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The Chilling True Story Behind The Serpent Killer Charles Sobhraj

The Chilling True Story Behind The Serpent Killer Charles Sobhraj

Charles Sobhraj was cold-blooded killer who poisoned and murdered at least a dozen backpackers across Asia in the 1970s.

He was nicknamed 'the serpent' for how he effortlessly befriended tourists before drugging them, taking their money, and murdering them, using their passports to travel across the continent and confuse the authorities.

His twisted crimes have now been turned into an eight-part BBC thriller The Serpent, which hit our screens this month.

Though it may just seem like far-fetched fiction, it is anything but, and the true story is even more chilling.

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After being in trouble with the police in France, Sobhraj and his wife Chantal Compagnon travelled to Asia, robbing tourists along the 'hippie trail'. But after Sobhraj was arrested following a botched robbery, Compagnon left him and moved back to France with their daughter Usha.

Escaping from prison, Sobhraj went on the run and eventually met Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a Canadian tourist, and Ajay Chowdhury, an crook from India, in Thailand.

Sobhraj and Leclerc poisoned and robbed backpackers travelling through Asia in the 1970s. Credit: Shutterstock
Sobhraj and Leclerc poisoned and robbed backpackers travelling through Asia in the 1970s. Credit: Shutterstock

Between 1975 and 1976, posing as a gem dealer, Sobhraj, Leclerc and Chowdhury ingratiated themselves with vulnerable backpackers, drugging, robbing, and murdering them.

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Often Sobhraj would pretend to be a good Samaritan, taking them to live with him in Bangkok, such as with Dominique Rennelleau, who believed he was suffering from dysentery when he had actually been poisoned by the killer.

It is thought that Sobhraj and Chowdhury committed their first murder in 1975, an American woman called Teresa Knowlton, who was found in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a bikini.

The next victim was Vitali Hakim, whose burnt body was found on the road leading to Sobhraj's apartment complex.

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And while it has not been confirmed, it's believed Sobhraj could be responsible for more than 20 murders.

Dutch Diplomat Herman Knippenberg and Angela Kane were vital in the capture of Sobhraj and Leclerc. Credit: BBC
Dutch Diplomat Herman Knippenberg and Angela Kane were vital in the capture of Sobhraj and Leclerc. Credit: BBC

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But it was the death of two Dutch students, Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25, who were invited to stay with Sobhraj after meeting him in Hong Kong, that raised the suspicions of Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his-then wife Angela Kane.

Like many of his victims, Bintanja and Hemker were poisoned and brought back to health by Sobhraj in order to gain their trust and loyalty. But once he was done with the couple, they were murdered, found strangled and burnt in December 1975.

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Knippenberg and Kane were working in Bangkok at the time and were asked to investigate the couple's disappearance.

After receiving a tip-off from Sobhraj's neighbours, Nadine Gires and husband Remi, who knew him as Alain Gautier, the pair honed in on the killer and his accomplices.

Eventually, after building a case against him, Knippenberg and Kane searched Sobhraj's apartment and found mountains of evidence, including passports and syringes, which they passed on to Interpol.

Sobhraj was arrested in Kathmandu in 2003, where he is now serving a life sentence. Credit: Shutterstock
Sobhraj was arrested in Kathmandu in 2003, where he is now serving a life sentence. Credit: Shutterstock
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It was not until July 1976, when Sobhraj, Leclerc, and two new accomplices, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather, poisoned a group of tourists in Delhi, that they were arrested and charged for their crimes.

Sobhraj and Leclerc were sentenced to 12 years in prison, though she was released shortly before dying of cancer in 1984.

Following his escape from prison in 1986, Sobhraj was re-arrested in Goa and sentenced to a further 10 years in prison, meaning by the time of his release in 1997, most of his arrest warrants had expired.

Upon his release, Sobhraj was allowed to return to France.

However, six years later, he travelled to Kathmandu, Nepal, and after being photographed in a casino by a local journalist, was arrested again for the 1975 murders of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich and Canadian tourist Laurent Carrière.

He is currently serving life imprisonment in Kathmandu.

Chowdhury's last sighting was in Malaysia in 1976, he has never been seen since.

All eight episodes of The Serpent are available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

Featured Image Credit: BBC

Topics: Entertainment, TV and Film, True Crime, BBC, Asia, UK Entertainment, France

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Dominic Smithers

Dominic graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in French and History. Like you, Dom has often questioned how much use a second language has been. Well, after stints working at the Manchester Evening News, the Accrington Observer and the Macclesfield Express, along with never setting foot in France, he realised the answer is surprisingly little. But I guess, c'est la vie. Contact us at [email protected]