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Charles Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc in 1986.

The Serpent: My encounter with serial killer Charles Sobhraj

UK journalist and Listener columnist Andrew Anthony gives his account of meeting notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj for a face-to-face interview.

Serial killers have existed throughout history but the term itself dates back only until the mid-1970s, which happens to be when the serial killer I know was operating. Charles Sobhraj is one of those characters whose story seems too far-fetched for real life, so it’s no surprise that it has been frequently fictionalised.

The latest adaptation, The Serpent, is an eight-part Netflix/BBC production, starring French actor Tahar Rahim, due to be broadcast in 2020. It follows the extraordinary spate of murders that Sobhraj committed along the so-called “hippie trail” of South and East Asia in the 1970s. And it focuses on the role of New Zealand resident Herman Knippenberg, back then a junior Dutch diplomat in Bangkok, in exposing Sobhraj as a multiple killer.

In countries such as Thailand, Pakistan and Nepal, Sobhraj murdered at least 12 people, most of them young travellers. He stole not just their money but also, frequently, their identities – often leaving the country using the passport of one of his victims.

Sobhraj in the 1970s. Photo/Supplied

In an era of limited communications and technology, especially in the developing world where Sobhraj operated, his tactics were so effective that he not only eluded capture but sometimes his victims were not even reported dead – because there were records of them travelling after their unidentified corpses were found.

Sobhraj was handsome, charming, multilingual and a homicidal psychopath. I first met him in 1997 in Paris. He’d just been released from jail in India, where he had served a 20-year sentence for kidnapping. In fact, his sentence in India had been considerably shorter, but he had escaped from Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail – by knocking out the guards with spiked sweets – and intentionally got himself re-arrested to extend his sentence. It meant that by the time he was free, murder charges laid against him in Thailand had lapsed, because of the statute of limitations. He had been wanted in Thailand for five murders, for which he would have been executed had he not delayed his release.

Sobhraj had plenty of experience of drugging people. He would often hand travellers a soft drink and the next thing they knew they’d fall ill. He and his girlfriend, a French-Canadian nurse, would then “look after” the unsuspecting backpackers at their apartment in Bangkok, holding them captive perhaps for weeks on end, before Sobhraj would kill them, sometimes in the most brutal fashion.

Herman Knippenberg. Photo/Supplied

The Thai police at the time were hopeless, corrupt, inept and all too readily swayed by Sobhraj’s sangfroid. Had it not been for Knippenberg, who now lives in Wellington, Sobhraj might have evaded detection indefinitely. As it was, thanks to Knippenberg’s doggedness in investigating a couple of missing young Dutch travellers, Sobhraj had to flee Thailand. He ended up India, a familiar hunting ground for him, where he was caught by police while trying to drug a coachload of French rugby players.

He stood trial for that crime, and while in custody he gave an extended confession to the Australian counterculture writer Richard Neville, who, with his wife, Julie Clarke, wrote a gripping account of Sobhraj’s epic crime spree and his eventual capture. I happened to read the book, The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, a couple of months before I read that Sobhraj had been released. Through a contact in Paris, I spoke to his lawyer, Jacques Vergès, known as the “Devil’s advocate” because he had defended the Nazi Klaus Barbie, Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević (for crimes against humanity) and terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Through him, I managed to arrange an interview with Sobhraj.

It’s not every day that a renowned serial killer is free to talk. He was staying at the Hôtel Lutetia on the Left Bank, which had been requisitioned by the Nazi secret service during World War II. Everyone wanted to interview him, and he was asking a lot of money for the privilege. But he didn’t ask me for any payment, which was just as well because I had none to give.
The Devil’s advocate: French lawyer Jacques Vergès. Photo/Getty Images

I turned up at his hotel on a beautiful spring afternoon and stood outside his room, feeling just a little trepidatious. After I knocked, the door opened and there the killer stood. He was 53 at the time and still in good shape: short, lithe, with jet black hair and surprisingly unlined skin. The illegitimate son of an Indian tailor and his Vietnamese mistress, Sobhraj had been born and spent much of his childhood in war-torn Saigon before going to live in France with his mother. He’d barely spent any of his life in France, and most of that brief period was in and out of jail, but he was a French citizen, so France was obliged to take him when he was deported from India.

