Charles Sobhraj is a French serial killer, fraudster, and thief. He is known to have preyed on the hippie trail of South Asia during the 1970s. He is also referred to as ‘The Bikini Killer,’ ‘The Splitting Killer,’ and ‘The Serpent.’ The Telegraph
Hotchand Bhawnani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj Scroll.in was born on Thursday, April 6, 1944 (age 77 years; as of 2021), in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), Vietnam. His zodiac sign is Aries.
After his parents got separated, he became stateless. He was adopted by his mother’s boyfriend in French Indochina. He grew up in Marseilles, France. He continued to move back and forth in Indochina and France. He did his schooling at a French boarding school. He was always absent from his school due to which his grades suffered. If he was present in school, he was a discipline problem for his teachers. He took the name Charles after he was baptized as a Catholic as a teenager. He was renamed as ‘Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj’ in the church records. Scroll.in
Height (approx.): 5′ 8″
Eye Color: Brown
Hair Color: Salt & Pepper
Family & Ethnicity
Parents & Siblings
His father’s name is Sobhraj Hatchard Bavani, who was an Indian tailor, moneylender, and owner of two tailoring shops. His mother’s name is Tran Loang Phun/Song, who was a bar hostess and shop assistant. After his parents separated, he was adopted by his mother’s boyfriend, Lieutenant Alphonse Darreau, an officer in the French army in French Indochina. Darreau did not give his name to Charles but was a very kind father to him. Later, after his mother and adoptive father had children, Charles found himself being neglected by his parents. His younger half-brother, André, became his partner in crime later in Turkey and Greece. Andre was arrested in Greece after an identity switch hoax went wrong. Charles was abandoned by his family after he was sent to prison in Poissy.
Relationships, Wife & Children
When he was a teenager, he met Chantal Desnoyers in Paris. In 1964, Chantal Desnoyers and Charles became parents to their first child, a boy named Pranck. In 1969, he met Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian woman with a conservative background. He broke up with Desnoyers to marry Compagnon. Charles proposed Compagnon to marriage but was arrested on the same day. Upon his release from prison after eight months, he got married to Compagnon.
On the eve of his marriage to Compagnon, Desnoyers gave birth to their second child, a girl named Muriel Anouk.
In 1970, Sobhraj left France with his pregnant wife, Compagnon. The couple went to Bombay, where Compagnon gave birth to their daughter, Usha Sobhraj. Compagnon was his companion in crime, but when she did not want to continue the life of crime with Charles, she left Charles and returned to France and vowed to never return to him. In Kashmir, India, he met Marie-Andrée Leclerc who was looking for adventure. Charles had come to scam Marie, but she soon became one of her biggest accomplices in his crimes. Reportedly, he was dating Marie until the late 1970s.
When he was imprisoned in Delhi, he was flirting with Sneh Sengar, a lawyer who was fighting Sobhraj’s case. At the same time, he was flirting with dozens of women, including a Madrasi woman whom Sobhraj had sent a marriage proposal. He was engaged to two women; Jacqueline Kuster, a German imprisoned on drug charges; a Punjabi woman who fell in love with him after reading the book by Neville and Clarke.
In 2008, he announced that he was engaged to Nihita Biswas, daughter of the lawyer of Charles. Nihita and Charles met when Nihita came to help Charles and her mother as a translator. On October 9, 2008, during Bada Dashami, it was claimed that Charles married Nihita in jail. The next day, the claims were dismissed by the Nepalese jail authorities, stating that Nihita and Charles performed a tika ceremony as a part of Bada Dashami.
