Charles Sobhraj was a famous serial killer in the 1970’s, known for drugging and killing between 12 and 24 western tourists throughout Asia. He often targeted hippies who made their way through India and Vietnam and his many successful escapes from prison earned him the nickname, “The Serpent.” He was also called the “bikini killer” because his Western female victims were found drowned in their bikinis.
At first Sobhraj set his sights on Westerners so he could drug them and steal their money and passports. He was known to drug people and convince them they were ill. While helping them ‘recover,’ he’d steal all he could from them. He eventually became a murderer too, mainly killing from 1975-76. He often set the corpses on fire.
Sobhraj was finally convicted of several crimes, including murder, and was jailed in India from 1976 to 1997. After his release, he retired as a celebrity in Paris. It was on a visit to Nepal that he was arrested again, tried and sentenced. The Supreme Court of Nepal sentenced him to the life imprisonment in July 2010. He is constantly appealing this conviction.
The Bikini Killer’s Younger Years
Sobhraj was born Hotchand Bhawnani Gurmukh Sobhraj in April 1944. He was the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese peasant girl and a wealthy Indian merchant living in Saigon. When his father married an Indian woman, his mother married a French military officer. At the time, Vietnam was in turmoil and the young Sobhraj saw many bloody events that stayed with him.
After his step-father moved the family to France, Sobhraj was formally given the name Charles. He hated Europe, mainly because he was the butt of many racist jokes and was not accepted. He ran away to Saigon in his teens, but his father sent him back to France, where he was soon convicted twice of auto theft. He went to prison and was released.
After he gained his freedom, he married and found a job. Soon after, he was jailed again for forging checks on his sister’s account. He was freed when she dropped the charges. He continued bouncing checks, saving 30,000 francs before he took his wife to Bombay. In India, he became an international con man and smuggler, specializing in stolen passports from American and European tourists.He not only drugged his victims, but he pretended to restore them to health while stealing their money and decreasing their dosage of poison.
Sobhraj was arrested again for robbery in Delhi but was granted bail, during which he fled to Afghanistan, where he was almost immediately jailed again for auto theft. Another escape brought him back to France, where he kidnapped his infant daughter from his mother-in-law, leaving the woman drugged and locked in a hotel room.
Sobhraj’s first known murder victim was a Pakistani chauffeur named Habib. This was 1972. He injected Habib with a drug that took his life, then dumped the driver’s body in a river. Warrants were issued for a suspect named Damon Seaman, but another year would pass before he was finally identified.
By November 1973, Sobhraj was in Istanbul, teaming up with his brother Guy to drug and rob wealthy tourists. Both were arrested in Greece, but he managed to escape, leaving his brother in jail while he fled back to India. In Delhi, he entered the heroin trade with the help of a local pusher whom Sobhraj later killed.
Sobhraj’s Attack on Westerners
In October 1975, Sobhraj killed an American tourist, Teresa Knowlton, in his Delhi flat and had a friend dump her body. He also murdered a Turkish competitor in the drug trade, Vitali Hakim, who was found beaten, his neck snapped and his corpse soaked in gasoline and burned. In Bangkok, he strangled Hakim’s French contact, one Stephanie Parry. A month later, still in Bangkok, he strangled Dutch tourists Cornelia Hemker and Henricus Bitanja. He also burned their bodies.
Shortly before Christmas, Canadian Laurent Carriere and American Connie Bronzick were both found dead in Katmandu, their bodies burned. Sobhraj, who was traveling as Henricus Bitanja (with his victim’s stolen passport) had booked a room at the same hotel, but he slipped out of Nepal after questioning.
The killer continued his journey across Asia, murdering Israeli Allen Jacobs for his passport at Varanasi, in northern India. A few days later, on January 9, 1976, Sobhraj and two accomplices drugged a trio of Frenchmen at Goa, dumping their bodies at roadside. All three victims managed to survive.
In Hong Kong, Allen Gore lost $8,000 but stayed alive after drinking Sobhraj’s chemical cocktail. Arrested with false passports in Bangkok, he was set free after paying bribes to all the officials. In Penang, he was arrested for trying to cash stolen traveler’s checks, but he managed to talk his way out of jail. Back in Bombay, Sobhraj poisoned French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon.
Sobhraj also drugged an entire class of 60 French engineering students, but they lived and 20 of the students were sent to a local hospital.
Finally arrested on July 5, 1976, Sobhraj was linked with at least ten homicides spanning three years. Convicted of “culpable homicide” in the Solomon case, Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years of hard labor, with two more years tacked on for drugging the French students.
In 1982, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Allen Jacobs, but his appeals are ongoing. Thailand and Nepal plan file murder charges if Sobhraj wins an unlikely his release.
Sobhraj truly enjoys attention, charging large amounts of money for interviews and film rights. His life has already been the object of four books and three documentaries. Because he’s serving time in Nepal, which is known to have a corrupt prison system, he’s said to be living in the lap of luxury behind bars.