He welcomed me into his small room and suggested that, because of the warm weather, I must be thirsty.

“Here,” he said, handing me a bottle of Coke that had already been opened, “have a drink.”

I looked him in the eye. There was the smallest glint of a challenge. Was it a joke? Some kind of psychological test? I wasn’t sure, but I politely declined the offer.

Sobhraj’s arrest in Delhi in 1976. Photo/Supplied

He told me that he wasn’t prepared to speak in the hotel – he was concerned about unscrupulous members of the media tracking him down. So, he got his sidekick, a silent Vietnamese friend who looked like the loyal retainer out of a James Bond movie, to drive us to a mystery location. We drove all around Paris, and out beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, until I had no idea where we were. This was in pre-mobile-phone days, so I had no means of contact with anyone. I was completely in his hands, which he seemed to enjoy.

He took me into an empty restaurant next to what seemed like an abandoned industrial estate. There were no other customers. We sat down at a semi-circular booth, Sobhraj on one side of me, his driver on the other.

“Now,” he said with a knowing smile. “What was it that you wanted to ask?”

 

Sobhraj suffered a horribly dislocated childhood. He was born in Saigon during the Japanese occupation, then lived through the French colonial war. His father didn’t want to recognise him as his son at first, and then when he did, Sobhraj moved back and forth between his parents, both of them becoming ever more exasperated with his precocious delinquency. His mother married a French soldier and moved to France, eventually calling for Sobhraj to join her. But he was unhappy in France and twice stowed away on ships that were bound for Africa – only to be sent back when he got there.

As a teenager, he took to stealing, using a gun to hold up suburban housewives. That landed him in juvenile prison and then the adult version. In prison he was befriended by a volunteer visitor from a bourgeois background. On Sobhraj’s release, this Good Samaritan introduced him to a young upper-middle-class woman, Chantal Compagnon. Within weeks, he had proposed to her. But before they could marry, he was sent back to prison for car theft. Unperturbed, she waited for him and they married when he came out. They then sped off for a manic crime spree across Europe and Asia.

Sobhraj in France in 1956. Photo/Supplied

In Greece, he was captured and sentenced on various charges to 18 years in jail. He escaped by swapping identities with his younger brother, who was left to serve the term. Compagnon gave birth to a baby girl, whom she sent back to France to live with her parents. In Afghanistan, the pair were imprisoned for car theft and not paying a hotel bill. Ever the escape artist, Sobhraj drugged a guard and broke out, leaving his young wife behind bars. He then returned to France to kidnap his daughter from her grandparents. When Compagnon eventually got out, she reunited with her daughter and moved to the US.

Heartbroken, or so he claimed, Sobhraj went on to hold a flamenco dancer hostage in her New Delhi hotel room, so he could break into a gem store located beneath her floorboards. The escapade made him a famous outlaw in India. Not long afterwards, he met a French-Canadian named Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who fell utterly under his spell. She would later write from her own jail cell: “I swore to myself to try all means to make him love me, but little by little I became his slave.”

Eventually, he and Leclerc ended up in Bangkok, where he reinvented himself as a gem dealer. Although he had already killed a Pakistani taxi driver, and possibly others, it was in Thailand that he began a spate of frenzied murders. Among them were a couple of Dutch students, Henricus Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker. The pair were drugged and slowly nurtured back to “health” in order to gain their obedience. It seems they didn’t give it, because, with a young Indian accomplice called Ajay Chowdhury, Sobhraj strangled them and set their bodies alight – a postmortem showed that they were still breathing when they were burnt. Sobhraj also shot, stabbed and drowned in a bath other victims who came to Thailand from across the globe, including the US, Canada, Israel, India and the Netherlands.