In his teenage, Charles Sobhraj began committing small crimes. In one of his early crimes, he induced his half-brother to rob a shopkeeper. He received his first jail sentence for burglary in 1963; he served at Poissy prison near Paris. While being in prison, Charles manipulated prison officials into granting him special favors such as keeping books in his cell. Around the same time, he met and got close to a young man and prison volunteer named Felix d’Escogne. After he was paroled, he went on to accompany Felix, juggling between high society life in Paris (introduced by Felix) and the Parisian underworld (committing a series of burglaries and scams). It was the same time when he met Chantel Compagnon. The day he proposed Chantal for marriage, he was sent to Poissy prison, charged for car theft. Soon after his marriage with Chantel, the couple worried about their future, and Charles decided to leave France for Asia; they used fake documents and began robbing the travelers while traveling in Eastern Europe. In 1970, Charles and Chantel arrived in Mumbai and decided to start afresh for a better future for their child. However, Charles couldn’t leave the path of crime and involved himself a car theft and smuggling enterprises. Charles even employed his family in his newfound hobby of gambling. In 1971, the couple fled to Kabul, where he made contacts for gun illegal smuggling. He then fled to Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where he stole a car by drugging the driver to death. Around this time, he was believed to have a curio shop in Bangkok, where he lured his victims and stole their belongings by drugging, sometimes to death. In 1973, he was arrested and imprisoned after an unsuccessful armed robbery at a jewelry store at Hotel Ashoka, Delhi. After a fortnight in Tihar prison in Delhi, he managed to escape, faking appendicitis.
He then fled to Kabul, where he robbed the travelers on the hippie trail between Europe and Eastern Asia and was arrested and kept at an Afghan prison. This time again, he faked illness to escape but did not take his family along, fearing their security. For the next two years, he was on run from authorities, using stolen passports and traveling to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Soon, he was joined by his brother, Andre, and both of them joined hands and conducted robberies in Greece and Turkey. In Athens, Sobhraj and his brother were arrested; Sobhraj was able to flee but his brother was left behind and served his 18-year prison sentence.
Murders in Thailand
In 1975, Charles moved to Thailand and became a gem salesman and drug dealer. There, he created the plan of making his criminal family. His first follower was Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who found herself bewitched by Charles and ignored his criminal activities. To gather more followers, he invented a new con in which he selected his victims, created problems for them, and become their problem solver. He mostly lured foreign tourists, made them his followers, and later stole from them. In one such case, he helped recover the passports of the French policemen Yannick and Jacques, which Charles had stolen earlier. Another victim, Dominique Renelleau, who appeared to be suffering from dysentery was cured by Charles; Dominique recounts that he had fallen ill after he drank a potion given by Marie-Andrée.
Charles had his base in an apartment complex called Kanit House in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was joined by Ajay Chowdhury, a young Indian man, and fellow criminal who became his right-hand man.
His first known murders in Thailand occurred in 1975. According to Sobharj, most of his murders were cases of accidental overdose, but investigators claimed that his murders were motivated by victims’ threats to expose Charles. His first victim in Thailand was Teresa Knowlton (also named Jennie Bollivar in some sources), a Seattle-based woman who was found drowned in the tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand; she wore a floral bikini. Earlier, it was suspected that Teresa had drowned accidentally while swimming, but months later, autopsy reports showed that she was murdered.
Some other victims of Charles Sobhraj were:
- Vitali Hakim: A young nomadic Turkish Sephardic Jew whose burnt body was found on the road to the Pattaya resort.
- Stephanie Parry: a woman he killed in Bangkok by strangling.
- Henricus “Henk” Bintanja and Cornelia “Cocky” Hemker: A Dutch couple who were lured to Charles’ den after Charles poisoned them; soon, he nurtured them back to health. As they recovered, Vitali Hakim’s girlfriend came to investigate Vitali’s death. Fearing exposure, Henk and Cornelia were hustled out. On December 16, 1975, the couple’s bodies were found strangled and burnt.
- Charmayne Carrou: Vitali Hakim’s French girlfriend who came to Thailand to investigate Vitali’s disappearance and was found drowned; she was found wearing the same floral bikini as Teresa.
At that time, the investigators found no connection in the murders of Charmayne Carrou and Teresa Knowlton. Their similar murdering style earned Charles the moniker ‘The Bikini Killer.’
