradises of South-East Asia, searching for cheap drugs and enlightenment. A man of acute intellect, addicted to danger, martial arts and French existential philosophy, Sobhraj seems to have felt a sort of aesthetic disgust for these spoiled white youngsters and began to prey on their gullibility. Using strategies gleaned from manuals of psychology, he would befriend hippies, entertain them for a day or two, and then drug them and steal their travellers' cheques and passports. By his own account, he carried out at least 100 such bushwhackings in the early Seventies before moving on to greater things.

In 1975, Sobhraj was living in a mansion by Bangkok's red light district, posing as a gem dealer. He and his Canadian girlfriend, Marie-Andre Le Clerc, maintained a perpetual open house, often entertaining young Europeans and Americans from a nearby backpacker's hotel. Everyone who met the slender, intense Eurasian agreed that his capacity for friendship was his deadliest weapon. In October 1975, he used it on Teresa Knowlton, 21, a "wild" young American who had trekked east to study Buddhism. Mesmerised, Knowlton accepted an invitation to visit a resort outside the city. Her bikini-clad corpse was found in the surf the next morning. She had been drugged and drowned. Two days later, Sobhraj's girlfriend cashed her travellers' cheques. The authorities failed to put two and two together.

A few weeks later, a second visitor to Sobhraj's house - a young Turkish dopehead - turned up in an alley, murdered and burned almost beyond recognition. Shortly thereafter, a Dutch couple met a similar fate. At this point, the Thai police developed an interest in Sobhraj, and he and Marie-Andre fled to Nepal, where two more hippies were murdered during their stay. By January 1976, the death toll was approaching double figures, and Sobhraj was on the run from police in at least three countries.

As "the most wanted man in Asia", Sobhraj had to move fast, and change identity often. For that, he needed passports - plenty of them, especially after a hippie turned the tables on him and stole those he had. Desperate now, he befriended an entire busload of tourists and slipped them all Mickey Finns at Delhi's Vikram Hotel, passing the drugs off as anti-dysentery medication. The victims were supposed to pass out quietly. Instead, they started vomiting in the foyer and making accusations. Sobhraj was arrested and thrown into Tihar, India's toughest maximum security prison, which is where he met Richard Neville in 1977.

At the time, Neville was best known as a defendant in the celebrated Oz obscenity trial, which involved, inter alia, the publication of a cartoon of Rupert Bear with an erection in Neville's underground magazine. The trial became a cause celebre for London's hippies and elevated Neville to the pantheon of counter-culture heroes. Acquitted in triumph, he wandered off to New York, and thence India, with a contract in his pocket to do a Sobhraj book. He cut his hair to allay the suspicions of the Indian police, but he remained an apostle of dope, free love and the alternative lifestyle - " not very different", as he quipped in a Hampstead cafe the other day, "from the people Sobhraj murdered".

It was possibly for this reason - "I clearly wasn't an authority figure" - that Sobhraj came to confide in him. In the early weeks of their acquaintance, talk was devoted to tales of Sobhraj's swashbuckling jewellery heists and ingenious confidence tricks, followed by daring escapes from maximum security prisons. On the subject of murder, however, Sobhraj was infuriatingly vague. By now, he'd been acquitted of murder in India, but Thailand had requested his extradition on five murder warrants, and investigations were proceeding in Nepal and elsewhere. And then, according to Neville, one day, out of the blue, Sobhraj turned to the young Australian and said: "I have taken a decision to tell you how I cleaned Teresa." He proceeded to describe in "chilling detail" how the young American had met her end.

In the ensuing weeks, he says, there were more confessions, regarding six additional cases. As Neville reads it, Sobhraj felt he had little to lose. Sentenced to 10 years for the mass drugging at the Vikram Hotel, he was safe for the moment from extradition to Thailand, and besides, "he probably felt he could break out whenever he pleased".

The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj was published in 1979, and life moved on. In Tihar prison, The Serpent devoted himself to meditation and the writing of his memoirs. Neville returned to Australia, married his co-author Julie Clark, fathered two daughters and became an "alternative futures consultant".

Two months ago, he received a call from a journalist. "Sobhraj is out of jail," she said, "and he's impugning your integrity." The Serpent was refusing to confess to any crimes other than the few he'd been convicted of, and insisted that he had no knowledge of Teresa Knowlton, the American washed up dead on a Thai beach in 1975. "I never killed her," Sobhraj said. "I never met her." If true, this made Neville a liar.

ENRAGED, Neville went down to the garden shed, where he located his tapes in a dusty suitcase. And there it was: a voice he claims is Sobhraj's, talking about how he'd invited Teresa to accompany him to a beach outside Bangkok, giving her drugged coffee.The tape runs: "She said: 'Did you give me something, because I feel very funny?' I said: 'I'm sorry, Teresa, I must tell you that I think I have to do something bad to you.' She said: 'Are you going to beat me up?' And I said: 'No, something better'." When she lost consciousness, Teresa was stripped, put into a bikini, and "taken for a swim" by an accomplice. On the tape, "Sobhraj" chuckles: "I hope this stuff won't hang me one day."

Two decades later, Charles Sobhraj answered his phone on a balcony overlooking the Champs-Elysee. "I'm at a party," he informed the caller. Asked about the Neville tapes, he insisted that nothing on them could be construed as a murder confession. "I'm going to affect that fellow," he said. "That's why I'm coming to London - because Neville has to be dealt with under Anglo-Saxon law. My lawyers say we have a very good case."

He preferred to talk about his forthcoming biography, a prison memoir in the style of Jean Genet. The first seven months of his imprisonment were spent in leg-irons. "I did meditation," he says, "and the result was, I realised I had to control the environment." He gathered evidence of corruption by a senior prison official and used it to blackmail the man into granting special privileges - luxury food, cellphones, and an office in which to conduct sexual liaisons with his many groupies. "I ran that prison," Sobhraj boasts. Independent sources confirm that he was nicknamed "Sir Charles" by disgruntled warders, who staged a violent protest over the way he was lording it over them.

Such setbacks notwithstanding, Sobhraj was still in a position, when extradition to Thailand became an ominous possibility, to pull off what Neville considers the greatest feat of his criminal career. He threw a party for his warders, drugged the food, and walked to freedom. After a few weeks, he allowed himself to be recaptured. The upshot was an extension of sentence exactly long enough to allow Thailand's statute of limitations to expire. And so it was that when India released him, there were no more charges for him to face. "This is a story about getting away with murder," says Neville. "He's found a way out. That's life, I suppose."

Two months on, things are looking good for the ex-convict. Film directors are falling over themselves to secure movie rights to his story, among them Yves Renier and Oliver Stone. Robert de Niro has been mooted for the lead. The manuscript of his memoirs is in agents' hands. Offers are being considered.

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