The convicted serial killer Charles Sobhraj arrived in Paris on Christmas eve from Kathmandu, after serving 19 years in prison for the 1975 murders of Connie Jo Bronzich, an American, and her Canadian companion Laurent Carrière.
Sobhraj’s nicknames – the Serpent and the Cobra – refer to his skill at escaping from prison and to the way he changed identities, as a snake sheds its skin. Like a cobra, Sobhraj had an almost hypnotic effect on the men and women he charmed before he drugged, robbed and murdered them. Most were westerners looking for precious gems, spiritual or drug-induced highs on the “hippie trail” in Asia. Nine murders have been proven; some believe Sobhraj killed as many as 30 people.
Solange Pezet was with a group of French students whose path crossed Sobhraj’s in Delhi in July 1976. Sobhraj was “a handsome young man, sympathique ... he won our confidence”, she told the République des Pyrénées newspaper when Nepal expelled him to France last month.
Sobhraj distributed tablets to the students, ostensibly to ward off dysentery. But the sleeping pills took effect immediately and they started dropping in the hotel lobby. The aborted crime led to his arrest and imprisonment for 20 years in Delhi.
Photographs from the period show a slightly built, muscular young man wearing bell-bottomed trousers. Sobhraj is now 78 and suffering from heart disease. His life sentence was to have run until 2034, but under Nepalese law he was released because of old age and illness. His wife, 34-year-old Nihita Biswas, the attractive daughter of his Nepalese lawyer, remains in Kathmandu.
Sobhraj’s mother was Vietnamese, his father an Indian tailor working in Vietnam, where Sobhraj was born. His parents separated when he was three. He became a French citizen after his mother married a French army officer.
The convicted serial killer now appears set to enjoy retirement in France. He told the Indian Express that he wants to live for many more years.
French authorities were not eager to receive Sobhraj but cannot refuse entry to a French citizen. He is not accused of any crimes in France and will remain free, though police are expected to keep an eye on him. He intends to publish his memoirs and make television documentaries.
Sobhraj also plans to file several lawsuits, including against Netflix for the 2021 series entitled The Serpent. He has been represented by two of France’s most controversial lawyers, the late Jacques Vergès, who defended numerous extremists, fallen dictators and the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, and now Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, Vergès’s former associate. Coutant-Peyre married in prison one of her and Vergès’s former clients, Ilich Ramirez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal.
While awaiting trial in India in 1977, Sobhraj gave a long interview to the Australian writer Richard Neville, recounting his crimes in sordid detail. Three years later, Neville published The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.
Sobhraj committed his first murder in October 1975. He met Teresa Ann Knowlton, an 18-year-old student on her way to Nepal to study Buddhism, in Bangkok. He told Neville that he took the young woman to a nightclub on Pattaya Beach and spiked her coffee with the sedative Mogadon.
Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a lonely medical secretary from Québec whom Sobhraj had met the previous spring in Srinagar, India, had become his accomplice. She helped him carry Knowlton on to the beach, where he dressed her in a bikini and strangled her. A fisherman found the body the next morning, but Thai authorities assumed Knowlton had drowned. Several months passed before her body was exhumed and identified.
The four murders that Sobhraj committed in Bangkok became known as the bikini murders and earned him another sobriquet, the Bikini Killer.
Sobhraj sold $1,600 worth of jewels to the couple’s second victim, a young Turk called Vitali Hakim, whose body was found near Pattaya Beach. The postmortem showed he had been burned alive.
Hakim’s girlfriend, Stéphanie Anne-Marie Parry, was Sobhraj’s third victim. She had travelled to Bangkok to search for Hakim and was last seen alive at Kanith House, the apartment complex where Sobhraj and Leclerc lived.
Victims number four and five were a Dutch couple who were shopping for precious stones. Sobhraj and Leclerc used their Dutch passports to travel to Nepal, where they murdered Bronzich and Carrière.
After Sobhraj made the mistake of drugging the French students in their hotel lobby in Delhi, an Indian court sentenced him and Leclerc to 12 and six years in prison, respectively. Leclerc suffered from ovarian cancer and was deported to Québec, where she died the following year.
In prison in Delhi, Sobhraj bribed guards to obtain a television set, telephone, fine food and wine. He doped pastries at a party celebrating his 10th year of incarceration, escaped while guards were unconscious and was later apprehended and sentenced to another ten years. The escape and recapture were apparently Sobhraj’s way of ensuring that he would not be extradited to Thailand, where he was likely to have been executed.
[ ‘Devil’s advocate’ Jacques Vergès dies in Paris ]
Sobhraj lived in the Chinese quarter of Paris, charging the equivalent of €5,000 for interviews, from 1997 until 2003. Over-confident, he travelled to Nepal with a television crew in 2003. In a street in Kathmandu, he was recognised as the suspected killer of Bronzich and Carrière, arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison. He has spent more than half his life in prisons in Europe and Asia.