Murders in Nepal & India
On December 18, 1975, the day Hemker and Bintaja’s bodies were identified, Charles and Marie-Andrée entered Nepal on the passport of Hemker and Bintaja. In Nepal, between December 21 and 22, 1975, they murdered,
- Laurent Ormond Carrière: a 26-year old Canadian (also identified as Laddie DuParr in some sources)
- Connie Bronzich: a 29-year old American (also identified as Annabella Tremont in some sources)
With Laurent and Connie’s passports, they went to Thailand. Upon his return, Charles found out that he was being suspected by his family members (Yannick, Jacques, and Rennelleau) after they discovered Pattaya victims’ documents at Charles’ apartment. His companions reported Charles to the police. Charles, along with Leclerc and Ajay, fled to Calcutta, India, where his next victim was Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob. Using Avoni’s passport, Sobhraj moved first to Singapore, then to India, returning to Bangkok in 1976. In Bangkok, Sobhaj was interrogated for the Pattaya murders but not charged; reportedly, Charles was not charged because authorities feared that it would affect the tourism of Thailand. At the same time, Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his then-wife, Angela Kane, were investigating the Pattaya murders and suspected Charles. Kippenberg built a case against Charles and after a month-long investigation, full evidence of murder and drugging was found against Charles.
After Bangkok, the trio (Charles, Ajay, and Marie) moved to Malaysia, where Ajay was sent to collect gemstones. Ajay was last seen delivering gems to Charles and none of his remains were found; a source later claimed to have seen Ajay in West Germany. It is believed that Charles murdered Ajay to continue his journey to Geneva to pose as gem dealers. Back in Bombay, Sobhraj wanted to build a new criminal group; he started by employing Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather in his gang.
His next victim was a Frenchman named Jean-Luc Solomon, whom Charles’ intended to rob in a South Delhi hotel but died due to poisoning. In July 1976 in New Delhi, Sobhraj and his three-women gang (Marie, Eather, and Smith) were arrested at a hotel after three postgraduate students (from a group of French postgraduate students) reported them, seeing their comrades falling unconscious by the drug that was given to them. The three students overpowered Charles and the women and helped in his capture. During interrogation, Smith and Eather confessed everything, and the four criminals were sent to Tihar Jail in Delhi.
Conviction & Prison Time
Charles Sobhraj’s trial was quite a show. He fired and hired lawyers at will, brought his paroled brother (Andre) to assist him, and went on a hunger strike. Charles was sentenced to twelve years in prison for murdering Avoni Jacob and Jean-Luc Solomon, the two people he killed in India. Marie-Andree, who was found guilty of drugging French students and Jacob’s murder, was sentenced to twelve years in prison. After getting diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1983, Marie was sent back to Canada for treatment. His other two accomplices, Marie and Eather, attempted suicide in prison two years before their trial. Charles’ prison life in India was luxurious with television and gourmet food. Reportedly, he entered the prison with gems concealed in his body. He bribed the prison guards, befriended prisoners, and gave interviews to western authors and journalists. He even had sexual intercourse with Marie and female lawyers and visitors. According to Julie Clarke, a journalist, Charles sold his story to a businessman in Hong Kong who in turn sold it to Random House. Random House sent Julie and her husband, Richard Neville to interview Charles. According to Clarke, they were in surveillance of Charles’ emissaries who arranged the interview in prison, where Charles discussed his murders.
In one of his interviews, he said,
If I have ever killed, or have ordered killings, then it was purely for reasons of business, just a job, like a general in the army”
While Charles’ sentence was about to end in India, his 20-year Thai arrest warrant was still valid. In March 1986, Charles threw a big party in prison for his prison inmates and guards; he drugged the food at the party and escaped the prison. Inspector Madhukar Zende of Mumbai Police caught Charles at O Coqueiro restaurant in Goa. According to a source, Zende walked out to Charles, grabbed his arm, and said,
Hello Charles, how are you?”