Marie-Andrée Leclerc. Photo/Supplied

When Knippenberg received news that the Dutch couple were missing, he began hearing about a mysterious Frenchman with whom many travellers stayed. As he delved deeper, he realised that several other people who’d gone missing had connections with the Frenchman, but, try as he might, he couldn’t get the Thai police to take an interest. So, he conducted his own investigation, including staking out Sobhraj’s apartment.

It was dangerous and at times hair-raising work. When I spoke to Knippenberg in Kelburn, Wellington, he could recall the case in detail, having kept a large archive on Sobhraj’s crimes. And, despite all his knowledge, he still “grappled with a question: why were these people killed?”

There are many theories to explain Sobhraj’s motivations, none of them particularly satisfying. Knippenberg’s own belief is that “they were all killed for resisting his business overtures”. Sobhraj’s criminal empire may have been much larger in his imagination than it was in reality, but he was interested in increasing his international profile. Knippenberg surmised that his victims made the fatal mistake of rejecting his offer to bring them into his criminal endeavours.

In doing so, Knippenberg concluded, “they triggered his childhood preoccupation with being rejected”.

One of Sobhraj’s victims, Teresa Knowlton. Photo/Supplied

As explanations go, it sounds more convincing than most I’ve heard. Sobhraj savoured the position of patriarch, someone around whom young people congregated and to whom they looked for help and advice. He tried to build a cult-like family, and when its members disappointed him, he took bloody revenge.

Knippenberg’s persistence forced the Thai police to act and arrest Sobhraj but, amazingly, he talked his way out of jail and fled to Malaysia. It’s thought that there he killed his conspirator in crime, Chowdhury, who was never seen again.

When Sobhraj gave his taped confession to Richard Neville, he thought he was going to be found guilty of murder and he had nothing to lose, although he made the Australian promise that he wouldn’t share what he told him with the court. Having somehow slipped through the cracks in the legal system and lied his way out of the murder charges, he retracted his confession, claiming that he’d made it all up. Neville, who died in 2016, told me back in 1997 that he was in no doubt that Sobhraj was guilty of the murders he’d confessed to. He was, however, a little alarmed at the prospect of Sobhraj being free. His wife, he told me, was especially worried.

“His is a dark and tragic story that lies in the gap between what he might have been and what he did become,” he said. “It’s a bottomless pit. But my guess is that he’s biding his time, thinking out his next move.”

Neville’s prediction was spot on. To me, Sobhraj presented himself as a changed man, someone who’d come through lengthy imprisonment and had time to think about his past. “What I can only say,” he told me, “is that I did some wrongs in my life, in my past. I regret a part of my life … now I just want to forget about it and walk into a new life.” He even spoke of having reached “a new kind of inner harmony”.

Richard Neville, centre, editor of counterculture magazine Oz in 1970, who co-authored a book on Sobhraj. Photo/Getty Images

In reality, he was simply scoping out his next criminal endeavour. That turned out to be international arms dealing. The veteran film-maker Farrukh Dhondy struck up an “acquaintanceship” with Sobhraj in England at this time. The Frenchman asked him to rent an antique furniture shop for him, offering him £100,000 to do so. Dhondy told me he was shown a Russian manual by Sobhraj, full of armaments. “It’s a front for selling arms,” he explained. “We’re going to launder the money through the antiques shop.”

Dhondy refused the offer. Undeterred, Sobhraj told him that he had been approached by a couple of Iraqis to buy rogue nuclear material from Belarus – this was during the period leading up to the Iraq War. Dhondy took the story to the Spectator, then edited by one Boris Johnson. Johnson was interested, though he told me that he “clearly remembers making a clear decision not to proceed”.

And then, suddenly, in 2003, Sobhraj was arrested in Nepal, where he was wanted for two murders committed in December 1975 – a Canadian, Laurent Carrière, and an American, Connie Bronzich. It was the only place in the world where he was at risk of arrest for murder.

He denounced the charges after his arrest and said: “I came here to make a TV documentary on local handicrafts and also to see if I can do some humanitarian work here to help children.”

Yes, of course, but why did he really go there?

