Charles Sobhraj Biography

Murderer, Criminal(1944–)
Charles Sobhraj gained infamy for a string of murders in the 1970s and his successful escapes from high-security prisons.

Synopsis

Born in Vietnam in 1944, Charles Sobhraj embarked on a life of crime in Europe in the 1960s. He committed an estimated two dozen murders in the 1970s but managed to escape incarceration several times, earning the nickname "The Serpent." Captured in 1976, Sobhraj spent most of the following two decades locked up, save for another successful escape in 1986. He was convicted again in 2004 for an earlier murder.

Early Life

Born on April 6, 1944, in Saigon, Vietnam, Charles Sobhraj was the son of an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother. He spent part of his childhood on the rough streets of Saigon, and after his mother married an officer in the French Army, he split his time between Indochina and France. Placed in a French boarding school, Sobhraj gave a taste of what was to come by attempting to run away multiple times.

Criminal Beginnings

In the early 1960s, Sobhraj was twice arrested in Paris for auto theft. Afterward, he married a Parisian woman named Chantal Compagnon and attempted to reform himself, but before long he was bouncing around Europe with his young wife, engaging in crimes like robbery and smuggling. 

Sobhraj eventually linked up with Canadian Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who became his mistress and accomplice. During the 1970s, he assumed a series of identities as his crimes grew increasingly serious; according to some estimates, he murdered more than 20 people from 1972 to 1976. Sobhraj became known as the "Bikini Killer" after one of his victims was discovered wearing one, and later earned the nickname "the Serpent" for his numerous escapes from prison.

For years, Sobhraj traveled around Europe and Asia, escaping custody in several countries. Wherever he went, he prayed on the unsuspecting. Handsome, charming and fluent in several languages, he was a skilled con artist who often targeted the young backpackers on what was known as the "Hippie Trail," which runs through Afghanistan and Nepal into Southeast Asia.

Prison Time

It was a botched attack in 1976 that led to his undoing. Sobhraj attempted to poison a group of French tourists in India, but he miscalculated the doses and was apprehended when police arrived to help. While Thailand wanted him extradited to face murder charges there, the Indian government decided to try Sobhraj and Leclerc for the murder of an Israeli tourist. Convicted on a lesser charge, Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years of hard labor, with time added on for drugging the French tourists. The Thai government was told that it would have to wait until after he finished his sentence before he would be able to be tried there.

In 1986, Sobhraj escaped from Tihar Jail in New Delhi after drugging guards during a party. Although he was captured less than a month later, it was believed to be yet another calculated move by the Serpent. With additional time tacked on for the escape, Sobhraj remained in prison in India as the 20-year statute of limitations on his crimes in Thailand ran out, allowing him to avoid what likely would have been the death penalty. Released in 1997, he returned to Paris and enjoyed a celebrity lifestyle.

Later Conviction

Sobhraj's newfound freedom would only last so long, as he was arrested in Nepal in 2003. The following year, he was convicted of the 1975 murder of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich. Sentenced to a life term, he allegedly attempted another prison escape in 2004, and unsuccessfully appealed to have his sentence overturned.

Sobhraj's problems mounted in 2014, when he was convicted in a Nepal court of the 1975 murder of Canadian tourist Laurent Carriere, a friend of Bronzich's. The ruling was upheld by an appellate court in 2015.

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