Just up to Charles’ expectation, his prison sentence was extended to ten years. On February 17, 1997, aged 52, Charles was released from prison with lost warrants, evidence, and witnesses against him. Indian authorities decided to return Charles to France because they were no countries that wanted to accept Charles.
Upon his return to France, he led a comfortable life in suburban Paris. He even hired a publicity agent to charge for a large sum of money for interviews and photographs. Reportedly, he charged US$15 million (equivalent to $20 million in 2020) for the rights to the movie based on his life. Charles then returned to Kathmandu in Nepal to set up a mineral water business. On September 1, 2003, a journalist for The Himalayan Times spotted Charles at a casino in Kathmandu. The journalist followed him for two weeks and wrote reports on him with photographs in The Himalayan Times. The Nepal police raided the casino and arrested Sobhraj (who was gambling there) and reopened the double murder case from 1975 against Sobhraj. Talking about his arrival and arrest in Nepal, in an interview, Charles quoted,
This is a huge miscarriage of justice. I came to Nepal to make a documentary. The judicial system is archaic and unjust. I arrived here with my own passport under my real name. That proves I have nothing to hide. Who else would dare to travel as Charles Sobhraj? The police have no evidence. They can’t prove I have been to Nepal before. I am innocent.”
Ganesh K.C., the Deputy Superintendent of Police, who saw the chilling sight of Sobhraj’s murder as a 10-year old and later was responsible for his arrest, said,
Charles Sobhraj drugged, killed, and partially burned 26-year-old Canadian Laurent Carrière and 29-year-old American Connie Bronzich in 1975. I was playing near Kathmandu airport. The morning fog was dense. It was quiet as a grave. Suddenly I saw the police gathered around a body – the naked, burned corpse of a young white woman. The body was charred, except for the head. That’s how police identified the victim as Connie Bronzich. When I joined the force, I told my wife and children that one day I would arrest Charles Sobhraj.”
On August 20, 2004, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kathmandu District Court for the murders of Bronzich and Carrière. Sobhraj appealed against the judgment and claimed that he was sentenced without a trial.
His lawyers announced that his wife, Chantal Compagnon, was filing a case before the European Court of Human Rights against the French government for not aiding her husband. In 2005, the Patan Court of Appeals confirmed Sobhraj’s conviction. In late 2007, Sobhraj’s lawyer reportedly appealed to the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy for intervention with Nepal. In July 2010, the Supreme Court of Nepal postponed the verdict of appeal filed by Charles on the judgment of the district court against him. On July 10, 2010, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict against Charles; he was sentenced to life imprisonment with an additional one year, a fine of Rs. 2000 for illegally entering Nepal, and seizure of all his property. In September 2014, the Bhaktapur District Court convicted Charles of the murder of Canadian tourist Laurent Carrière. As of April 2021, he remains in a Nepali jail in poor health.
- Food: Chicken Cafreal
- Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche
- Book(s): ‘The Will to Power’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
- Actor: Charlie Chaplin
- Charles is an avid reader and writer. Most of the time that he spent in prison, he was always provided with books. In Tihar Jail, Delhi, he had a library opened for himself.
- He has a huge interest in Psychology. Growing up, he was a student of the book ‘The Will to Power’ by Friedrich Nietzsche; the book made him understand people and his victims. He also controlled people by the methods devised by the philosopher and psychologist René Le Senne. It is said that when his apartment in Thai was raided, the investigators found the book ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by Friedrich Nietzsche.
- In his lifetime, Charles used dozens of names, most of them were from the passports he had stolen. Two of the most common names he used were Alain Gauthier and Robert Grainer. In one account, he referred to himself as Sob. GQ Magazine
- It is believed that ‘Charles’ in his name was added because he took delight in mimicking the English actor and filmmaker Charles Spencer Chaplin, famous as Charlie Chaplin.
- After Charles and his mother were abandoned by his father after Charles’ birth. His mother blamed Charles for her misery. Later after his mother remarried, he found himself distancing from his home. From an early age, he was disobedient and delinquent, but smart and charismatic at the same time.