To answer that question, I flew to Nepal in 2013. With the help of the New Zealand honorary consul I managed to blag my way into jail to see Sobhraj. This wasn’t easy because neither the French nor the Nepalese authorities wanted journalists to visit, and none had been allowed to for many years. On top of which, two years earlier, a contract killer had visited Sobhraj 16 times. On the 17th occasion he attempted to murder a businessman who was imprisoned with Sobhraj. The Nepalese suspected that Sobhraj was involved in the plot.

Sobhraj’s flat in Bangkok. Photo/Supplied

Nonetheless, after a lot of ministerial meetings and various stipulations, I was escorted by armed guards into the jail in Kathmandu, which is run by the prisoners themselves. Sobhraj appeared looking much older, though still fit, beaming at me as if I were a long-lost friend.

He spent a couple of hours telling me that he had, in fact, been working for the CIA, negotiating an arms and drugs deal between the Taliban and the Hong Kong triads. Not handicrafts, then. It sounded utterly fanciful, though he almost certainly had contacts in the triads and had also befriended a leading Taliban figure when he was in jail in India.

“I risked my life for the war on terror,” he said, complaining that he’d been abandoned by the CIA. “They couldn’t help me because I was undercover.”

In all Sobhraj’s stories, he is always the victim – of history, circumstance, the legal system – never the perpetrator. Amazingly, many people believe him. Among them in Nepal was a beautiful 24-year-old woman called Nihita Biswas, who was the daughter of his lawyer and, it turned out, his latest wife – they married in a prison ceremony.

She told me that she didn’t believe her husband was a killer. “He’s too stupid for that,” she said. “He is not a psycho.”

But what if it could be conclusively proved to her satisfaction that he was guilty of murder. “I would see,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Everyone has good and bad sides. Even bad deeds with good intentions can be good deeds.”

Not only was Biswas sticking by him, but also his original love, Compagnon, who left the US and returned to his side when he was deported from India. Dhondy told me that Sobhraj had forced Compagnon to sell some land she’d inherited. She got about NZ$80,000, all of which he immediately gambled away. When Dhondy asked her why she put up with it, she said: “I love him.” There was also a Chinese wife, who bore him another child, but that was so complicated Sobhraj didn’t bother explaining it to me.

I left Nepal none the wiser as to what had really taken Sobhraj there. Did he miss the limelight? Was he after another day in court? Or was the lure of jail – somewhere he’d spent most of his life, even while escaping from several of them – too strong to withstand?

Sobhraj’s victims: clockwise from top left, Connie Bronzich, Cornelia Hemker, Laurent Carrière, Ajay Chowdhury, Vitali Hakim and Henricus Bintanja.

I assumed I’d never know the answer. Then, one day, a few years later, I received a phone call at my desk in London. “’Ello Andrew, it ees Charl.” The voice was instantly recognisable. He was calling me from jail in Kathmandu with the news that he was about to be released.

Quite by chance, a couple of film-makers got in touch with me shortly afterwards, asking if I had a contact for Sobhraj. I told them that he had been calling me and, by his own account, was soon going to be free. In no time, Channel 4 had commissioned a documentary and, after many more phone calls between the film-makers and Sobhraj, we all flew to Nepal to film an interview with him.

But, naturally, there was a problem. The release had been delayed. Sobhraj was insistent that he’d been let down by the Nepalese authorities, whom he accused of corruption, deception and just about every crime under the sun. He claimed he’d paid all the necessary bribes and that, in any case, he was legally entitled to a release, on account of his age – lifers are supposedly released after they turn 70 in Nepal.

That was more than two years ago, and Sobhraj remains firmly locked up in Kathmandu, presumably still protesting that he is a victim of a miscarriage of justice, though I haven’t heard from him since the authorities confiscated his illicit mobile phone. He remains a fascinating character – full of life, plans, boasts, jokes and fantasies. But, most of all, he is someone who killed 12 innocent people, a serial killer who destroyed young lives that were reaching out across the world, looking for new paths and opportunities. Instead, they met Sobhraj and, to the heartbreak of their families, never returned from their travels.

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.