- Living in Marseilles, France, Charles had access to the ships leaving Indochina. He wanted to get to his birth father, so he traveled in them. He managed to get out of Marseilles two times, only to be found and returned to the port.
- A martial arts fanatic, Charles knew Karate and he often used it to defend himself in prison.
- Charles Sobhraj is known to always have his way around women, both in and out of jail. Women mostly found themselves captivated by his piercing gaze, muscular build, confidence, and dangerous reputation.
- Nihita Biswas, Charles’ reported wife, has claimed that Charles was never convicted of any murder and asked the media not to call Charles a serial killer. When the Supreme Court of Nepal upheld the verdict against Charles, Nihita and her mother (Shakuntala Thapa) claimed the judiciary to be corrupt. Both the mother and daughter were charged and sent to judicial custody for contempt of court.
- Sobhraj is famous for his provocative choice of lawyers. He was once represented by Jacques Vergès, a Siamese-born French lawyer known for defending war criminals like Nazi Klaus Barbie, terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy. He is defended by Isabelle Coutant-Peyne, married to terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
- During his prison time in Nepal, he was visited by an assassin who had come to kill Charles’ prison inmate on orders of a bigwig. Rumors had it that the assassination was plotted by Charles.
- There are many books written on the life of Charles; Serpentine (1979) by Thomas Thompson; The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj (1980) by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, reissued as On the Trail of the Serpent; The Bikini Murders by Noel Barber in the Reader’s Digest collection ‘Great Cases of Interpol’ (1982).
- The book ‘The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj’ (1980) by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke became the premise of the 1989 Australian TV film ‘Shadow of the Cobra.’
- A few months before her death in 1984, Marie-Andrée Leclerc wrote her side of the story in her book ‘Je Reviens’ in which she claimed to be innocent and victim in Sobhraj’s conspiracy. Marie even claimed that she never loved Charles. The La Presse journalist Huguette Laprise, who came to India in search of answers about Marie, concluded,
You can not be in an apartment and there are people who are chained in your apartment without seeing them. After all these years, what I can say is that this girl had a very very sad, abominable destiny.”
- In 2008, the book ‘The Bikini Murders’ by Farrukh Dhondy was released. During the promotions of the book, Farrukh recalled his association with Sobhraj, saying that he (Sobhraj) was a friend of Masood Azhar (the founder of the Islamic terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)). According to Farrukh,
Sobhraj apparently rescued Masood from goons in jail, who had beaten him to a pulp, during their stint in Tihar jail. After that, Masood became very dependent on Sobhraj. In 2000, when the Indian Airlines aircraft with 400 passengers on board was hijacked to Kandhahar by militants who demanded Masood’s release in lieu of the hostages’ lives, Sobhraj offered to help India.”
Sobhraj, who was dissatisfied with the lead character’s resemblance [in the book] to him, said that the author had no right to base his character on him and would sue him (the author). On the other hand, Farrukh said,
Sobhraj’s threat is an attempt at blackmail and extortion.”
- In 2015, a Bollywood crime film titled ‘Main Aur Charles’ was released. The film was based on Charles’ escape from Tihar jail and starred Randeep Hooda (as Charles), Richa Chadda, Adil Hussain, Tisca Chopra, and Alexx O’Nell in lead roles.
- In 2018, Charles Sobhraj was in critical condition and was operated on multiple times. He has received several open-heart surgeries.
- In January 2021, a British miniseries ‘The Serpent’ was released on BBC One. Later, it was released on Netflix. The series is based on the crimes of Charles Sobhraj and stars Tahar Rahim (as Charles) and Jenna Coleman (as Marie-Andrée Leclerc) in the lead roles.
- At his apartment in Bangkok, he had a pet monkey named Coco.
- In 2012, the O Coqueiro restaurant in Goa build a statue of Charles Sobhraj just 10 ft away from where he was caught in 1986.